Playing the Blind Card

Thanks to SW for asking the question leading to this topic.

Aside from the TAB behaviors I’ve previously mentioned, people have a tendency to go to extremes around me with their nice, helpful attitude that manifest in many ways from people running to open a door to drivers who, despite a green light, stop at an intersection so I can cross. (By the way, don’t do that because it’s not helpful. How do I know why you’ve stopped? Will other drivers do the same?)

If my arms were full of stuff, the dash to open a door for me would make sense, but it rarely happens under those circumstances. Similarly, stopping the car is a polite gesture when a sighted person is with me, but otherwise makes the situation harder. I far prefer the reasonable action people in my neighborhood have adopted of calling out that the light just turned green. In other words, balanced behavior that helps is terrific, but when people go to extremes it’s unnecessary and often problematic

I have to be very careful about this tendency of individuals to go above and beyond when it comes to me. I complain about the negative ways people behave because I’m disabled and the positives should be equally abhorrent. Sometimes the perks distract me with the pleasurable possibility and I become a hypocrite – something I loathe. For example, strangers occasionally insist I get in front of them in a line. While that might make sense if my fatigue level is high, it really has no advantage to me as a blind person, which is why it’s done since my chronic illness is hidden. Now, with a long line, who wouldn’t want to cut in front of somebody? I usually try to say no, but people can get weirdly determined I accept. Really determined. Sometimes I don’t refuse simply because I do not wish to battle over it – squanders my time and energy. In fact, I have been known to acquiesce even if the “help” will in actuality be harmful.

There are times and situations where I do need something because I am blind and implying that results in people stumbling over themselves to meet my need. Every so often, I have been known to use this to my advantage when it is not strictly necessary or when my need has nothing to do with me being blind. I refer to this as “playing the blind card.” For example, if I have an item I genuinely need to return and it’s past the specified date, I take the item in myself and see if I’ll get some flexibility. Generally, it works. However, as I said before, I am careful about not exercising the power of my blindness unless absolutely necessary. Doing it for selfish reasons requires complete self-honesty.

Last week I had occasion to play the blind card while planning a bike outing for a group of friends. Since I needed a tandem, I picked an area with a rental place that stocked them. Unfortunately, when I called, I discovered a malevolent spirit rendered every single bicycle inoperative. Suggested places in the area had been similarly plagued. I switched our departure point to a shop that had functional equipment, but when I called to reserve my bike, I was told they didn’t take reservations – definitely suboptimal. After consideration, I called back and begged the bored, dismissive clerk to make an exception. No luck, so I slapped down the blind card. “Look, I’m blind and if I show up and you don’t have a tandem I cannot take part in a group activity.” The very tone of his voice changed and he literally stumbled over his words to accommodate me. I hung up the phone feeling very slimy. Yes, my blindness actually made an exception to the policy reasonable and if he had acknowledge that in the same tone of voice and matter a factly gave me what I needed, it would have been fine. His overly helpful attitude made me feel dirty.

The day of the outing came and the complications that had been plaguing the event continued. I reached my personal limit and cancelled the excursion. I knew I needed to call the bike shop and tell them, but the thought made me sick to my stomach. Channeling a four year old, I let my friend do it and when she called, they said bikes were never reserved and they didn’t know anything about an exception. Perfect. Mr. Helpful apparently slimed all over me and didn’t do what he said.

That is only one example of how playing the blind card can blow up in your face. A more subtle and insidious consequence is that it can perpetuate the idea that a blind individual is not a competent person for if I beg help based on my visual limitations it confirms that I cannot do something. Often that confirmation spills over into other areas causing a person to conclude that, if I can’t do one thing then I cannot do any of the others that their mind imagines. Hence, asking for something with blindness as the reason might mean a less pleasant future encounter. Therefore, occasionally when I need something because I am blind I go without it to avoid reinforcing a TAB’s assumptions. Life can become a very complicated balancing act where what I need must be weighed against the long term consequences of receiving it.

For this very reason, I frequently hesitate to ask new friends for what I need to avoid adding any proof to the image of me as needy, especially if they are teetering on the edge of seeing me as a person versus seeing me as a list of “cannot do”s. Given I’m the type of person who pays attention to how others are feeling sometimes too much, I am keenly aware of how my behavior harmfully impacts attitude. I have been learning to be aware of the effect of my actions and care less about the end result, but this is a process only recently begun.

Yet again we come to the conclusion that I am a work in progress. I guess I’ll be finished with that long about the time I’m dead, which will not happen until I am old, gray, and at least 100. Hey, do you think I can play the blind card to avoid death?

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About Jen

After acquiring a degree from Vassar College in psychology, I moved to Western Mass where I ran a peer mentoring network for disabled college students as well as activism and organizing around disability issues. I also conducted research on disabled women’s body image. An Upstate New York native, I eventually followed my heliotropic nature to the sun of Southern California. I divide my time between writing (disability fiction and essays) along with moderating San Diego Bisexual Forum which is one of the oldest groups of its kind in the country. In my off hours I can often be found in my neighborhood live music venue enjoying our local talent.

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