It was the week between Christmas and New Year, and the restaurant was hopping. I wasn’t even in the door behind MrH, struggling to get a feel for the place, when a server swooped in to hustle us to a table.
Still not really oriented, I felt along one side of the table for a chair. Finding none, I checked the next side, just as MrH helpfully pointed it out to me.
I snapped at him that I had it now, thanks. And then it happened.
From another section of the restaurant, our server called out, “If she can walk down steps, I have another table in here. I just thought that one would be easier for you.”
At first I was a little irritated. The table was fine, and I hadn’t been talking to her.
My next thought fell somewhere between irritation and amusement. My eyes don’t work, but the rest of my body is just fine. Why would she assume I might not be able to manage steps?
And then the full implication sank in.
“If she can walk down steps…” If</em? she can walk down steps.
I’m standing right here.
Rather than speaking to me, the server had spoken to MrH about me, as if I weren’t there, or weren’t a full-fledged part of the conversation, like a child or a pet.
To be fair, there are a number of reasons the server might have addressed MrH instead of me that have nothing to do with my blindness.
- By entering first and telling her how many were in our party, MrH established himself as the de facto leader of our party.
- Having spoken with him, the server was already engaged with him, making it logical to continue.
- She may have thought I was expressing dissatisfaction with the table to MrH instead of her, putting him in the role of a go-between.
- She was busy, it was easier, and she really didn’t think about it.
It may be that my anger was misplaced in this particular situation. But here’s the thing…
I get this a lot.
Our server was only the latest in a long line of people who address my sighted companion instead of me, cutting me out of the conversational loop:
- The healthcare professionals–a surprising number of them–who ask MrH some variant of, “Can she step up on the scale?” when he’s acting as my guide.
- Cashiers who hand my change or receipt to MrH or one of our sons when I’m out shopping with them.
- A lady at a business function who overheard MrH describing the layout of the room to me and butted in to ask, “Does she need somewhere to sit down?”
- The woman who, when I asked MrH for input on a project I was working on, said to him–not to me–“You could have her…”
- People at various social functions–again, a surprising number–who strike up a conversation with MrH but don’t really include me. One couple at a business social actually waited until he stepped away from my side to slip up and ask him about my blindness and what had caused it.
And the list goes on. This doesn’t even include the people who, seeing me sitting or standing at a social event, walk on by and choose another conversational partner.
Why isn’t anyone talking to me?
I’ve been giving this a good deal of thought, and I think there are a number of reasons, sometimes overlapping, why people choose not to talk to me or to engage my sighted companion instead.
They don’t get the right body language cues
What do you do when you’re at a party or other occasion, looking for someone to strike up a conversation with? Chances are, you look around and make eye contact. Both of you may smile or nod, and you move toward each other or introduce yourselves.
Because of my light sensitivity, my eyes are usually shielded behind dark glasses. I try to look at people who are speaking, but in a crowd, I don’t always know whether someone is speaking to me or someone nearby. I may not realize it if you hold out your hand to shake.
So it may be that people, not getting the body language that signals, “Why, yes, I’d actually love to have a conversation with you!” walk on by.
They don’t realize that I’m actively engaged in my surroundings
I feel like some people think being blind is like being swaddled in a comforter and shoved in a closet. Noises you hear are muffled and indistinct, and you can’t tell where they’re coming from. Anything out of reach is effectively invisible.
What would a person in that situation have to talk about, and how would you relate?
They mistake my blindness for other disabilities
Some people seem to think that because I can’t see, I can’t hear either, or that I’m intellectually impaired, or physically fragile. These people tend to mistake MrH or whatever sighted person I’m with for my caregiver–and, by implication, to assume that I must need one.
They haven’t dealt with a blind person before and (maybe) they’re a little intimidated.
Let’s face it. Our society doesn’t do a great job of teaching us to interact with people with disabilities. “Be polite. Don’t stare. Help them out if they need help.” Beyond that, you’re on your own.
Also, many people haven’t spent a lot of time with a blind or visually impaired person, which makes us an unknown. And the unknown is scary!
“What if I don’t know how to talk to her? What if I accidentally offend her? What if she needs help and I don’t know what to do? What if she does something weird or uncomfortable?”
Nope. Easier to step back.
They’re afraid of blindness, or even blind people.
Losing ones eyesight is a common and pervasive fear. I once ran across a survey that, if I remember correctly, found that respondants would rather lose a limb or have to use a wheelchair than lose their eyesight.
Dealing with a blind person means confronting that fear head-on, which can be daunting.
I’ve met one or two people who actually seem to be afraid of me, as if I might suddenly reach out and grab them, or as if my blindness is catching.
What to do?
I’m afraid I didn’t handle the situation in the restaurant with perfect grace. Blame it on low blood sugar and a feeling of being rushed and disoriented.
I turned to MrH and, rather too loudly, asked, “Did she just say that? ‘If she can walk down stairs’? I’m right here!”
He assured me that, yes, I certainly was, and we got out of our coats and into our seats.
When the server came to our table, she was perfectly nice. She spoke to both of us and answered our questions about the specials and menu items, took our orders, and brought our food. (Which was, by the way, delicious.) We ended up leaving a big tip, partly because the food and service had been so good, and partly because I felt like a jerk after my outburst.
I usually don’t let such situations throw me, and over the years we’ve developed some better strategies for dealing with them.
If someone asks MrH a question on my behalf, he’ll shrug and say, “ask her.” Or he’ll say to the cashier trying to hand him my items, “Those are hers.”
I like to step up to a service counter and state my business before the person on the other side can ask MrH, and at restaurants I give my order as if I’m on a par with everyone else–because I am! I’ve gotten less shy about jumping into conversations, especially if I’m already physically part of the group that’s talking.
Most people are happy to take our cues. I think they’re often just uncertain about what to do, so taking the conversational reins in a friendly manner helps them out.
In social groups, I’ve found that people I’ve talked to before are more likely to strike up a conversation with me on a subsequent occasion, and sometimes even introduce me to other friends. I’m not always good at identifying voices of people I don’t know well, but I make an effort to learn names and associate them with details. People are really flattered to be remembered!
And of course I blog and try to be active on social media. The more visible I am, the more I put myself out there, the more I normalize blindness and blind people and the less scary we become. That’s the theory, anyway!
There are some things you can do that make conversation easier for me, and I want to talk about those in an upcoming post. But honestly, the #1 thing you can do is really easy. Just step up and…
Talk to me!