As I write this, I’ve just had what for most people would be one of the strangest experiences of their life. It was about 9 o’clock in the evening, and I thought I’d grab some food from our school’s dining hall. When I stepped outside, the night air was still warm on my skin, and our campus was mostly quiet, except for the chirping of crickets and the occasional student. The pandemic has turned our school into a ghost town, but there was still a big group of kids laughing and hanging out at the tables outside the dining hall. As I approached, they all fell silent, probably to watch me pass. That’s not the weird part, it’s pretty normal.
Out of nowhere, a girl hurried up to me. “Here, grab my hand and follow me,” she instructed, reaching out, as if I was some sort of wild animal to be careful of.
“It’s actually this way.” I let her show me the way without holding on to me, but the weirdness didn’t end there.
“Do you need help?” someone else asked as I was walking back, enunciating every word slowly, like I might be deaf.
“Harbor is this way, right?” I asked, shifting my cane to the other hand.
“Yeah,” he said, and as we walked, he presumptively put his hand on my back to guide me, as if I were a child.
This type of thing is a daily occurrence for me. Most people that can see — most able bodied people — get treated like equal persons; fully contributing members of society. It might be hard to imagine being treated otherwise, but people with disabilities are seen as inferiors, objects of pity. We are treated like children.
I have endless examples to illustrate this point. Almost every blind person I know has experienced being grabbed and told where to go while simply walking down the street. People have grabbed me by both arms and tried to steer me like a car. A man once stopped me to tell me my shoe was untied, and then got down on the floor to tie it for me. Understand that almost every sighted person that’s ever handed me a bottle of water has untwisted the cap first. Seriously. Too many times have I gone to get food with my friends, and servers have asked the people that I’m with what I wanted. And then handed them my food. Multiple people have insisted on helping me after I told them I didn’t need it. One time, someone followed me all the way back to my dorm, after I clearly told him I could figure out where I was going. And yes, these people may only have been trying to be helpful, not realizing how it comes off. But it’s frustrating, it’s infantilizing, and it makes no sense.
These low expectations are so prevalent that many blind people have internalized them, including myself. This idea reinforces the message that we are not capable and independent beings who can participate equally in work, in dating, in normal life. On top of this, as a blind person with a cane, you constantly stick out like a sore thumb. Even after years of building up my confidence, after learning skills and blindness training, I still struggle against these barriers. I have to constantly remind myself not to feed into society’s low expectations, and remember that I am capable.
I once heard it said that the sighted person judges the blind person not for what they are, but through their own fear of the dark. I’m here to tell you that lack of sight is just one of many characteristics that, together, shape each individual in unique ways.
To any sighted person reading this, I’m not trying to discourage you from offering help to a blind person. I just ask that you presume we are competent, and treat us just like you would any other person. Because we are normal, or least, as normal as anyone is.