An Unlikely Pair

This semester, I teach my three courses in two different classrooms, located on a back hallway crowded with benches, recycling recepticles, and lounging students. I enter the building, veer left, and travel down a long, wide hallway—dodging drinkers bending over the water fountain and near-invisible columns guarding arbitrary places. Just where the hallway begins to expand into a windowed sitting area, I take a left. Now traveling this narrower space, I keep to the right, listening for the sounds of shuffling papers, sloshing drinks, and zipping backpacks that indicate the presence of students.

Between the doors along the hallway, people sit with their legs stretched out. Students sitting on opposite sides will find themselves locked in games of inadvertent footsie; the hallway’s width won’t accommodate two pairs of outstretched legs. As I move closer to my classrooms, my cane tapping and sliding scratchily along the carpet, I hear pairs of legs retract—students attempting to slide themselves out of my way. Occasionally, when a student fails to move, I must say, “Excuse me,” in a voice of battlefield cheerfulness. My volume and inflection rouse the absent-minded, and the legs draw up quickly.

Occasionally I piece together an unconventional narrative from the sounds I hear on the hallway. As I walk, I notice the sound of fabric sliding on carpet: students are yanking their feet out of my way. Today I travel along the hallway, which is only half-occupied with students. As I near a girl whose legs seem longer than average, I don’t feel like saying, “Excuse me.” She should be able to hear my approach, but she doesn’t move her legs. My cane taps lightly against something hard—her leg? her foot? I have no way of knowing. I move beyond her and approach my classroom. While I reach for the classroom doorknob, a guy on the opposite side of the hallway addresses her:

“Did that hurt?”

A mumbled response renders no words. Ambivalence on the part of the afflicted.

The guy continues, “Yeah. She’s hit me before.”

I stand maybe two or three feet away from the conversation, easily within earshot.

What is my problem with this brief exchange? I will bring my literary training to bear.

Let’s examine the structure of the guy’s claim: “She’s  hit me before.” This sentence is a prime example of active voice, the grammatical pattern that sets up an “X does Y” relationship. In English, active voice is our storytelling voice. It’s the voice we use for quick-and-dirty explanations: “Rain falls in the afternoon,” “I go to college,” “Marcelle baked a cake.” This pattern assigns clear agency—the X is active, a doer with intentions.

In humanities courses, students are encouraged to write in active voice, rather than passive voice. Passive voice is the syntactical pattern used for scientific research. It follows the formula “Y is done by X,” and the “by X” is often omitted. There are several passive sentences in this paragraph. Passive voice finds its usefulness when someone wants to avoid blame: “Mistakes were made,” “A vase was broken,” “The data was collected.” We don’t know who the X, the agent, is, so there can be no agency.

So our hallway guy chose active voice, and with his active sentence comes an unconscious demonstration of preferences—he prefers the story to the study. But his story bothers me.

In his story, I am the attacker, the one who hits deliberately. He offers his sentence to the girl leaning against the opposite wall as a cocktail of bravado and consolation: “Don’t worry, girlfriend, I’ve been hit too. I am tough, but I understand your irritation. I’ve been there. We’ve both gone through something together.“

How do I know that all of this emotion was packed into just one sentence? Because he had to say it then and there—The blind girl hit me too! There was no humor, no wry smile, no “Isn’t that the worst? Well, what can you do?” There was a desperate reaching out, an utterance powered by empathy and a need to unite in the face of adverse circumstances.

Solidarity at the expense of civility.

I wonder if I’ll ever hear someone defend me during one of these exchanges.  Will I ever move a few feet away and overhear someone say, “Yes, she’s hit me before, too. But that’s what the cane is for. I don’t think she can see us.” At this stage in my experience, I doubt if I’ll encounter such perfect responses in the real world.

People are more likely to say, “No, she travels so well—I bet she isn’t even blind. She is just faking it.”

If we achieve human connection at the expense of others, what have we really achieved? How can we create a space for civil stories and inclusive explanations?

Novel Interactions

I am lucky to be surrounded by dedicated and diverse friends. Some accompany me to the symphony. Others sing near me on the risers. A few teach in the office beside mine. And most read a lot of books. Like all relationships, my friendships intensify when my friends and I share novel experiences. We discover an unknown author, an exotic restaurant, a place for nature walks and reading aloud, and we lose ourselves in conversation.

As we share interests, we experience moments when my vision changes the circumstances of a social interaction. Some friends have never been close to a disabled person before—they don’t have disabled relatives or classmates, they never volunteered with disabled kids, they’ve never even seen a blind person. New friends learn to verbalize important information, become adept sighted guides, and begin to join me in the lifelong process of laughing at those who are still baffled by my disability. To be clear, people who can’t bring themselves to utter, “See you later!” don’t make it past the acquaintance level. I make no apologies for this prerequisite to my friendship. I’m confident that I can offer a warm and accepting friendship to someone, so I expect the same in return.

Old and new friends witness the many servers who won’t hand me a menu, the symphony ushers who don’t ask if I’d like a program, and the strangers who offer – usually without tact – to pray for my healing. Sometimes, I’ll turn to a new friend and say, “Let’s see if the waitress gives me the braille menu.” My companion will hiss, “I wonder if she expects me to order for you. Joke’s on her, you’re ordering for me!”

In the unofficial tally of new and awkward situations, Crystal and I are in the lead. On any given day of errand-running, we experience a volley of unsolicited, misplaced, or inept assistance from strangers who fail to – in Crystal’s words – “treat you like a person.”

Amused by these encounters, we spend our travel time plotting ways to get revenge. One of my mentors, a good friend and devoted disability educator, often uses the mantra, “Educate, don’t retaliate.” In our fantasies, Crystal and I educate so precisely that the offending parties see the error of their ways and we all have a good story to tell. In real time, however, we can rarely enact these far-reaching civic maneuvers. It’s all we can do to hold in our laughter until we’re out of the shop and in the car.

Let’s begin at the bank.

Crystal and I have stopped at the bank so I can deposit some birthday money. We emerge from the car, and she makes one of her many “summoning noises”: bird calls, tongue clicks, and shouts of “Closer! Closer!” that tell me where she is and where to go. I take her elbow and we enter the bank, threading our way through the unsophisticated mess of ribbon that creates the lines. I mutter something about accessibility and irritation. I can’t imagine that anyone using a wheelchair or scooter digs these cramped rope lines with their abrupt corners. When we reach the counter, I present my debit card and my ID, striking up a conversation with the cheerful bank teller. She instructs me to swipe my card and enter my pin. I do so, enjoying the large, distinctive buttons on the pin pad.

“Wow, that’s impressive! You entered your pin.” There is a lot of smile in her voice as she watches my competent movements.

“You think that’s good? Wait till you see me buy something!”

As the teller turns away, Crystal hands me a lollipop from the small bucket on the counter. “For you, superstar.” She grins.

When I take Crystal’s arm to leave the bank, the teller calls a bit of encouragement: “Don’t worry, I run into walls all the time, too!”

A few hours later, we find ourselves at the nail salon, where I am having my eyebrows waxed. Real friends don’t let their blind friends pluck their own eyebrows. When the waxing is complete, I take Crystal’s arm and we stop at the counter to pay. The young Asian man prints my receipt and addresses Crystal:

“What happen?”

Crystal’s silence tells me that she is confused. “What?”

The man repeats his question, and Crystal replies, “What happened to what?”

In a hushed voice, he elaborates, “Her eye.”

“Oh um…”

Crystal’s voice fades, and I jump in. “I have low vision,” I explain. “I’ve had it since I was born.” I sign my receipt and return my card to my wallet.

“Ohhhhh.” The man takes his copy of my receipt and files it away. “My friend like that. My best friend.”

Later, when we pay for our groceries, we encounter the bank teller’s spiritual cousin, a surly cashier whose only comment comes when I successfully pay for my food and get cash back. After the brief series of beeps that signals the machine’s reception of my pin, she shouts, “GIRL THATS SO GOOD SHE CAN PUT IN HER OWN PIN!” This is her first, but not her final, comment to us. She places my receipt and the cash I’ve requested into my outstretched hand. Energized by my heroic act—the indomitable barrier I’ve overcome—she wishes us a good day.

Though most cashiers are more friendly than this notable example, few actually place the receipt and cash in my hand. Some never look at me, so they don’t see the cane and dark glasses. This means that my outstretched hand will remain empty as the cashier offers my receipt to a nonspecific place in the air. Other times, the cashier will hand my receipt and cash to the person I’m with, though I completed the entire transaction. Here, Crystal and I entertain devious fantasies: “One day, Em, when they hand me your cash, I’m just going to run away and leave you. ”

“I’ll stand here and look forlorn.”

Instead of implementing this particular fantasy, we’ve devised two strategies for dealing with unpleasant cashiers. In the first, Crystal simply steps away or feigns deafness and blindness when a cashier tries to hand her my things. Eventually the cashier gets the message and places the items in my outstretched hand. In the other scenario—when the cashier wordlessly offers my receipt to the empty air—Crystal announces in a very loud, serious monotone, “SHE’S HANDING YOU YOUR CARD.” This utterance helps the cashier to realize the miraculous effects of a verbal cue. After a sheepish apology, the employee places the stuff in my hand, and we can leave the store, knowing that we’ve helped carry one more grain of sand away from Ignorance Mountain.

For me, the best part of these interactions comes during the ride home, when we’re rehashing the day’s experiences. Though I do my best to be plucky and self-reliant, the sheer frequency of these situations can leave me feeling undervalued and ignored. These strangers who believe that I can’t complete the simplest tasks, who insist that my life is some kind of modern tragedy, who refuse to speak to me directly—they don’t know about my degrees, my publications, my performances. By their calculations, I’m not much of anything.

Here, Crystal enacts a vital role of friendship: she reminds me of my own worth, and the proper way to measure it. When I remember to calculate my value from her loyalty and understanding, we can turn these unfortunate encounters into good stories.