For those new to my blog, the “What It’s Like” posts are what things are like for me as a blind woman. While some generalizations could possibly be drawn from these, I would like to remind you that I am an individual. All of us with visual impairments are, so what is true for me may not be true for another.
This week, I want to talk about something that many people once took for granted. Many folks probably didn’t give any real thought to it. That has changed.
Socializing. Hanging out with friends, even dating. It used to be so easy, didn’t it? At least, it was easy for a lot of people. Not so much for those segments of the population with social anxiety, certain cognitive challenges and, yes, those of us with physical disabilities.
When one is in a wheelchair, the very act of getting where you want to go has to be considered. Once there, can you get in? If you can get in, are the tables, if tables are part of the place, at a good height? Is the bathroom accessible? For the hearing impaired, I have to assume that you need to take into account how loud a place is, to make sure that if you have some degree of hearing you’d be able to use it, or make sure that someone can understand sign language and interpret for you.
Now, for me at least, socializing with my particular disability of blindness is actually a mixed bag. There are a few good things about it. I’ll save those for the end, though. Mostly because I’d rather end on a good note.
So, first of all, let’s talk about social cues. Those ways we humans have of indicating any number of things. Like or dislike, interest or boredom, attraction or repulsion. Most social cues are non-verbal. Aside from tone of voice, the rest aren’t even audible. I quite literally have only my ears to guide me.
Ears aren’t enough. I know for a fact that I missed out on romantic interest being aimed at me from more than one source simply because I couldn’t see the other person. Couldn’t see the looks, the way they smiled at me, the position of their body. How do I know? At some point, they told me, but usually only after that ship had sailed.
I have also recently come to the sad realization that someone I thought was a friend, or at the least a friendly acquaintance, doesn’t actually like me much any longer, and I have no clue for how long that has been happening. I don’t bring this up for pity, this is a thing that happens in many friendships in time, it’s just an illustration of the fact that I missed it for awhile.
That makes socializing difficult. It’s a little bit easier one on one, but gets exponentially more difficult with every person added to a group I am in. Heck, I don’t even always know if I’m meant to be included in any given conversation, which sometimes makes me feel like I’m interrupting if I join in. Or, worse, sometimes I am interrupting and don’t realize it.
Secondly, there is the logistics of getting to places to meet folks. Generally, if meeting a group for, say, coffee or dinner, you meet inside. One person nabs a table, everyone else comes and joins upon arrival. I can’t. I can get there. I can get a cab. Sometimes, I can get a bus though the spot I live in isn’t great for that. But I can’t find them. That leaves the tactic of texting or calling someone and asking them to come fetch me, which is both awkward and does come with it that sense of helplessness that I so loathe.
Sometimes, I can’t even get there, though. What if you are meeting at a spot inside a building with multiple places, like a mall? I can get to the mall, but if I don’t have the layout memorized, finding the precise spot is tricky.
Third is the preconceptions of others. Well-meaning as people are, there is often this subconscious idea that I am the poor blind girl, not the fun friend. You want to ask your fun friend out for coffee, but do you want to ask the poor blind girl? I have found that I often have to get to know someone very well before I can shift out of “poor blind girl” and into “fun friend”. Unfortunately, without socializing, it’s really hard to do that getting to know of people, so that turns into a viscious circle quickly.
So, what’s good about it?
First, there’s less judgement of me towards others. This isn’t because I’m a better person than anyone else. Trust me, I’m not. But I can’t see your shoes. I don’t know if your clothing is some designer brand or thrift shop chique. Skin colour, degree of socially decided on levels of beauty, hair colour, state of your nails. I am oblivious, and I like it just fine that way. I’d rather make my judgements on a combination of actions and what is said.
Secondly… look, have you ever had one of those days when you’re getting ready, you glance in the mirror and can’t help but notice those one or two (or three, or six) flaws? Your hair isn’t quite how you want it. You look a bit pale. The shirt isn’t falling just right. Then, poof, there goes your confidence. I know that feeling, I used to fall into that trap a lot when I had sight. That never happens any longer. Not that I walk around thinking I’m the epitome of beauty or anything, I just don’t suffer from the false fear of not being as good as I could be.
Perhaps some of you are now wondering if there’s anything you can do to make socializing easier for any friends with a disability. Yes and no. Honestly, understanding is the biggest thing you can do. It is sometimes enough to have a friend who understands that if I am reluctant to go somewhere, it’s not a reflection on my desire to be with them, and more that some times the greater effort it takes for me to do a thing that is easy for everyone else outweighs the fun of doing a thing. Try to work a bit more on your communication if dealing with a blind friend.
Aside from that? No. Understanding and communicating are the big things. And perhaps just noticing that it is more difficult. You don’t have to fix the world for us, but it helps if you’re aware that the problems exist.
And, as always, be kind to those you encounter out there, and be kind to yourself. Especially when glancing in the mirror before going out to socialize.