In his book, Self-Esteem and Adjusting with Blindness, Dean Tuttle describes several different kinds of relationships between sighted and blind people.
1. The it: Sometimes I would like to go around and just do my thing and not have to interact with anyone. Usually this happens when I'm feeling like the things I do don't matter anyway, or likepeople have no appreciation for my personhood. Who on earth has treated me like an "it"? Well, it happens all the time when I try to interact and am ignored or when I have what I think is an obvious need which people don't consider. I had to develop some way to be content in spite of this. Voila! There emerges a version of myself who doesn't want or need input or communication from anyone.
2. The blind: There are images inside my head of children who do stereotypical things, usually rocking incessantly, and are nonverbal or only moderately verbal. After all, isn't that what blind people--particularly totally blind people--are like? I never did any of these things they do in my head, but they represent the kind of blind people I was around during the early years when I was learning what blindness means. They also represent the image of what I am to avoid. I look with disgust on these images and often wish they would go away, out of my head. Yet I fear becoming like them.
I suppose "the blind" also represents my encounters with people like Dr. Young, the professor who spent an hour telling methat it was impossible for a blind person to teach and that I would surely fail student teaching--all blind students had failed student teaching. I don't remember all the things she said. I suppose mymind is being merciful in not supplying these memories. I do remember the general ideas, and I do remember going to my advisorin the Department of Counseling and Special Education in tears and asking if any blind people had failed student teaching. "Who told you that?" he asked. It was not true. No blind person had failed student teaching. But Dr. Young's words remained with me, and after two unsuccessful attempts at the internship program, in which I was to observe and teach a handful of lessons one-on-one or to a small group of students, I quit the teacher training program.
3. The superblind: I hate being told what an inspiration I am and how I am so strong and brave and that the other person could just never do these things. There are hundreds of blind people just like me, and some of them used to be just like whoever just told me all those things. It's not a compliment, regardless of how it's meant. It emphasizes the fact that I am not normal and will never be normal, even though I do normal things. I suppose this is the one group of people who I never manage to think of as significant others. They make me too angry.
4. The needy blind: Well, maybe this is the other group who never make it to the status of significant others. Again, they make me too angry, assuming that I cannot do anything for myself orthat I have no knowledge of what is going on whatsoever. I may be classifiable as dependent in some respects, but physically is not one of them.
5. The capable blind person: I've had many relationships of this nature, but I find it difficult to balance them out with the "it"'s and "the blind". But this kind of relationship stillemphasizes blindness to some degree.
6. The person who is blind: This is what I crave--a relationship where I am respected as a whole person and blindness is just one part of that person. This is why it annoys me to no end when people ask me countless questions about blindness. It has been too long since I've had a relationship based on my personhood. I've been either a caregiver (and that was not fulfilling for me because the balance was tipped the other way), an object to be cared for, one of the blind, or a nobody.
7. The friend who happens to be blind: Well, it is difficult for me to distinguish friends from casual acquaintances whose relationships fall into the above category. I don't know why this is. I guess it has something to do with wanting friends so badly. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that during the times of my life when peers should have been my friends, the vast majority ofdisplayed affection came from adults--mostly teachers. I know that teachers, even those who show me that they like me, are not friends--not when I am 12 years old. But it is difficult for me to maintain the distance which is natural for other students to maintain, and I am sure this is because to maintain distance from those teachers or others who are not really friends is to completely isolate myself from all support which does not come from parents. Since my parents are not able to provide the degree of emotional support needed to counteract these feelings of isolation, what do I do?
In order to keep myself from being completely (and inappropriately) vulnerable, Trapped in my near-complete emotional isolation, I find a way to become my own significant other. I retreat into some kind of fantasy where I can imagine, as a child might, that I have friends who provide the support and companionship I need. I am embarrassed about revealing this, but it is part of my experience, one of the things which has happened because of the effect that blindness has in separating me from my peers. When I finally manage to develop somewhat stable friendships which can remove some of the feelings of isolation, or when I have so much to keep me busy that I do not have time to feel the isolation, the inner world is not needed. But as long as I feel the isolation, I must allow myself to imagine. To take this away is to be isolated even from myself.
It is not so much that blindness itself has separated me from others. In some cases this is true. However, it is also true that everyone endures feelings of isolation at times. However, in my case, blindness often prevents me in some way from taking some action which might relieve the pain. Perhaps it is my perception of blindness at times. For example, when the familiar environment is filled with extra people, rearranged furniture, etc., I begin tofeel that I should not do anything which would upset other people. I don't walk into the kitchen to refill my plate because I fearthat my sister will appear and chastise me for touching the cookies, or because I cannot stand the choruses of "Left," or "Look out! So-and-so is sitting on the floor there!" My incompetenciesare proclaimed on a hilltop, and I feel like all eyes are on me, evaluating me, and I never know if some tongue-clacking old lady--or even some pitying young person--will say, "Oh, would you go HELP her?!!!"
At other times, it truly is my blindness which separates me. I am unfamiliar with the environment. Attempts at exploration result in people asking, "What do you need?" Yet it never occursto them that I might simply like to move around the room so that I can pass by people who may not be talking but who might talk with me. If they are not talking, I don't know they are even there or,in many cases, who or where they are. This is especially true at large gatherings where there may be new people present. I have to wait until someone finds the time or has the notion to introduce me. I am never able to reach out on my own initiative.
Tuttle also discusses the problem of dealing with the opinions of more than one significant other.
The reflective and reciprocal processes just described are repeated every time visually impaired individuals interact with others, resulting in multiple social selves (James, 1890; Mead, 1934). Furthermore, not all the significant others share the same defining attributes of blind persons. Dad, sister, teacher, and friend may perceive and evaluate a blind person's attributes in different ways. (p. 73)
I've been looking for a quote like this for a long, long time. I feel much less crazy now. Growing up, I was almost always the only blind person people had ever seen. When I was not the only one, I was usually the only very bright one. I have no doubt that I challenged many people's attitudes. I was always coming up against that "it" treatment, followed by "the blind" and the "superblind" and least often by the more positive attitudes. However, being shuffled back and forth between the regular classroom environment where I was an "it" or "the blind" and the resource room where I was a child with potential, church where I was generally an "it", home where I was sometimes just a child and sometimes the needy blind was not helpful in my forming a conception of who I was. This ping-pong effect has never stopped, and I find it difficult to maintain my own beliefs about who I am.
Some acquaintances become significant others, while some remain casual acquaintances. The greater the significance of theother, the greater the potency for influencing the visually impaired person's set of personal attributes, self-concept, and self-esteem. There is a positive correlation between the visuallyimpaired person's level of self-esteem and the degree of warmth, care, and acceptance exhibited by significant others. Frequent and consistent encounters with even the casual acquaintance can also influence the blind individual's self-concept. The young or immature visually impaired and the recently blinded are more vulnerable to, and less capable of evaluating, the perceived defining attributes of even casual acquaintances. (p. 75)
I guess this is what has happened to me. My parents and sister are obviously people who are very significant in my life. Teachers, ministers, and potential employers are also extremely significant because they have the knowledge (I naturally assume because of their status) to evaluate my abilities, maturity, etc. Rejection by one of these people means academic, spiritual, or professional failure. Peers are also significant, especially during those times when I have no friendships or positive relationships to fall back on. But all of this means that I cannot differentiate the importance of many people's opinions. For instance, in the episode with Dr. Young, there was a major conflict between my perceptions and hers. I thought that I had the ability to teach which was demonstrated by the fact that I relate well to children (which I knew because of years of volunteer experience) and that I was doing well in the classes designed to give me the knowledge and skills to be a teacher. Wouldn't those two things go together to make a good teacher? But Dr. Young was a professional with some 50 years of experience. Did she know something I didn't, and was my 100 average in her class not enough to demonstrate my ability? Because of my much-too-respectful attitude, I did not feel that it would be appropriate for me to get up and walk out without listening to her. For me to remove myself from the demeaning situation before she was finished speaking would be rude. I endured this for enough time that I internalized it--all because she was someone who supposedly deserved so much respect and knew everything.
Somewhere along the way, I adopted the view that all people who are in positions of authority are to be listened to and believed. It is rude to challenge a parent or teacher or to walk out in the middle of a conversation. If I cannot challenge a statement based on my own beliefs or knowledge (because I am the child or student), then my own beliefs and knowledge must be incorrect. If I cannot remove myself from a demeaning situation, then I cannot show my disagreement by my actions and thus reinforce my own beliefs or knowledge. I am forced to sit patiently and endure a kind of abuse of power.
What I don't understand is how I came to have this rigid belief about adults. I know that I am very easy to control and influence, especially if someone with more knowledge, experience, or ability is doing it. I suppose that this is another thing which happens to all people. Employers have the ability to exercise this kind of role in everyone's lives. I have heard people talk about the demeaning effect of certain employers' treatment and their fears of challenging such practices. The problem seems to be that in my mind I am always the one with the least power. Has the ping-pong effect created some kind of confusion in which I am never sure whether my feelings and beliefs are right or wrong?
If I had been encouraged to be actively involved with the environment when I was very young, would I perceive myself as having more control over it or ability to interpret things correctly? Most of what I remember is being taken by the hand, "helped". I was inferior. My peers and even younger children had abilities that I did not have. Even when I was working with toddlers, the children "helped" me in ways which were different from the ways they "helped" others who were in the caretaker role. Even in an environment with which I was totally familiar, children were allowed to "help" me walk down the hall. I remember feeling that this should not have been the case. It would have been one thing for them to have been required to hold my hand so that I would know where they were, but for them to be told that they were "helping" me communicates that I am not able to do it without them. Perhaps it makes the kids feel important or willing to do something which needed to be done, but it makes me less able even to do things which I know I can do.
In saying all of this, I begin to feel frustrated. Most people think that I should just allow these things to roll off my back. Of course, everyone knows I can do these things. Oh, dothey really? I was seldom seen walking around that church independently. Was it because I couldn't or didn't want to? Or was it because I thought I couldn't? I remember very well knowingthat I could but fearing that I would encounter those well-meaning people who would grab my hand and escort me. There are times when some well-meaning person will ask me where I am going. In response to my revealing my destination, the person will say, "Oh, I'll take you." Even when I inform the person that I can get there by myself, often the person insists on accompanying me, usually holding my hand or (now that I am an adult and do not hold people's hands) with me holding their arm. This has happened for most of my life. It's easier, then, just to be taken.
If the church was too crowded, I was not allowed out of my parents' sight. If I wantedto speak to someone, I had to ask for the person to be found. If my parents saw someone to whom they wished to speak along the way, my friend was often gone by the time we got around to looking for her. I remember thinking that I might have had better luck if I had been walking around listening to the conversations of people and heard my friend's voice or had come into her line of vision so that she would speak to me.
These feelings are things I am supposed to let go. They are in the past. So I am told when I express them. But they are not in the past. The patterns are repeated even today. My perception that I "can't"--actually, that I shouldn't--do this or that isstill a powerful thing. I want to do little things to break this perception, but they are things which will never be done. I want to get a ride to church with someone other than my parents. I want to do this because if I ride with someone else, I am forced into a new relationship where I can perhaps assert myself and people do not react to me based on the fact that I am the blind daughter of these two adults. I have considered whipping out my cane. There is a reason I do not do this. It is also a pattern which persists.
When I was seven years old, I was given my first cane. I learned the diagonal technique, which involves holding the cane atan angle across my front so that the tip trails a wall, at school. I was instructed to carry my cane home but not to use it. I remember feeling self-conscious. All this time I had been ridingthe bus home carrying just my school bag. Now I was supposed to carry this long cane home, and everyone would want to know what it was. Not only was I different from everyone else, but I was different today from who I was yesterday.
I continued carrying that cane between home and school for many years. I would hang it on a hook at home and stand it in thecorner of the resource room at school. It only came out for "O&M" (orientation and mobility) lessons. Never once was I to use it when I was going somewhere with my parents.
Then, suddenly, this too changed. My parents must have been told that I was capable of using it, or perhaps it changed after they saw me using it at the school for the blind one summer. They started insisting that I carry it when we went out. I might need it if they weren't around. I was confused. Yesterday I was required to hold their hands. Today I am supposed to carry the cane because I might suddenly be flung into a situation where they weren't around. For some 15 or more years I had been required to hold their hands or their arms. The assumption I developed was that when I am with my parents, this is the way things are done, especially if we are in public. I need them. I fear challenging this as well. Other people are so used to seeing me with my parents. To start walking by myself is to challenge not only the way I interact with my parents but also the way the public sees me. Never mind that we now live in a town where people generally do not know me and have no preconceived ideas about me. I am a blind person. Blind people need to be led, "helped". Because I am a blind person, I am to live within this role, even if doing so is not really necessary.