“C’mon Meg. Everyone is in the car waiting for you!” It was my Mom calling from just outside the front door; I could hear my Dad honking from our brown Plymouth Volare’ station wagon. There was an event that night for my Dad at the University and he didn’t want to be late. There was no question I was trying to stall. With my eyes still glued to our black and white television, I called out, “Just one more minute!” Still flat on my parents’ bed, my body betrayed no indication that I was getting up to go out. I had been on edge all week after watching the 1st in a two-part cliff-hanger of my favorite show, “The Little House on the Prairie.” The show (based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House book series) was about the Ingalls family who lived on a family farm in Walnut Grove, Minnesota. The second part was now playing and I couldn’t pull myself away.
In it, Laura Ingalls’ pretty older sister Mary had just fallen in love with a new boy in town when her eyesight began to fail unexpectedly. Her father, Charles, learned from the doctor that Mary’s vision could not be saved and she would soon go blind. In denial, Charles decided to not tell his daughter of her fate. Instead, when Mary awoke a few days later she discovered to her horror that her eyesight was completely gone. She became extremely bitter, having to rely heavily on everyone else for her basic needs. Now fixated on the second part of the episode, I remained glued as Mary was sent to a school for the blind in Iowa, where she met a fellow student named Adam. Trying to hold onto any remaining sense of her pride, Mary refused to accept Adam’s help at first. However, she eventually allowed him to help her learn to manage her new-found disability with grace.
When I watched, I couldn’t help but be fascinated. In my experience, and for those I knew, having a physical challenge was something you were born with. I simply hadn’t yet encountered anyone who had been impacted by a difference along the way. I also had not yet met a blind person and that particular challenge seemed so overwhelming and yet intriguing to me. After all, unless a blind person purposefully grabbed my hand, he or she would be oblivious to my own condition.
“Excuse me, can I help you cross the street.” I was headed uptown to my apartment on the East side of Manhattan. After staring at the stoplight, waiting for it to turn in my favor to cross 86th street, I noticed a fellow subway passenger emerging onto street level at the same time. I could tell he was blind from the stick he was using. “No thanks, I am almost home. Lived here for ten years.” His voice sounded irritated. As I pulled back my single finger, I realized that although I could detect his difference, mine was still invisible to him.
“Meg! You’re not going to believe this, but we just called 9-1-1!” I was working out downstairs in our home gym, and it was my neighbor, Karen. My stomach turned as I thought about our daughter, Savanna’s severe nut allergy and the fact that she had slept over at Karen’s the night before for her daughter’s birthday party. But then I was sure that John had already picked her up. “Is Sava……..” But Karen breathlessly announced, “We just saw a black bear in our driveway! He must have been over 200 pounds.” “Oh my gosh!” I responded, with a matching loud and anxious tone. Karen continued. “I yelled for everyone to get inside since it walked right past us!” Always one to look on the bright side with a dab of humor, Karen added, “Apparently the cops said we did the right thing by making a lot of noise—you know we excel at that!” Fortunately, John had already brought all three of our children to Sunday school. As I digested the information, I felt a combination of relief and new-found fear, thanks to our newest neighbor ‘Yogi.’
Peering through our kitchen window, I scanned the neighborhood but couldn’t see anything. I absolutely hated the feeling of the unknown, where I couldn’t see or control any danger lurking nearby. The next day, neighbors traded emails rehashing everyone else’s version of events and we all pretty much went on with getting kids to school, work, and the daily grind. Out of sight out of mind.
Later that day I remembered it was time to post my latest Guest Flaunt, contributed by author, Belo Cipriani. I had known from the day Belo had reached out to me this past Spring via Twitter that his piece would be not only unique and special, but enlightening. In the spring of 2007, at the age of 26, Belo was beaten by childhood acquaintances and robbed of his sight. In his book, Blind: A Memoir, Belo writes not only about the cruel and haunting assault that left him sightless, but also the road to recovery; how he learned to walk, read, and use a computer all over again. As I read more about Belo on his own site (http://belocipriani.com/), including about his current strong commitment to social justice, I became a big fan.
On its surface, Belo’s Guest Flaunt provided insight into why someone who is blind might (or might not) wear sunglasses. However, subtly the text dives much deeper, giving the reader a first-hand understanding for how blind people are perceived: “…..what most people know about blindness is outdated due to technology, or because it was a rumor crafted by Hollywood. More and more, I found myself teaching others that blind people could be parents, athletes, and even sexy. The latter one, though, seemed to be the toughest to prove. After all, blind people are rarely portrayed in popular media as being beautiful.” Given Belo spent the first 25 years of his life sighted, I knew he was speaking from authority.
I thought back to an interview I read with Melissa Sue Anderson, who played Mary on Little House. In discussing her transformed role, she said, “Once my character went blind, the writers struggled to find interesting story lines for me.” It seems particularly challenging, for me and apparently many others, to figure out how to relate to someone blind or with any difference at the first meeting. We focus immediately on the difference and wonder “Should I offer assistance?” Am I being rude? Making the wrong assumption? Does playing like it doesn’t matter actually make me insensitive? I know from my own experience that if I need help, I’ll just ask for it.
It occurs to me that for those that are blind from birth, — since that is all they have ever known — coping with their surroundings is not necessarily their biggest hurdle. They also must be experienced at managing people’s reactions. In his memoir, Belo himself revealed, “What a lot of sighted people do is they impose themselves on blind people. Just because they can’t see themselves doing it, they assume (blind people) can’t do it either.” And, although he lost his sight after birth, Belo shares that beyond the physical, his continued personal challenge has become being seen just as intelligent, thoughtful and sexy as before. After all, that is how he feels; we are simply blind to it.
For me, personally, the only thing that makes someone who is blind really different is that they have no idea I only have one finger on each hand (and one toe on each foot) unless I inform them. I e-mailed Belo to get his thoughts: “I find it so interesting that you can’t see my physical difference. I wonder where your imagination takes you, Belo?” I received a reply within minutes. “I have friends with many forms of disabilities and I often forget what they are. I have a friend with a prosthetic arm and almost every time I grab on to him at dance clubs, I tell him, ‘Oh yeah, I forgot you have one.’ I guess it goes back to the saying, ‘Out of sight out of mind!” Touche.