By Frank Lopez
Most of us have a schema of who we think we are. This is usually based upon our life experiences, education, friends and work environment. We sometimes inflate our accomplishments and diminish our failures, but overall, we have a pretty good idea of who we are. Once in a great while, these images of who we think we are become threatened by unique experiences.
Such an experience happened to me some 10 years ago. I had been teaching high school for a number of years. My wife and I had a wonderful family, and I was well respected by my colleagues. I took the light rail into work as I usually did, got off at the station, and proceeded to walk two blocks to the local coffee shop where I often met up with fellow teachers before school began. I had my normal large cup of coffee to go and started walking towards campus with two other fellow teachers. Along the way, we stopped at a signal waiting for the light to change. My cup of coffee was in my left hand, and my white cane was in my right hand extended out in front of me.
Suddenly, I heard and felt a “plunk, plunk”! Not quite knowing what just had happened, I asked one of my friends, “What was that?” They were laughing so hard they could hardly answer me. So I repeated, “What was that?” My friend Andy replied, “Someone just dropped some change in your cup!” At first I was very perplexed and then a little angry, with a flood of different emotions. My friends seemed to think that it was a laughable situation. Here I was– a well-paid educated and professionally dressed person on my way to work– yet someone thought I should be pitted, or it could have been a genuinely compassionate person who thought he or she was just doing a good deed.
This experience seemed to bother me the rest of the day. It caused me to wonder how the sighted world views the blind regardless of who they are and what they are. Do they only see the white cane in our hands and regard us with preconceived ideas of our imposed societal limitations?
As a person who happens to be blind, I have had the opportunity to receive many accolades over the years, sometimes making me feel as if I were the “poster boy” of what the disabled can achieve. Over the years, I noticed that society often perceives persons who are blind as either totally helpless and without any social value or phenomenal because we can compete in a sighted world. They look at us as though we are some kind of super blind person if we exceed their preconceived expectations of our abilities, when in truth, most successful persons who are blind are hard workers and passionate about what they do.
This got me thinking about how people in my immediate circle of friends perceive me. I conducted an informal “blind”survey to find out what their experiences were with blind people and what they thought about them prior to knowing me or any other blind person. I was not surprised to find out that the majority of them were uncomfortable around a blind person prior to meeting me. Before they knew me, most of them had little or no experience interacting with persons who are blind. After meeting me, most of them felt that the blind are just as normal as anyone else, and this seemed to be a real surprise to them. The majority of them were surprised to learn that I taught high school for 20 years and they found it hard to understand how I could do that.
It seems that society looks at us with “extreme lenses.” Persons who are blind are either to be pitied or praised, and there is no middle ground. We often do things in different ways to accommodate our limitations, but in reality, everyone has some limitations. Some are just more apparent than others. It is how we deal with our limitations that makes us unique and helps us gain a greater understanding of one another.
Frank Lopez lives in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.