In Blind Judgment

will butlerYou judge people with your eyes. That’s a private theory I developed as a teen, after losing much of my own eyesight.

Everyone has an internal scale; an intelligent but subconscious apparatus that weighs human intentions, beyond what you simply see in a person. The idea is that, if you’re in touch with your innermost feelings, you can size somebody up fairly – even a stranger. The idea for me was radical, magnanimous, genuinely liberating, and a defense mechanism against uncertainty and inadequacy.

As a teenager, the retinas in both of my eyes suddenly began to deteriorate rapidly and randomly. By my early twenties, I had spent hundreds of hours (800? 1200?) sitting, waiting in an ophthalmologist’s office for a never-not-cloudy prognosis. At 23 my eyes settled in at roughly 30% capacity; a major adjustment, but a semblance of stability that I can enjoy, for now.

This was, among other things, a humbling experience. At times I even thanked my lucky stars for my early-onset blindness – no kidding. Think about it: for starters, you suddenly have an excuse to ignore the uncomfortable looks of the world. People don’t get offended if you don’t remember them from the week before. And after getting over the anxiety of not knowing whether or not you’re accidentally snubbing someone you know, you can conclude that hey, if they didn’t come say hi, they’re probably not right for you anyway, or maybe they were just in a hurry.

There are really many advantages to being visually impaired. That person you canoodled with at that party last Saturday? They just walked past you. And it wasn’t even awkward. Because you couldn’t recognize them.

So you can see how it’s possible, in a certain way, to derive some smug philosophies from this condition. Like: As a blind man, I don’t judge people with my eyes, but with a deeper, truer conscience.

I was wrong, of course. But, like most untested beliefs, it took a while before I had my own Kool-Aid splashed in my face. Actually, it happened just a few weeks ago.

It was a sunny day in the East Bay, and I was standing at a bus stop in Berkeley, eager to get home to Oakland. It was my twenty-fourth birthday. I had my white cane, which I only adopted a year ago (after learning the hard way that you’re not actually allowed to indiscriminately mow people down or stumble blearily through U.S. customs without an explanation). So I was relaxing at the bus stop, basking in the light of my ten-square-foot cane-induced forcefield, the clear atmosphere of my immediate field of view, idling in public transit purgatory. And then I was startled by a man’s voice near me.

“Did you just feel the ground shake?”

I waited, as I often do in public, to make sure the voice was in fact directed toward me, because the embarrassment of butting into a couple’s conversation to give your take on seismology wasn’t worth a rapid response.

But nobody answered for me. So I said, in no particular direction, “Nope.” I hadn’t felt an earthquake. I started thinking about earthquakes and was interrupted again.

“Oh – huh. I could have sworn.”

In retrospect, the question was probably an excuse, a lame entré into the world of the curious, lanky blind guy.

The man approached me. Living in Oakland prepares you for chatting with strangers. And yet, he sounded unstable—not mentally unstable, or even violently unstable—but literally, like he was trying to balance on an exercise ball. His voice, which panned left and right in stereo in front of me, quivered uncomfortably. He seemed nervous. Was this guy trying to pick me up? Or was he simply one of the many fringe inhabitants of the Bay Area? I was instantly uneasy. I couldn’t place his motives. So I judged.

I continued to stand my ground, quietly feeling superior, plotting my escape on the next bus. But he could sense my attempt to disengage coming a long way off, and pre-empted me, trying to help guide me. Distracted by the situation, I got confused and got on the wrong bus with him. He entered before me, moving slowly and attempting to offer me some unwanted assistance. I slipped into a seat at the crowded front of the bus. I folded up my cane, put my head down and tried to use my disability as a shield, hoping to shake my would-be companion. But another man, my buffer, occupying the seat next to me, kindly gave it up so that the blind man and his trembling friend could sit together.

I combed through my repertoire of social self-defense and prepared to definitively eliminate him from my life. I would say something: not mean, but making it clear I didn’t want to keep up this conversation. But just in the moments before I took action, I realized something. Maybe it was that I was only a foot away from him now, and out of the blinding glare of the sun. But suddenly I could better glimpse his sporadic, tortured movement. I opened my mouth to ask, but he beat me to it, addressing the elephant head-on. “Don’t know if you can tell, but I have Parkinson’s.”

I’m no righteous activist. I don’t interact much with the Disabled Community writ large. But what unfolded from there was revelatory.

“Wow,” I said, ashamed, “I was, wondering I guess.”

“Yeah.” He knew.

He told me that sometimes he could hold it together, seem like a normal, unshaken 40-year-old man. But some days, more often than not, he was the anomaly on the sidewalk.

It was the same for me, I realized. I told him how, when the sun is at its highest point, around noon, I can generally walk around without the help of a cane, but at night I’m almost completely blind. And how this discrepancy confuses the neighbors.

In fact, with his admission I was uncorked, spilling information and thoughts that I hardly discuss with my closest friends. The things we had in common were too numerous to list.

Both of our conditions were degenerative, and unpredictably so. At almost twice my age, he was still holding onto the notion that he was pretty “stable for now,” a completely unfounded delusion of self-help that I tell myself every day. Most of us do.

There are treatments, for both of us – that neither of us want. Too invasive. Spend the rest of your life on anti-rejection drugs (me), or with your brain literally wired to your heart (him)? No, can’t commit to that, not yet at least. Things are stable for now. Why take the risk?

I was suddenly so effusive. I told him, “People always expect you to be either totally crippled, or just normal; there’s no in-between! It seems like people will always look at us so suspiciously.”

He agreed, calmly, generously ignoring my hypocrisy.

And this is our daily work. Our—and everyone’s—disabilities are at times glaringly obvious, and other times invisible. That’s why it’s dis-ability and not in-ability. But that grey area is a little too big for most of us. Which is why we’re often met with woeful pity at one turn, and harsh scrutiny at another.

We’re expected to be able or unable, not disabled. This is the same black or white, binary thinking that unknowingly judges someone as innocent or guilty, annihilating the possibility of a middle ground. And despite being victimized on a daily basis, I am just as guilty. I took a defensive and dangerous position, blinded in my own way, and it was a complete misfire.

It’s Rush Limbaugh accusing Michael J. Fox of “dressing up” his Parkinson’s for the camera. It’s Mark O’Brien being led to believe that his skinny, wheelchair-bound body is never meant for sex. It’s someone on the autism spectrum, put through the wringer their whole life because they don’t fit in perfectly with relatable human behavior.

I don’t think that there is one basic remedy. This mistrust is part of human nature, and it’s how we survive, sometimes, on a basic level. It’s not nice, but nice is not always good, and good is not always right, and so it goes.

So if I appear too aware, too capable, white cane in hand, moving at a nice clip down the sidewalk, strike me down. On the other hand if I look vulnerable, weak, whatever, strike me down then, too! I’m often accused loudly, publicly of being a phony. And sometimes even my good friends take advantage of my poor visual field.

Come on, strike me down. It’s okay. With any luck (in the omnipotent, unshrinking tenor of the late great Sir Alec Guiness): “I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”

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