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You can listen to an audio version of this essay here.
A few years ago, I was coming home from running an errand after work, taking a different subway line than I did when travelling straight from the office. So I didn’t end my evening ride home in the usual station. But this fact did not register with my brain, which was operating on commuter autopilot. I paused for probably less than two seconds to get my bearings after exiting through the turnstiles. In that tiny sliver of time, a man stopped and asked if I needed help.
Why? Well, I’m blind. And in a densely populated place like New York City, someone asks me if I need help during some obnoxiously large percentage of my two-second pauses. These instances are a steady trickle of tiny reminders: a whole lot of people are watching you, blind man, and they’re all waiting for you to show any sign that you can’t do something on your own.
I told the man I was fine, and he politely said, “Okay, have a good night.” I walked in what I thought was the direction of the stairs going up to the street. My white cane, extended out in front of me, tapped something hard. I dragged it several inches upward, expecting to feel the lip of the first step. But no lip came because, as I then realized, I was facing a wall, not the staircase. “Right,” I thought, “this station has one more turn in it than mine.” So I turned toward the stairs, which were just a few feet to my right.
And that’s when a woman decided it was a great time to yell at me. Right there in front of all the people streaming through the turnstiles, up the stairs, and outside. My detour to the wall had taken me out of the stream. Maybe she thought my lonely position facing her and everyone else in their neat line of orderly sighted people would give the point she wanted to shout at me that little extra umph. When you want to put people in their place, it’s aesthetically satisfying if you can get them when they’re physically out of place, you know? Really emphasizes how much of a weirdo they are.
“See!” she shouted, “You shouldn’t be so stubborn! That man was just trying to help you.”
Stubborn? Toward whom? The guy at the turnstile? I just told him I didn’t need help. And I actually didn’t need help. I found the stairs just fine. That wasn’t stubbornness. That was just the truth. I was confused.
But at the same time, I wasn’t. I knew what she meant. If I had accepted the man’s help, he could have escorted me outside, perhaps with me hanging on to his arm, as he kindly provided the assistance that the woman was certain I needed. Then, I wouldn’t have ended up alone by the wall. I wouldn’t have looked out of place. I would have met everyone’s expectations.
My mind felt the familiar friction — the simultaneous confusion and lack of confusion clogging the pathways as I tried to figure out how to respond. What could I possibly say? As far as I was concerned, I had just successfully navigated this less familiar subway station. I had used my white cane and my mental maps and figured out where to go, like they trained me when I was young. It took me maybe 7 seconds longer than a sighted person, and I ended up out of the stream. That was fine with me. That’s just how I move through the world. I would never have thought twice about it if it wasn’t for this woman.
But all she could see in front of her was a fool. A stubborn, prideful, blind fool, standing by the wall for weirdoes, because he could not accept the help so graciously offered to him. How dreadful it must be to have your character so publicly exposed, stripped naked for all to see.
There was a chasm, a Grand Canyon of distance and difference between her understanding of what had just happened and mine. I could never have built a bridge long enough in the mere seconds I had to formulate a response. Plus, I was still halfway on autopilot. I just wanted to get home after a long day. Honestly I spend a lot of time halfway on autopilot, and I always just want to get home. I wasn’t ready for this. I’m never ready for this.
That trickle of tiny reminders is always there. Each new “What are you looking for?” and “Where are you headed, sir?” is another drip. And they’re so polite. So unassailably well intended. Who cares if they’re calling you incapable? Isn’t that really what disabled means — NO! Sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to shout. But they are wrong. I’m not incapable. I’m just different. Well, okay, there are some things I can’t do. But they don’t know what those things are. That’s why they ask me where I’m trying to get to at 8:30 in the morning when I’m wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. “Work, dude. What do you think?”
On a good day, I can pull something redemptive out of all this. Knowing something about myself, my capability, and my value when so much of the world thinks I’m wrong is an important reality to experience. If I let it, it can open me up to the possibility that there are other scenarios where I am the woman on the stairs. When has my interpretation of someone else’s behavior been that wildly incorrect because I don’t actually have any idea what their life is like? When am I just another drop in the trickle of indignities for somebody else?
I know these are necessary reflections for solidarity. And I know it’s a lot harder to think like this if you have never had a system or a whole society gaslight you. More than that, I know it’s really tough to trust anyone who hasn’t been through that gaslighting. I think that’s a lot of why the idea of incarnation is so powerful. It’s just easier to put your faith in someone who’s been there.
But still, does the trickle really have to be so endless? Does it really have to randomly surge into a wave, like with this woman on the stairs? Why is it trying so hard to erode the very foundation of my confidence and self-worth? And why is it that sometimes all these thoughts pile up in my mind so chaotically that it becomes impossible for me to do anything other than look up at this woman and yell back at her the first bit of articulable language to form itself out of the violently swelling mass of trauma that her remark about my stubbornness exploded into being?
“Stubborn my ass!”
Oh well, maybe I’ll come up with a better response next time.