Dealing with life in an extreme panopticon
July 9, 2011 2:46 PM   Subscribe

I'm a blind person, and being around people who see makes me feel uncomfortable. Help me figure out strategies for how to fix this.

I don't think my problem is unusual among blind people, unfortunately. We often seem to socialize with one another. I think the reason for that is that it's so much more relaxing for us. People who see are like beings with strange magical powers, and who are used to assuming that everyone has the same powers. They're a little bit intimidating and scary.

(Yes, I notice that I'm thinking in 'us' and 'them' terms. It isn't something I like doing, but I find it hard to avoid.)

For a while I worked at a restaurant where people eat in pitch darkness. Blind waiters guide them to their tables, and set plates of food down in front of them. (I was one of the waiters.) People who eat there get to experience having to touch their food in order to find it on the plate, and having to remember where they set their drink down so they can find it again without spilling it. It's true that these things are like being blind, and a lot of people who ate there found it interesting and fun.

The way in which that experience is NOT like being blind is that everybody in the dining room is in the same boat. That's how I feel when I eat with other blind people. I have to touch my food and remember where my glass is, but so does everybody else. Nobody else is watching me do it.

It's the sense of being watched that bothers me most. I know that people are not watching me all the time, but I can't check whether they are or not, and I can't watch back. It makes me self-conscious.

How can I deal with this psychologically, or what can I do to make the problem less?
posted by Net Prophet to Human Relations (31 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Have you tried hanging out in mixed groups? E.g. your blind friends plus some sighted people (friends, family, spouses/partners).

The annual ten Broek symposium sponsored by the NFB started as a blind community event (I think), but is now a cross-disability event. Because of its origins lots of blind people attend, but also lots of sighted people including sighted people with other kinds of disabilities.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 2:58 PM on July 9, 2011

It's so funny that you mention "strange magical powers" because that's exactly what the blind seem to have to me. I haven't met very many blind people but I'll never forget a guy who went to my college and could tell the exact make and model of anyone's cell phone by touch. He also showed me how his voice activated laptop software worked and I found it really interesting. I probably felt way more awkward than him, and he was perfectly gracious. When he asked me to walk him to the bathroom or other little favors it was no big deal. I was delighted to help. The point of this anecdote is just to help you see that from the other side people really aren't likely to be watching or judging you as much as you think. We know it's rude to stare and ask questions, and if we assume you can do something you actually need help with it's probably just because we're impressed by you, not callous. Or maybe you just haven't found a nice enough crowd.
posted by Nixy at 3:04 PM on July 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

Without being glib, have you tried therapy?
posted by QuarterlyProphet at 3:06 PM on July 9, 2011

Wow, that must be hard. For what it's worth, I'll confirm that sighted people aren't watching you. They're way too busy worrying about who is looking at them.

But that's not much help. My real advice: expand the situation beyond the sighted/blind divide. Even as a sighted person I have no clue what other people are thinking, which might really be what you're addressing. Sometimes of course I find myself worrying too much. But that's usually a pretty good sign that I'm not hanging out with the right person, or not communicating effectively.

Hope that helps. One other idea: make a deal with one of your sighted friends. Whenever you find yourself thinking about the issue, ask: what are you looking at? I'd personally love to share that with a person.
posted by vecchio at 3:19 PM on July 9, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks ClaudiaCenter. I'm in Canada, so that event would be a bit of a trip for me, but maybe there's something similar here.

There are surprisingly few mixed gatherings, in my experience. They tend to happen for some specific reason. There's a tandem biking club for blind people, so when they go on trips half the people can see. Other sport clubs are like that too. But as far as casual socializing, it tends to be blind or sighted. Most blind people date other blind people. (I'd love a statistic on that, but don't have one off-hand.)

QuarterlyProphet, I haven't had much luck with therapists when it comes to blindness. Maybe if I could find a blind therapist... hm.

Thanks for all the comments, really. I like them, and I'm thinking them over.
posted by Net Prophet at 3:27 PM on July 9, 2011

Assume that everyone you meet is blind. I assume that everyone I meet is gay.
posted by AlliKat75 at 3:30 PM on July 9, 2011 [13 favorites]

Realize that people are staring at you much less than you feel like they're staring at you.

It's kind of like being in middle school and having a zit: you assume that everyone is staring at the zit, the zit is all anyone will see, and when they go home at night, they tell their family and friends all about your huge, gigantic zit. In reality, everyone is too concerned with their own zits to notice that you have a face at all, let alone a zitty one.

Now, obviously, being blind is a lot more life-altering than being a teenager with a zit, and I'm not trying to trivialize your experience at all. I can just assure you that generally people are much more concerned about how they present themselves than with whatever little things anyone else is doing (juicy gossip aside, of course).

When I've been in the company of blind people in the past, I've actually been much more aware of my own actions than usual. I don't want to get in anyone's way, I don't want to stupidly say something like "oh hey what do you think of Katie's new hair color," and I have to pay a lot of attention to using my words rather than relying on gestures and facial expression to get my point across. A lot of that may be because I'm kind of socially awkward, but mostly it's just human nature. People worry more about themselves than others.

And not to be too blunt here, but I can think of about a hundred things I'd rather do at dinner than watch you reach for your drinking glass.
posted by phunniemee at 3:30 PM on July 9, 2011

So what if they are staring at you? I once had the opportunity to eat dinner with a truly famous person at a busy New York City restaurant on a Saturday night. There were four of us at the table, me and my then wife and Mr. Famous with his business partner.

You know what? Everyone was staring at us (him), whispering and pointing. It was uncomfortable for me at first. I asked him about it and he sort of laughed. He said he had no choice. Whenever he was in public including doing everyday things like going to the grocery, he was stared at. He had learned to accept it. IF he can, he addresses it and gets it out of the way. He will agree to a cell phone picture, an autograph etc.

My point is that I doubt everyone is staring at you, but even if they are watching to see how you do, screw em, let em watch. Show them you are not intimidated and that you are comfortable with your disability and won't let it beat you.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 3:32 PM on July 9, 2011

This probably won't help, but we aren't looking at you. Well, maybe for a couple of minutes, but you honestly aren't that interesting.

I don't think this problem is unique to blind people. I'm sure that every time George Clooney goes to a restaurant everyone is looking at him. A friend of mine is 7 feet tall and he has caused car accidents by walking down the street because HOLY SHIT TALL GUY DUDE DO YOU REALIZE HOW FUCKING TALL YOU ARE?! I visited a city in China and I was the first white guy that lots of the residents had seen (okay, maybe not, but many of them acted like it). One guy actually made a special detour so that he could see the actual white person.

I can't recall who said this, but:

When I was twenty I worried what people thought about me. When I was forty I stopped caring what people thought about me. When I was sixty I realized that they probably hadn't actually been thinking about me at all.

I realize that this is somewhat contradictory (no one is looking at you, okay they are but they look at everyone else too, no they aren't), but that's life.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 3:51 PM on July 9, 2011 [8 favorites]

I take for granted having my sight until I see a blind person. Then I can sum up my feelings in one word that I feel towards that person - ADMIRATION. I feel much respect and awe for that person being brave and living life to the fullest by maneuvering through the world with a major sense missing. I am sure that is how a majority of people feel, I hope that helps!
posted by sandyp at 4:02 PM on July 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

I'm also sighted and want to emphasize what others have said above: I think all people are really and truly self-conscious about something and are often really worried about whether other people are noticing that thing and most of the time, no one is really thinking much about that thing.

I've had friendships and social contacts with blind and visually impaired folks through work (I'm in an allied health field, my husband works for an organization for the blind and visually impaired), through friendships (a couple of really close blind friends), and through just regular daily stuff (we live near a school for the blind). I'm not sure if this is helpful to you, but I've had the flip side of what you're describing in the past: being really self-conscious and worried that I would say something insensitive or do something "wrong" when interacting with my visually impaired friends. And also, things like touching food on a plate or something like that don't phase me at all, because it's obviously something that serves a purpose.

What has been helpful to me in these and other situations is just to acknowledge when I'm unsure or uncomfortable. It sort of acknowledges the elephant in the room. So saying something like "i need to be sure my glass stays in the same spot on the table" acknowledges it and might diffuse the situation a bit. I've also found it really helpful to ask questions, both ways. I'll ask something like "Where should I put this glass?" "We're moving to another table. Would it be easier to take my arm or for me to give you verbal directions." As I've been in the community more, I've also made an effort to learn more, by reading, talking, etc. After a while, the blindness is just another facet of the person, not something that is at the front of my mind.

So I guess what all this rambling is trying to say is that the sighted folks you are concerned about are probably just as worried and self-conscious as you at first. But that's often the case when meeting anyone new. Help them get to know you and communicate what you're thinking and what you need, and I think you'll find that people will be interested in interacting with you to the same degree you are interested in being friends with them.
posted by goggie at 4:05 PM on July 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Although I have most of my eyesight, I had a great deal of anxiety about being stared at by other people when I was younger. It didn't matter that I knew some of it to be for positive reasons, when most of the time I would have been happier being invisible. The thing that helped me the most to become more comfortable with not being able to control others' reactions, while paradoxically also giving me some practice in how to behave or speak in ways that did influence others' reactions, was acting classes. In order to improve, or at least not continually humiliate myself, I was forced to process and come to terms with all of those feelings of being scrutinized and judged. The classes were terrifying for me, and also turned out to be one of the best things I ever did to become comfortable in my skin. Now there's very little that makes me feel self-conscious, whether I'm strolling down the street with my pants unzipped or weeping on cue while alone on stage in front of several hundred strangers.
posted by grar at 4:07 PM on July 9, 2011

One thing that I find helpful is remembering the difference between being observed and being judged.

I once travelled somewhere with a friend where it was clear that we were outsiders, and remember noticing that while everyone was looking at me, no one was saying anything - and it wouldn't matter if they had, as I didn't speak the language. But at the same time, the voices in my head were *deafening*, and I imagined that I had been examined and found different (well, foreign) and unacceptable.

I realized then that I prefer to be invisible, and when I'm in my own city, I am. You wouldn't look at me twice, because I look like I belong, and I like it that way. I feel comfortable. But I also realize that at some point, there are some situations in the world where, for whatever reason, you will feel like a public spectacle.

It also hit me that I was also being uncharitable in my estimation of others. Sure folks were looking out of curiosity, but that's something I do in my every day life all the time. I also listen out of curiosity, to other people's conversations on buses, or in restaurants. Sometimes I read the newspaper over someone's shoulder on the metro. I'm just interested in what's going on in my community. So it helps me to remember that when I look it's a 2 minute 'that's interesting', and then back to my meal sort of thing, not a 'what the hell?' sort of a thing.
In your case, it might be a, "Why is that person touching their food - oh, because it's how they remember where their food is, how sensible - ah!" sort of a thing, not a , "freak!" sort of a thing.

People look to understand, because trying to make sense of the world is a universal human trait. For me on that trip, it helped to realize that if I was in their shoes, I'd be looking at me too, and I actually wouldn't be judging them. I'd just be looking. I'd still rather not have the attention, but that made it okay for me. I think if you can be okay with the human-ness of the probably inevitable, maybe 30 seconds - 1 minute observing that goes on when you eat in public, and that while you wish it was different, it's okay that it's not, that might make it a little bit more okay for you as well.
posted by anitanita at 4:16 PM on July 9, 2011 [7 favorites]

I played in a band with a bass player who was totally blind, and had been since early childhood. I considered him a dear friend. At the risk of sounding self-contradictory, I think I learned something about how the blind process information from being around him. If any of the following insults your intelligence, sorry, but the way you're describing your condition makes me assume you've always been blind, so hopefully this helps:

- most people aren't paying that much attention to you. You are well-adapted enough to have been a waiter, so chances are people don't notice you much. You probably move much like a sighted person and there's probably nothing particularly odd about your appearance. My friend had a bit of a deformity in the area of his eye sockets, but his dark glasses more or less covered it. People didn't particularly seem to react to his appearance. Sight works a bit different than hearing. A person with normal eyesight sees only what's directly in front of them and which they're paying attention to. You can hear something soft behind you even if you're listening primarily to something louder going on in front. Sight doesn't work that way. Something quite odd can be happening to the left of what you're paying attention to and it doesn't register with most people. For this reason, the more you're in a crowd or in a "busy" environment, the less likely it is anyone notices you, unless you've painted your face, are wearing a loin cloth, or doing something else really strange. There's a famous video that circulates on the internet of a bunch of people playing basketball. There is a guy in a gorilla suit in the scene, and most people don't notice him.

- at the risk of sounding contradictory to what I just said, if people closely interact with you (sit at a table with you having a meal, for example), yes, they'll notice you're blind, even if you're not doing anything that would seem to make it obvious. Sighted people tend to notice each other's eyes, and it's easy for us to see where the other is looking (hence all the metafilter threads on people creeping other people out by looking at their breasts, etc.). So if your eyes don't seem to be looking anywhere, an observant person can usually notice you're blind without you having to explain it. And unless they're a total jerk, they'll naturally and easily adapt to the situation. You may have to give them a hint every now and then, but most people are going to be kind, if anything to a fault. One of my funniest moments with my friend was when he was going down a set of stairs carrying a bass. Somebody who was with us kept calling out the steps "You're coming to a step, Don. Here's another. And another..."
posted by randomkeystrike at 4:29 PM on July 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Echoing everyone else that people are too self-absorbed to be watching you the overwhelming majority of the time. I live quite close to a building shared by the NFB and Blind, Inc (which does classes), which means I run into blind people at the bus stop fairly frequently. Before I figured out that I used the bus stops closest to the NFB/Blind Inc, I didn't give it any more thought besides "There are an oddly large number of blind people around here. I wonder why?" (It probably take you more concentration to get on the bus than it does me, as I can see where the ticket machine is. But, as a general rule, blind people are far, far faster at getting on the bus than the people who don't bother getting their ticket out in advance and keep it in some obscure place they can't remember. It's those people I stare at, because I'm glaring at them.)

It strikes me that perhaps you could set out to hang out with sighted people in groups that are doing something. It's unlikely they'd be staring at you if they're doing stuff--they'll be thinking about whatever the group is doing. If you're at, I don't know, a book group, everyone's going to be thinking about the book and not what you're doing. (Am I right in thinking that you'd just need a group to commit to reading books that you can access as well?)

From a sighted person hanging out/doing stuff with blind people perspective, I don't think we care. Blind people I've known have been up front about anything they wanted sighted people to do (don't pet my dog unless I say you can, say backslash when LaTeX wants a backslash, etc.) and we've just carried on.
posted by hoyland at 4:32 PM on July 9, 2011

People who see are like beings with strange magical powers, and who are used to assuming that everyone has the same powers. They're a little bit intimidating and scary.

Just following on randomkeystrike's comments, have you done much learning about how the human visual system works? Vision can be powerful, but the system is also full of biases and quirks that were/are great for spotting predators in the forest, but also makes us do things like see colors and shapes where there are none, fail to notice when someone's shirt changes color in the middle of of a conversation (link) and see the face of Jesus in slices of toast. Being able to marvel at some of the trouble sighted people's vision can get them into might help them feel less like all-seeing people who can tell everything about you at a glance.

Just a note, you'll find lots of videos and visual demonstrations getting linked to on pages like the one above, but you might enjoy them still for the narration and explanations - usually the thing to do is to skip near the end, where they reveal the trick that's just been played on the viewer...
posted by heyforfour at 4:51 PM on July 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm inferring from your question that you have been blind from birth, or at least from very early childhood. If so, I imagine that, not having seen sighted people and the way they behave around you, it would feel intimidating to be around them. My stepfather has retinitis pigmentosa, and is completely blind now, but had some vision as a child and is fairly comfortable around sighted people (my mother was sighted).

He and my mother, believe it or not, met at church. He has an excellent auditory memory and was in the church choir at the time. Not saying you need to go to church, but if you can find an activity, a hobby, any kind of interest that will bring you into regular contact with like-minded sighted people, I think you will find that people will be genuinely friendly -- maybe a little over-interested at first (I was fascinated by my stepfather the first time I met him) -- and interested in you for you and not for your disability.

My stepfather has always had service dogs, and I think that has helped him connect with sighted people as well. His friends know not to pet the dog when he's in harness, but heck, even my mom couldn't resist patting the dog on the head once in awhile when they were out. The dog's a bit of an ambassador, it gives people something to talk about and/or fawn over. Service dogs are a huge commitment and a lot of work though, so I'm not seriously suggesting this as an option if you don't already have one.

One more thing, people know it's rude to stare, even when the person being stared at can't see that it's happening. Polite people in polite society will restrain themselves from gawping at you and may even get grief from other people if they don't. Little kids have a harder time understanding this, but in my experience their parents are pretty good at simply explaining what they're seeing and telling them to knock it off. Without minimizing or discounting your feelings, I really think that "let's all watch the blind guy's every move" isn't happening nearly as much as you think it is, if at all.
posted by That's Numberwang! at 5:09 PM on July 9, 2011

When I was in nursing school I cared for a man who was blind and he taught me a lot about blind people and how to best interact with them as a sighted person. How this might relate to you is that he had interacted a lot with sighted people and had learned how to explain how his world was different and how sighted people could interact with him in ways that were comfortable for both. I guess he was very upfront about letting people know he was blind, and telling people in a humorous but straightforward way about what would help - like letting him know when you came into the room who you were, for example, or using a "clock" to tell him what was where in a room or on a plate ("potatoes at ten o'clock!"). He also had a great sense of humor about his blindness (saying things like "you look nice today but I think that top clashes with your pants") which really set people at ease. Being friendly and self-confident makes a world of difference. You might not realize it, but plenty of sighted people probably just don't know how to best interact with you, they likely aren't judging as much as feeling awkward because they don't know what is appropriate and what is not.

I still talk about my blind patient with fondness and respect to this day, I did not judge him beyond really respecting how graceful he was about helping to bridge the gap between blind and sighted, and I genuinely liked him.

Finally, my advice is the same I'd give to anyone - people aren't thinking about you anywhere near as much as you fear they are! Good luck.
posted by biscotti at 5:32 PM on July 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't know if it helps, but the cultural norm in the US, and I'm assuming in Canada too?? --in lots of ways we're just not that different-- the cultural norm is that it is impolite to stare. At anyone, for any reason. The vast majority of people, even knowing you are blind and cannot see them, will experience strong internal pressure to look away after only a moment or two of observation. Because even if you cannot see them looking at you, other people can, and it's not polite to stare at others.

So, despite the clamour in your head insisting you stand out like a sore thumb, understand that most of the time, people will shy away from scrutinizing you despite their innate curiosity about any differences.

It is, however, impolite to face away from any person you are talking to. So if you're observing that they're always facing your way in a conversation, that's just custom & the mechanics of getting sound to the right ears, not people gawping at you.

People are always a little curious about anyone who is different. And observing is a relatively non-invasive mode of satisfying that curiosity. However, most people you meet are not going to indulge that curiosity past the limit-point of courtesy. So probably there is not *nearly* as much attention being directed your way as your brain is supposing.

If you need more empirical evidence, maybe you could go out with a sighted friend and run an experiment: You write down how many people you think are watching you, with an idea of how long. He or she writes down what he/she sees happening, with particular attention to who's being rude & who's just doing a standard check-you-out-move-on once-over. Go home, compare notes. I think you'd be surprised.
posted by Ys at 5:45 PM on July 9, 2011

I can see.

Thanks for posting this question. It will inform how I act around people who work with blindness.

There are unspoken rules that I notice most people follow around people who have blindness. One of these rules is to not judge them for not being able to see (and things that go along with this like accidentally knocking something over,etc).

When you can see, it's extremely important to be able to see. People who can see realize the great value of this. Loosing sight is often a greatest fear. The mystery of sight is sometimes even offered as proof of God's existence (feel free to roll your eyes [forgive the pun]).

When around people with blindness, I feel (and often notice others working the same way) like the usual sorts of "visual judgement" is unwarranted, rude and wrong. I suppose we all sort of think, "oh my: what would I do if I was blind." The answer to that question creates such universal appreciation for what we have and fear of what we have to loose that you would have to be a total fool to judge a blind person.

You can bet on that.

People, as many have posted above, are selfish. The people with vision are not judging you when they interact with you--these people are telling themselves over and over why they are glad to not be in your shoes.

Which would create another problem.


That's a hard thing to overcome. In my work, I've worked with many physically handicapped people, and they tell me what it's like: if you're in a wheelchair, you're the person in the wheelchair and all people want to talk about is the wheelchair. You can't be the person interested in subject X: you're the person in the wheelchair.

My guess is that you're picking up on this weird pity that people will feel around someone who is blind. They will try to camouflage this and that camouflage might come off as judgement.

If this is true, here are my suggestions:

1) Fake the confidence. If people are weird around you (showing pity or judgement or whatever), don't let it phase you. Have super human confidence. This isn't as hard as you might imagine. You can train yourself how to ignore their junk. Therapy helps. Lotsa great books on this out there too. Fred Astaire used this model to get famous. Great trick for faking confidence: actually doing things that matter (volunteer at something, help get something going, etc.--it will only be more impressive that you did it blind--this is the stuff that legends are made of).

2) Don't be afraid to ask for help. So you're on a date: just tell the your date that you've forgotten where that damn drink is and if they could help you find it. They'll laugh and be glad to be given permission to help. If you can create a dynamic where it's safe for the people around you to expedite the stupid stuff, then it will be easier for conversations to shift towards the more meaningful.

3) Be the leader. You don't need sight to have vision. Don't give anyone a chance to think you're less than anyone. Kick ass. So you've been given a hard hand to play--so be it--play that hand with a lot of art.

4) Know you won't be able to please everyone. There are jerks who can see out there. Waste of eyes. They will just be weird, judgmental and awkward. So be it. You don't have to hang out with them unless they're family (and then you'll need a new post asking about that one).

Have peace.
posted by Murray M at 6:21 PM on July 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'm glad the hivemind consensus is that people aren't staring at me. :-D

randomkeystrike, your comments about your blind bass player friend really resonate with me. I have experiences like that all the time, walking down staircases in the subway. Also you say that his eyes looked a bit deformed, but he covered it up with dark glasses. I used to do that. One day, again on the subway, a curious little kid wanted to see what was behind my glasses. He crossed the train and stood on the seat next to mine so he could see, then yelled across to his mother about it. I suspect his mother was even more embarrassed than me, but the experience made me think "Shit, I'm not wearing these glasses anymore. It just makes people curious about why I'm wearing them, and who needs that?"

I figure I have to 'normalize' my appearance at work. But so does everybody. Wearing sunglasses was making people act more weirdly around me, if anything. (Once or twice at parties I got asked "Are you selling?" That was fun.)

Yes I've been blind almost since birth, which I guess is why seeing seems like a psychic ability that most people have. I am fascinated by optical illusions, but they don't change my sense of real amazement that there's this stuff called 'light' bouncing around everywhere, and when it hits people's eyes their minds figure out from how it bounced that the men's washroom is ten feet to the right. As a kid I used to play a sort of game where I'd entertain the idea that seeing was just an elaborate practical joke people were playing on me. Really what was happening was that they were going into rooms ahead of time and touching everything, then when I got there they would pretend that they could just 'see' where things were. Strange little game, but oh well.
posted by Net Prophet at 6:39 PM on July 9, 2011 [22 favorites]

How much do you think your self consciousness comes from "being blind" to "being different"? I think most people who are used to socializing in homogenous groups tend to feel self conscious or uncomfortable or at a disadvantage of some sort when they start socializing with people who come from a different background or who have had very different experiences. Some people never get over that feeling. Those who can get comfortable find that its really INTERESTING to talk to people unlike themselves, that you get so much more diversity of experience for yourself when you socialize with different kinds of people.

Like other people have mentioned, people aren't paying as much attention to you as you probably think. They probably sit down at a dinner table with you and wonder how you're going to manage the meal, and once they see how (and that you're self sufficient) they probably pay as much attention the way you eat as they do to the way everyone else eats -i.e. very little. They're concentrating on the conversation and the stories and the ideas be shared.

Fake it till you make it - keep socializing in sighted and blind groups, and eventually you'll feel comfortable enough to enjoy it.
posted by Kololo at 7:14 PM on July 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

If it helps, the only time I'll be watching a blind person in my vicinity is in the metro or at stoplights or busy doorways, where I'll pause to see if they might need a hand. Otherwise I wouldn't stare at anyone, and I think only a pretty rude person would find it okay to do so just because you can't catch them at it. There are always going to be a few rude people, but there are many many more who are better behaved.

I think for you the problem is one of confirmation - because you are unable to prove to yourself that other people are NOT staring, you can't let go of the idea that they MIGHT be staring. It makes me think of the couples where one suspects the other of cheating: they'll never believe the other isn't cheating, they just think they haven't found the proof yet. The only way to heal yourself of a confirmation problem is to think against it; CBT techniques might be useful for this, as it's very much a form of social anxiety to my mind. You have to reprogram yourself to recognize when you are thinking these thoughts and interrupt them, replace them with a new chain of thought that counters the fear.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 7:39 PM on July 9, 2011

One of my very closest friends, is blind, and she has expressed some of the same feelings of awkwardness and discomfort you've spoken about here. Watching her develop into an adult has been really extraordinary, she went from being rather meek to assertive and confident.

If you come away from this with any small kernel of knowledge, please let it be that when someone notices that you're blind, the first reaction is admiration for your strength, the second is respect for your other capacities and the third is a desire to help but not be an overly-helpful asshole.

Perhaps you can try working on ways to communicate the best methods your sighted friends can use to make you more comfortable. Best of luck to you.
posted by Nickel Pickle at 7:49 PM on July 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Caveat: the only blind person I've spent a lot of time with wasn't uncomfortable around people at all, unless he masked his discomfort heavily by being a complete and total asshole to people. (Seriously, how was the only racist I met in college a blind dude? It remains confusing to this day.) These days, I don't have conversations with blind people, but I do pass several blind people who are "regulars" on my route to the train station each day.

I don't know if this is useful to you at all, but one thing I struggle with as a sighted person in this scenario is the barrier to entry for casual passers-by. With the two blind people I pass regularly, there's no obvious opening for acknowledging each other, because unless they're really good at recognizing the sound of my stride and my noisy shoes, they don't know I pass them every day. In that light, I definitely sympathize with your discomfort with strangers. I'm not staring at them, but whenever I see them, I wonder if I should say good morning like I do to other regular folks I pass on my route. But I don't usually do that with other people unless we've progressed to mutual acknowledgement by nodding, smiling, etc. It's a little uncomfortable, and I haven't figured out a good answer yet.
posted by deludingmyself at 7:57 PM on July 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd like to offer a slightly different point of view arising from my experience of being deaf (which I imagine has lots of similarities and the same number of differences as being blind).

Apologies in advance if I sound harsh or if I'm reading things into your post that aren't there or if I'm characterising things as being very black and white. I've found that life, particularly when your experience is significantly different from the larger population, can be easier to frame in terms of generalities so that you can give more attention to the grey areas that warrant that attention. Apologies for the length too, I've found myself giving your post a lot of thought!

One other thing: I don't have many deaf (or Deaf) people in my life and my interactions are mainly with people who can hear -- so I've spent a lot of my life trying to fit into a world that is unlike me in one significant aspect.

Okay, caveats aside: what I'm reading in your post is that you're trying to behave "normally" in "normal" company. I spent a lot of my life trying to appear like I didn't have a problem with my hearing and when people didn't know I was deaf they thought I was stupid or aloof or not quite there because I didn't hear them and couldn't answer, engage or respond appropriately. Often conversations didn't go very far because I'd just nod or smile or mirror the speaker's facial expression. I got it right most of the time, but I wasn't really engaging in any sort of conversation (including the time a new acquaintance told me his business partner had died and I replied "that's fantastic!").

I'm giving all the background to highlight that when it finally twigged that I needed to tell people I'm deaf and I started doing it, it became about 80% easier to get around the world. I give people the information they need to interact with me because it smooths over the interaction -- it highlights the difference and from then on it becomes easier because people know they need to speak louder, or face me, or move to a quieter area, or use emaill instead of the telephone.

I think human beings are designed to look for patterns so that something different (be it deafness, blindness, prominent facial birthmark, whatever) sets of a reponse because it's something that draws attention. So people can't help responding to that difference, even momentarily. By drawing attention to it, it doesn't become this unspoken "thing", it's brought out into the open. It's also really useful from sorting out who's an arsehole and who's not (arsehole is the guy at a party who once I told him I was deaf, said "well what's the use of talking then" and walked off).

That's not to say that people are staring at you or that you should feel self-conscious. I think other people who have responded are quite right when they say that people are much less interested in you than you think (in a good way!). I do think though that you can't discount the fact that people notice difference, and by trying to behave "normally" and behaving in a way you think people want you to behave or think you should behave you're doing yourself a diservice.

It's not fun telling everyone you meet that you're deaf or blind -- it gets old really really quickly! -- but the net outcome is positive because you've put the difference on the table and you're not doing backflips to make everyone else more comfortable with you.

In my experience, not doing those backflips gives me the headspace to engage in quality interactions that I get something out of.

(Finally, I know there's a high likelihood I'm reading my experience into yours, and that this is a sensitive, personal thing to raise in a public forum!)
posted by prettypretty at 8:40 PM on July 9, 2011 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Prettypretty, I definitely relate to a lot of that. For example, Biscotti posted about her blind friend who used to ask people to say their names when they came into a room. That would help me a lot, but it's something I have trouble explaining to people. I used to try and fake my way through it, much like what you wrote. I had a few horrible experiences where it became obvious that I wasn't recognizing people by their voices. Now I'm better at just fessing up that I don't recognize the person who just said "Hi" to me -- though getting them to understand that recognition without seeing a face, or any other visual clues, is a really difficult thing, and so they shouldn't take it personally... I don't know how to explain everything.

What I'm getting from this thread is:
1) People often don't notice things unless they're looking straight at them.

2) People won't normally look straight at me (because staring is rude).

So, 3) People are practically blind to what I'm doing most of the time.

But unfortunately, for some reason I still shouldn't adjust my underwear in public.
posted by Net Prophet at 10:11 PM on July 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

Just to echo ClaudiaCentre: it might be worth looking for cross-disability events or groups. They would be ways of having mixed sighted/non-sighted company, as well as being able to share experiences with other people on being different and in a minority. This type of environment might be relaxing for you in the same way socializing with blind people is for you now.
posted by squishles at 10:52 PM on July 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I work in a store that serves many blind shoppers. I really don't see anyone staring at them, just giving a quick look, mostly to stay out of the blind person's way.

I am in a wheelchair and have notice that people usually give me a quick glance and then look away. Sometimes I almost feel invisible. People in this society mostly understand that it's rude to stare, and this seems even more true when there is some disability involved. The exception is small children who are quite interested in any odd person and will often look and ask questions.

The other situation where people will watch you is when they are concerned for your safety or convenience.

In a positive light, people are very quick to come to my assistance when I'm struggling with a heavy door or can't quite make it up an incline. I may watch a blind people who is having a tough time crossing the street with heavy traffic. If they seem to be nervous or intimidated, I will offer assistance in crossing.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 11:08 PM on July 9, 2011

For me when I am around someone who is blind or otherwise disabled, I'm always a little uncomfortable that *I'm* going to do something to make them uncomfortable - say the wrong thing, whatever. I think the best way to deal with something like this is to have a sense of humor and to be honest. There was a blind girl in my high school that I had some classes with and she was very open about asking someone to walk her to her next class. She was a good conversationalist and very friendly so really it was just like walking with any other person to class. I think the trick is to not make your blindness something that's unapproachable or "let's pretend that nothing is out of the ordinary here." If you need people to announce themselves upon entering a room, tell them. As a sighted person I would much rather know that you prefer me to go "Hey Net Prophet it's RadioAmy" rather than wonder if you know who I am.
posted by radioamy at 11:35 PM on July 9, 2011 [6 favorites]

NetProphet, your comment about your perception of how sighted people operate and what you thought about it as a child struck me as interesting. I had one personal conversation with my blind bass player friend about what it was to be blind. Like you, he lost his sight so early that he had no practical memory of what it was to be sighted. I think this is a key difference in people who lose their eyesight vs. those like you. I should add that my friend worked for my state's school for the deaf and blind and worked to place deaf and blind people in jobs. Because of this, I think he was particularly gifted at talking about the differences. We were on a long car trip together (I can almost hear him now, interrupting to say that I was driving), and I commented on how a lot of my memories, dreams, etc. have a strong visual component, where his obviously wouldn't. He used the example of a bus. I might think of the colors, the shape of the exterior, and the like when I conjure up my idea of a bus. For him, he said, it was the air conditioning when you got inside a bus, the smell of the diesel, the size and the shape of the seats.

I had nearly forgotten this, but I remembered as a result of this discussion that his first wife was my homeroom teacher in ninth grade, and he came and spoke to my class. This was before I knew him personally. He got into question and answer time and was talking with my classmates, really challenging their perceptions of the blind (and really anyone who's different). He asked one kid who had asked a question "Would you date a blind girl?" In retrospect, my classmates answer "if she was good looking" was terribly ironic.

He read braille with his right hand, which was the hand he used to pluck strings on the base. At a break one of us saw him putting band-aids on his fingertips. Someone asked "Don, did you hurt your fingers?"

He said "No, I just put bandages on my fingertips when I play. Most bass players get callouses on those fingers, but I read braille, so I need them to be sensitive to the bumps. I'd hate to be blind and illiterate."

Since there's also a deaf person in this thread, I'll close by saying he loved to tell about the time his wife ran an errand while they were waiting for a pizza to arrive. He came to the door with money in hand to meet the pizza delivery guy, and he could tell by the sound of his voice that the pizza guy was deaf... it was an awkward transaction that ended with the deaf pizza guy taking a 20 dollar bill and not giving him any change...

I think that he was very good at being open about his blindness, answering people's questions about it, but not allowing it to dominate the conversation. I can imagine it's something that one tires of talking about, but I think that by acknowledging it and having a lot of humor about it, he made people get past it. He passed away several years ago, and my thoughts about him center on his excellence as a friend, mentor, and musician, not his lack of eyesight
posted by randomkeystrike at 7:59 PM on July 10, 2011

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