I read a vent on someone's LJ that reminded me of something I wanted to post here as an educational attempt. It concerns people's amazement at my ability to recognize voices and tendency (in some cases) to come up and play some variant of the guess-who game. This has, unfortunately, resulted in my developing shame associated with admitting that I don't recognize someone. In a conversation with some people from church on Sunday, I realized that I really should leave the shame. Sighted people sometimes don't recognize a familiar person in a different context, or they see someone who looks a whole lot like a familiar person and mistake them... I make the equivalent mistake when trying to identify people's voices, especially in a crowd. The difference is that no one walks up to a sighted person and asks, "Do you know who I am?" It is acceptable to say, "I am really bad at remembering faces and names," or, "I remember seeing you here last week, but I don't remember your name." But because blind people develop the ability to identify familiar people by voice out of necessity, we are expected to perform in sometimes agonizingly uncomfortable situations. Saying, "I am really bad with voices," is not just an admission of personal need for a reminder. It means I'm not a good blind person. I have failed to meet the public's expectations of me.
I could write here about the impact of my mild hearing loss, and it would be relevant. My hearing fluctuates, especially when I have a sinus infection. I once had to send an email to a dear friend and tell him that I was sorry for not speaking to him when he greeted me very warmly in the hall at seminary. I had heard him but only put together who he was after the fact because of the wording he used. By that time he was gone, and I was very disturbed because I would have liked to say something encouraging to him. But the truth is that there are situations when my inability to recognize someone's voice has nothing to do with my hearing and everything to do with context.
I was once a very unhappy camper at a camp for blind children and youth. Normally a very exuberant camper, I listened to my heart and called my parents, begging them to come and retriev me. They asked if I couldn't make it through the remaining three days, and I said no, I really could not.
My parents were very intuitive. I had been attending away camps for four years and had always been very satisfied with the experience and eager to return. This, however, was a new camp for me. They knew that I would not have called home for no reason. My mom told me that they would see what they could do, but she made no promises.
The next morning, I set out to breakfast with my cabin-mates, who ranged in age from nine to seventeen. At the door of the dining hall, a child greeted me. I said a quick hello and thought it was sweet that Elizabeth, a nine-year-old from another cabin, recognized me. As I moved on in and headed for the breakfast line, the child spoke again. "It's your sister."
I broke away from the line and hugged my sister. My parents, of course, were standing by. I had not expected them until at least mid-day. The drive from Houston to San Marcus was a six-hour drive. Clearly they had taken me seriously and driven through the evening to get to me. But I could not recognize my sister amid other nine-year-olds when I did not expect her.
I used to think that there came a point of familiarity when people should not need to identify themselves to me; but it has always been difficult to explain this. The simple answer needs to be that it is never a bad idea to identify oneself but that in the familiar context where you see each other in the same place all the time there may, indeed, come a point where identifying yourself in that context is unnecessary. For instance, my friend, Leta, does not need to identify herself when she sits down next to me in choir and says hello. I've been sitting beside her almost every week for six months, and we have had numerous interactions outside of church. However, if she was to show up in a seminary classroom or in a doctor's office waiting room, I may or may not recognize her depending on how preoccupied I was with my own thoughts. I've learned to expect church people in the doctor's offices because this town is relatively small; but some degree of extra processing has to happen when I'm outside a normal context. As I understand it, the same thing can be true for people looking at someone... If they expected their sister to be at her job and she suddenly showed up in the grocery store in the middle of the day, some people would, indeed, do a double take.
So while I respect the idea that it is rather amazing that someone can identify voices, this is a plea to end the guess-who games for those who tend to enjoy them--unless you have a truly remarkable relationship with the person in question and know that it's all right to do this. My uncle and I have a bit of a playful routine that occurs only at home or in "safe" situations, and if we were meeting in public he would identify himself. I'd actually like to dispel the amazingness a bit if I could... If you talk on the phone and recognize familiar callers, you are completely acquainted with how our voice-recognition mechanism works. It is also a general encouragement to go ahead and identify yourself when you encounter a blind person. It makes conversation a lot easier. Oh, and please do stick around long enough for us to say it's good to see you. Some of us are a little slow in transitioning from that other thing we've been hearing, and once you're more than ten feet away or have started another conversation, you're out of range for us.
Please pass on a link to this post if you find it helpful.