Have I Found the Strength to Be a Big Person?

Woman with white hair and white cane being escorted to door of restroom.

At this time when there is a racial reckoning with the cruel past and present, it is also a time to think about the past and present profiling of people who live with vision loss or blindness.

It is a damning fact that only about 5% of people with low vision use a white cane in public or at a social event , even though this would greatly increase their safety, and have benefits at the start of  conversations.

When people lose most or all of their sense of sight, the primary sense for humans, they, or rather we lose self-assurance, and our identity gets dislocated. Who am I now? Where do I belong. This shock comes on top of the actual loss of sight.

Then there is the cultural indoctrination we all received that equates blindness with ignorance and incompetence. The word blind is still used to add a negative punch by journalists and writers who should know better. This is such a triple-whammy! It’s no wonder people don’t want to advertise their vision loss when they can still fake it.

Forty years on from a catastrophic loss of sight at thirty-three and now with hearing aids too, I have come to a place where I am mostly able to speak up with confidence and apparent ease to the general public and rarely feel the humiliation and embarrassment that used to haunt me.

Unlike the criminal profiling that black and brown people encounter, blind people are more often treated with condescension, though ugly incidents do occur, as does real kindness.

Stigma is still rampant in employment and people who lost sight as adults can rarely continue with their career. Instead we have to search for work where we can get it.

The discomfort and misperception sighted people have about blindness is obvious as soon as I am out with my white cane. I, all of us sporting our canes, “live on a social psychological frontier (Erving Goffman.*) We don’t get advance notice of who is coming towards us or sitting behind the desk. Their attitude, whether they are facing us, or there at all is a mystery.

Goffman also says: “The stigmatized person is likely to feel he is “on” having to be self-conscious and calculating about the impression he is making to a degree and in areas of conduct which he assumes others are not.”This is true and a burden blind people as well as black and brown people have to pick up.

The question I have for myself after forty years is this: Have I found and strengthened my sense of self enough to feel okay about always speaking up in a firm, positive and friendly way, and to avoid using power games however disguised that wrong foot the other person.

but to live on the razor’s edge where the world and disability do not exist only humanity in all its complexity.

*Goffman, Erving. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, Simon and Schuster 1963, Penguin Books, 1990.pp 13,14.

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