I know it seems weird to think of a blind person being invisible. I mean, when we see them out in public, they are very noticeable to the general John Q. Public. The black sunglasses and the white cane that extends in front of their bodies as they navigate the world, crossing the street. Very noticeable indeed. But they are meant to be noticed, hence the white cane. That, along with the fact that there aren’t that many blind people that we see out in the world, it becomes a rare vision. However, that’s not when Sue becomes invisible. It’s during social occasions, when often she comes away, feeling left out, ignored and just invisible.
When I first attended the CNIB (Canadian National Institute for the Blind) with Sue, I would sometimes pick her up and join her with others for lunch. Often being the only sighted person among the blind, I noticed some very different communication patterns. Firstly, whenever someone new joined the group, they would all welcome them and in succession state who was there. ‘Hi I’m Karen, Sue’s wife,” I would say, about nine times during lunch and more if it was a bigger group. Then the silence. It was only broken when another person joined the group. I am a chatter box, a product of my current career, and so I would try to engage in conversation. But I did it as a sighted person. I’d try and discuss the weather (oh how Canadian,) or an event in the world news. These conversations usually fell very short as I realized most did not ‘watch’ (listen) to the television and did not know what was going on in the world. I would try discussing the CNIB, programs and such, picking a topic I thought might interest them. Again I was met with very little to converse about. When Sue initially became blind, she told me she was very afraid of becoming a home body, trapped inside on her couch as many others who are blind. Afraid to go out in the world, becoming very depressed and eventually detached from society. Sue said statistically, most fall into this fate when they become tragically blind and very few are able to navigate out into the world. Some will attend the CNIB weekly, but have little to offer to a conversation, as their worlds are small. Often cut off from others and the sighted world, conversation is something that becomes increasingly rare. The blind often live in a world that is not only dark, but is silent and quiet. They loose more then just their sight.
The people attending the CNIB represented a very few of the population that are in fact blind. Additionally, most of these people had been blind since birth, or when young, and they were taught the skills and such to be more independent and unafraid. However, many had been isolated from society, often attending schools for the blind and such, and so lacked a lot of the social graces necessary for ‘small’ talk, and sometimes even ‘big’ talk. It seemed a skill that was somehow overlooked and many sit in silence together. Where it is noticeably different are with people who have lead a less sheltered life and more ‘normalized’ life. What I mean, are those that joined the world of the sighted. They worked, travelled to work, had sighted partners and children. These individuals were much more adept at the art of communication and that was when I started to understand that even while they say communication is made up of 55% body language, and 45% in the words and tone, the blind are at a real disadvantage socially.
We attended a family celebration for my niece and her new husband who had recently wedded in England. Here in Canada, there would be a gathering of families, including an assortment of extended family members to celebrate with the new bride and groom. There were many people there, whom I had last seen at my brothers first wedding almost 30 years before. I barely recognized or even remembered them and here Sue was meeting them for the first time. We were sitting outside in a circle of chairs and Sue was fairly quiet, sitting next to a person neither of us knew. I turned to the person beside me and took in some information. A youngish male, he looked to be in his twenties, and I knew he was from the ‘other’ side of the family. Taking these cues I asked him “So where on the family tree do you fit?’’ and so he told me he was a cousin to my niece. From there, given his age, I asked him if he was in school, and he explained that he was attending The University of Toronto and that he wanted to be a lawyer. And no I didn’t finish the conversation right then, but we chatted for another ten minutes about school, dreams and such. Sue sat silent. Then a person whom I knew, sat next to Sue. An older aunt of my niece and I introduced Sue to the woman and they exchanged pleasant hellos. Then silence. I wandered off, chatting with other people at the social gathering.
Sue told me later how difficult it had been for her and that no one talked to her. She sat alone most of the evening and she said she was never going to another family function again. She was hurt and said “I felt so invisible.” I was about to ask her if she tried to talk to anyone, putting some emphasis on her own actions when it hit me like a brick. Sue did have social communication skills. She had always been an extrovert, a chatty cathy so to say, as long as I had known her. However, being blind changed everything and without having visual cues, like gender, age, if they are texting for example, there isn’t anything to start off a conversation. We really do rely upon visual cues. And of course, many people become very uncomfortable and even sometimes inappropriate around blind persons. I’ve seen an extrovert, the old class clown, go quiet and become intimidated by Sue’s seeming strength in her disability (that was their explanation.) Sue has witnessed people waving their hand in front of her face (she sees the changes in light and dark and feels the breeze) and she pretends not to know what they are doing. And I see the people, who just stare, and stare hard, believing they can be so rude because they can’t be seen. Sue has been hurt by even the people she loves because of these types of actions.
So, it was a strange concept to me when Sue said she feels invisible. I mean, as a sighted person I am so aware of the blind people out in our society. I cringe every time I see one crossing the street. It was hard for me to initially grasp. I see so many people being kind to her on a daily basis that I didn’t see the times when people were stuck knowing what to do or just plain inappropriate and rude. So now when we are out with a group of unknown persons, I stick closer to Sue’s side, recognizing it is hard for her to initiate and carry a conversation. This allows for her to join in as she feels comfortable. I encourage those that have blind members in their social circles to reach out, be the first to start talking and be prepared to carry the conversation just a little more then usually Fifty-five percent (55%) of communication is facial and body language, but when you are blind, it becomes one hundred percent (100%.) Engage with them. Converse. Include them is discussion. Help make the blind visible again.