“It’s considered acceptable in our culture to approach perfect strangers, as often or not who may be in extremis, and evangelise. I don’t see why that’s considered a normal thing.”
When I was in my early twenties I had the opportunity to travel some, and I did. Travel is broadening of course, but it’s also difficult if you have a disability. In my case I was both seriously visually impaired and unable to discuss the matter. Walking in strange cities hunched over, feigning sight, playing with shadows. That was my shtick.
The problem with a shtick is that it does things to you on the inside. You know you’re dishonest. And walking along a big thoroughfare like Kurferstendam in Berlin you feel your dishonesty step by step. I remember walking with five or six young scholars, all Fulbrighters like myself. They were admiring the sights. I was pretending to admire the sights.
On the inside I was scarcely able to trust myself. In Berlin I thought of Goethe’s axiom: “Trust yourself, then you will know how to live.”
If you don’t know how to walk safely you’re not living. In my twenties I lived a pantomime of freedom. I’ve written a great deal about this. What I haven’t said, at least not precisely, is that hiding a disability is another disability—the first is physical, the second is self-administered through an abeyance to culture. The culture doesn’t like your abnormality and you ingest that dislike, much like those cattle in France who eat poisonous flowers in the autumn. And you get used to eating the damned flowers. Goethe again: “Few people have the imagination for reality.”
Giving up the flowers is the imagination. Do not, I repeat, do not eat the culture’s flowers.
Of course being “out” with a disability doesn’t save you. Oprah, etc. Being “out” means you’ve traded the shtick of passing, of invisibility, for adventitious and hourly discourses with opposition.
Yum yum! You’re not eating flowers. You’re in a Starbucks in the Newark airport eating a blueberry muffin and your guide dog eyes you and twelve other people, strangers all, are eyeing you because you’re significantly different and roving eyeballs enjoy novelty and you’re the novelty de jour. So even eating your muffin you’re a discourse of difference and sometimes the whole thing is silent—you hear the muffin going down your throat—and sometimes the thing becomes vocal as one of the strangers can’t resist and opens a conversation this way:
Stranger (business man type, with London Fog overcoat): “I knew a blind person once…”
(There’s nuance to this—he knew a blind guy in college, or a blind person who lived down the street.)
Sometimes the stranger asks me if I actually knew the aforementioned blind person because after all, shouldn’t all blind people know each other?
You’re chewing your muffin and thinking “what if I asked him if he knows all the other men wearing London Fog raincoats?”
Stranger man sees your blindness. His language is cultural. He sees your difference. He may be sincerely interested. But by definition he isn’t talking to you with full intelligence. And you think about the reasons why this should be so: his bad schooling, his parochial experiences with physical difference; years of bad movies and TV; a vaguely decent neo-Victorian sentimentality pulsing through his veins. But no matter, you’re now a figure of difference and now you must decide how to avoid the self-administered abeyance to culture that once upon a time marked your efforts to “pass” as a sighted person and which now, threaten you with the “flip side”—your role when “out” is to make physical abnormality seem like a snap. My muffin tastes like dark flowers. I take a sip of house blend. I chew.
Do you see how mediocre this is?
Now you’re in a fix. The stranger’s invitation to talk is also an invitation to participate in conversational pornography—“inspiration porn” whereby you, the disabled one, say moderately inspirational things. Or majorly inspirational things. Or the stranger says inspirational things, like, “I knew a blind guy once who could take apart a radio and put it back together.”
I knew a blind guy who climbed a mountain. I knew a blind guy who went sky diving. Who caught more fish than the rest of us combined…
And you want to say—I knew a short guy once. I knew a short guy who could reach the peanut butter on the top shelf with a special device called a step-ladder. He was amazing. Really inspirational.
But you don’t because its easier to get out of the intrusive moment by being as mono-syllabic as possible. Or you use the dog as a ploy. I’ve got to go. The dog needs to go out.
And you walk around the bloody monolith of the airport feeling the trap of performativity. Your script is handed to you and you can tear it up if you wish. You could screw with the guy’s head and say:
Yeah all blind people know each other. We have psychic powers as the Greeks well knew.
You could eat the flower arrangements on the table.
You could tell him you’re a misanthrope and urge him to go away.
But the best of you is empathetic.
What you say has become more refined over the years.
I don’t talk about blindness. There are agencies for that. Let’s talk about neutrinos.