You know the one. The different one. The one that acts a little different, or has the odd posture. The child with the learning challenges. The Woman in the wheelchair. The blind guy. You know…
For the last six weeks, I’ve had the unique opportunity to view – I hope temporarily – the world with one foot in the “THEM” camp. I’ve been disabled.
It’s a fascinating place to be, actually.
Since October 4th, I’ve been functionally blind in my right eye. That means that I can’t see out of it, but I do have some light and shadow sensitivity. And more importantly, I’ve had the expectation that eventually my eye will recover to near-normal function. Maybe not perfect, but I’ll have two good eyes to get around with.
But what’s impressed me most about the whole experience is how isolating a disability is – even a very minor disability like partial loss of sight. You become invisible. It’s not overt, and I’m sure it’s not even conscious, but it’s there, like a wet slap across the face. Every. Single. Day.
The recovery from a retinal detachment is a longish one, the healing is slow, and for the first week or so you have to keep your face down, nearly horizontal to the floor. You can’t look strangers in the eye as you walk, you can’t really see where you’re walking, in fact, so you need someone with you to lead you – to hold your hand – whenever the route is unfamiliar. Crossing the street is frightening, the sound of traffic threatening.
And meeting friendly strangers? Frustrating beyond belief.
You see, I’m a social creature, as most humans are. When I meet someone, even passing on the street, I look for eye contact, for connection, and I say hello or good morning or SOMETHING to acknowledge that I exist and they exist and we are members of the same tribe, the same race. We connect, just for an instant.
But for a week in October and for the last 4 days, I can’t meet anyone’s eye – and so after the initial introduction, when Nicki explains my condition and I apologize for not looking them in the eye when as we talk, and after they reply with some variation on the theme of “Oh that’s no problem…” – I disappear.
No, it’s not deliberate. It’s not dismissive. But how DO you address your comment to someone that can’t see you? How do you bring them into the conversation and hold them there, when they can’t see any of the non-verbal invitations to engage? When body-language is silenced, what do we hear? Silence.
It’s been a long week.
So here’s the invitation. For me, obviously, but for you too, should the situation present itself:
How would YOU engage a disabled person in a conversation, and how would you KEEP them engaged? If their disability is visible, will you look them in the eye anyway? Will you meet them on their level? It’s hard. It’s uncomfortable. It’s scary. But can you do it? Can you not worry about “staring” and keep seeing them?
I can’t speak for all disabled people, but I can say that I wouldn’t mind being stared at a little, accidentally.
It’s better than being invisible.