beyond the stares: making friends when you’re sorta blind

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photo description: a collage of nine photos, each of me and one other person in various settings.

“Making friends” is a concept we never fully understand as children, and as we grow up, the lines continually blur. when you’re young, you reach a defining point, where either you or the other person asks, “will you be my friend?” somewhere along the line, you start making friends by acclimation: you associate yourself with someone for long enough that you both consider each other “friends.” participating in a common interest, sharing quality time, becoming more open, and communicating more frequently are signs of an emerging friendship, and they’re signs we’ve subconsciously come to recognize as a connection with another human being.

However, for people with disabilities, the signs of an emerging friendship might look a little different.

disclaimer: allow me to explain that when making friends with persons with any sort of disability (whether or not they identify as such), you should treat them as you’d treat anyone else. this isn’t about treating us like delicate flowers and being afraid to offend. getting to know another person is a long process, and you’re bound to say the wrong thing to anyone, disabled or not, you’re getting to know. you don’t know them well enough to understand their vulnerabilities, so don’t be afraid to reach out and make a connection!

I’m also speaking from personal experience, as someone who is very open about her situation in life. I can’t say my experience encompasses every person, so be careful and don’t extrapolate.

getting to know people: In my case, getting to the stage of actually getting to know someone is a lottery for me. I use mobility aids to get around generally, so depending what I’m using can get a couple different reactions. when I primarily used a cane, I got strange looks constantly, and that’s what I could see and friends I’d be walking with described. I used to joke and call it my “d-bag filter,” because you knew that the people really worth talking to would look past the fact you drag a stick along the ground on a daily basis. now, with a guide dog, it’s much harder to tell if people are genuinely interested in you or your dog when they talk to you (surprise: a lot of the time it’s actually Romana because she’s so darn cute). still even with a dog, the “d-bag filter” comes when I explain people can’t interact with her while she has her harness on. if they’re still standing there talking about something other than her presence and how much they’d love to touch her, they’re generally interested in you.

my blind “milestones”: I always joke with people I’m getting to know them that there are always two points I hit in every relationship: the, “okay, so you can see a little, but what CAN you see?!” and the, “shoot, I forgot you can’t see!”

  1. what CAN you see?: this comes in every relationship, and frankly, I should have it laminated on a card by now (kidding). to me, this question communicates that people are interested in relating to me in a way that I can understand. I think people also want to gauge how comfortable I am with disclosing specific information about my vision. as much as having to answer this question can become a chore, especially when getting to know many people at once (like when I started college or first joined a sorority), it makes me feel valued that people want to understand what my life might be like.

    answer: I’m legally blind, but I can see a little. if you have full (or lens-corrected sight), this might be hard to understand. I can’t give a complete answer to this question simply because I’ve never had full sight, nor will I ever. my vision depends on a few factors: light, depth, and distance. first, I have albinism, which means I lack pigment in my eyes that normal people have to help them filter light. too much or too little light is painful for me, which is primarily why I use mobility aids. if I walk outside in the early morning white light or am out during golden hour (when the sun sets), I can barely see. second, I lack proper depth perception, so it’s difficult to tell how far away things are from me. sports with balls are a living nightmare for me because as soon as I can register that volleyball, it’s slapping me in the face. I rely on my environment and my mobility aids for cues, like changes in the ground texture or color to warn me of changes in elevation. cases with no changes in the ground are a hit or miss; I might see those concrete steps that all are the same color with nothing to visually divide them and no shadow, but the scene would look flat to me otherwise, and no one wants to fall down concrete steps (that’s where Stick and Dog come in). last is distance, or detail. I tend to focus on the “big picture” and use shape and color to put together the puzzle in my brain, all while relying on nonvisual techniques like memory and using other senses. If there’s a tree outside a window with apples growing, a bird’s nest, and heart-shaped leaves, I’ll likely see the greenness of the leaves and the trunk knowing it’s a tree, and potentially the apples if they’re a bright red. if the apples are a color similar to the leaves, they’ll get swallowed in my perception of the leaves, and the bird’s nest would be completely ignored. this is my own, personal description of how I can see, but other people with albinism have varying degrees of light sensitivity, depth perception, and distance vision that can differ from mine.

  2. I forgot you can’t see!: this is often when someone becomes more comfortable with me that one of a few things could happen:
  • they wave, make a gesture, initiate a hug, etc. that I completely miss
  • they point something out to me that’s much too far for me to perceive
  • they are confused when I ask them to describe something

on the whole, people feel extremely (unnecessarily) guilty when this happens, but it’s usually amusing to me since people don’t mean it maliciously. one time last summer, I was eating a fruit tart topped with cut up cherries. I don’t usually eat cherries, so I naturally just asked what was on top of the tart. the guy I was sitting with was so confused and retorted, “how can you not tell what those are?! have you never seen a cherry before?” and felt instantly guilty while I laughed and explained the above in italics. I completely understand when people forget I can’t see; after all, I’m extremely good at faking like I can. I know I’m good at coping with the vision I do have, so it’s no one’s own fault. if you forget, just laugh with me!

“what makes you feel loved?”: the final thing that comes with making friends stems from a question a good friend asked this past summer. I had been sharing openly, like I have been this post, and she asked one of the most thoughtful questions I’ve heard: “What can I do to make you feel loved/included?” I had never thought of this, but it helped me realize what I value in others when I get to know them:

  • self-identification: this is so important for me when I’m first meeting people! I rely a lot on people’s voices when I talk to them, but when I’ve talked with someone twice and their voice isn’t particularly distinctive, I don’t always know who I’m talking to when people yell “hey Cassandra!” if you accompany the latter with, “it’s Susie Q from glee!” I will be eternally grateful and I don’t have to give you my default hey-it’s-nice-to-see-whoever-you-are-I’m-pretending-I-know and actually ask a relevant question.
  • help me with gestures: that high five you’re trying to give me? no, I’m not a snob and blowing you off, I just can’t see your hand. if you’re trying to give me a gesture that I’m clearly not seeing, just tell me! odds are I’ll probably laugh and make a blind joke. on the same note, I’m excellent at reading vocal cues but can’t often discern facial expressions or subtle eye movements, so don’t be afraid to be a little more direct and descriptive with your words.
  • can I have a ride?: this isn’t something I generally expect of people, but to answer the question of “what makes you feel loved?”, people readily offering me transportation fits the bill. I rely on my own two feet, public transportation (buses), and rideshare (Lyft/Uber) in my own independent life, but it makes my day when people ask if I’d like a ride. there’s only so much walking in the rain, sitting next to strange people on the bus, or paying to end up answering random questions by a stranger that’s enjoyable. I always try to pay back for gas in some way and my dog is soft and pettable in a car!

if you’re reading this and I already know you fairly well, don’t worry about making a point to do everything I’ve said. instead of viewing this as a checklist, it’s more of what I’ve observed over time. this isn’t completely one-sided either: I’m here to get to know you too, and I want to know what makes you feel loved! I’m not afraid of answering questions, just as long as you aren’t either. I don’t try and make life a guessing game for others, so I try to say when I can’t see something or describe my vision as much as I think you’re comfortable with it. in the end, friendship is a two-way street, and everybody’s got ~something~ that makes their side of the street a bit bumpier. the beauty of friendship is that we get to know and love the bumps in the road when relating to another person, since we all have them anyway.

and with that, have a sunshiny day ☀️

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