By Susie Stageberg
As a blind person living in a world where most people are sighted, I have become accustomed to being asked “How do you do that?” Usually, the questioner has just witnessed my performance of what to me is a mundane daily task–for example, getting dressed, crossing the street, or eating my lunch without making a mess.
Sometimes the question comes after someone has closed his eyes and tried (unsuccessfully) to do what he just saw me do. The inevitable conclusion to this lack of success is that living without sight is fraught with peril and embarrassment. Since I don’t appear to be in constant peril or perennially embarrassed, the theory goes, I must have some superhuman power that propels me through my world. It’s amazing! It’s an inspiration to everyone around me. (Or so I am told.)
I have become accustomed to this, but that doesn’t mean I don’t groan inwardly sometimes when I hear someone say, “How do you do that?” Don’t get me wrong; I realize that people are just honestly, benignly curious. Many, if not most, simply want information. How does a blind person determine what color something is? How does a blind person safely and independently cross the street? How does a blind person cook dinner without setting the house on fire? I understand plain curiosity, and I don’t mind answering such questions with facts. I determine which color dress I have pulled from the closet by noting the style, the way the fabric feels, and any details like buttons. I cook by using my ears and my fingers. I cross the street by listening carefully to traffic. I have learned all these things, often by trial and error, and I now do them without thinking. In fact, when someone says, “How do you do that,” I have to stop and think, how indeed? To me it’s old news; I’ve been doing it for years, and it’s just part of Susie being Susie.
Sometimes I do feel like I’m the ambassador from the Country of the Blind to the Kingdom of the Sighted. I am blind, so it is naturally assumed that I represent all blind people and am an expert on all things related to blindness. The truth is that I am only an expert on one blind person: me. Blind people represent a cross section of society–that is to say, we come in all shapes, sizes, temperaments, and levels of education. There are some basic things that every blind person must learn, but each of us is faced with the task of figuring out our own “alternative techniques” to solve specific problems. A solution which works for one person doesn’t automatically work for everybody. For example, I have chosen to use a guide dog for independent travel while others choose to use a long, white cane. I read Braille; other blind folks don’t. I tell my clothes apart by touch. Another person might sew tactile labels into the back of his shirt collars or put all the red clothes in one part of the closet. Every one of these approaches is valid–especially if the approach gets the job done and enables the blind person to live as independently as he or she wants to.
There is no superhuman power at work here. Being blind does not confer any psychic benefits. Nor does it bring with it automatic insanity. It’s just one of the many characteristics that describe each individual person.
Sometimes, when I meet someone for the first time, I have to sigh inwardly when the first question I am asked is, “How do you do that?” I’m a lot of other things besides being blind, and I could wish that people saw these other things first and blindness after that. Most of the time, this is a wish that won’t come true, but I can dream, can’t I?
And then there’s the inevitable “That’s just amazing; you’re an inspiration to us all.” No, I’m not amazing. I don’t set out each morning to awe and inspire. I’m just living my life.
Sometimes, it does take determination and perseverance to learn how to do something new, like learning to cross a busy and unfamiliar street or learning how to use the Internet. Sometimes, there are bumps in the road of life: I get lost while traveling by myself, I burn dinner, or I iron a wrinkle into the cotton blouse instead of smoothing it out. However, I have noticed that things like this happen to sighted people, too. I have also noticed that when these bumps in the road of life occur for them, they figure out how to solve the problem and just get on with it. For example, my sighted husband has a tendency to forget things. So, he makes lists, leaves items by the front door so he won’t forget to take them to work, or takes care of a problem as soon as it occurs to him so he won’t forget about it. Living without sight is a series of just such compensations, perhaps on a larger scale, but with no mythical, magical power being involved–just training, practice, and determination. This is not so very different from learning to throw a football or speak Norwegian. There is nothing mysterious about it.
I have told my family, only half in jest, that if somebody at my funeral says, “She was simply amazing, and an inspiration,” I will rise up from my casket and haunt them. It seems the message has gotten through. When, during the recent Super Bowl, one of the sportscasters referred to the amazing story of a player, whose totally blind father raised him “all by himself,” my son said, “That is so lame!” Maybe the younger generation isn’t that bad after all.