As one who was born with just enough of an impairment to leave people perpetually confused, I’ve experienced my share of strange questions and comments. Here are a few of the most memorable:
Me: “I’m color blind.”
Classmate: “Really? That’s cool! What color is this?”
Struggling to read a price tag and hearing a mom scold her daughter, “Don’t stare at that girl just because there’s something wrong with her.”
Realizing that as soon as a cashier caught on that I had low vision she started speaking to me as if I was either four years old or non-English-speaking.
I’ve been mistaken for shy, aloof, unintelligent, rude (I’m notorious for taking cuts and getting in the express line with more than 15 items), always in my own world (well, that’s sort of true), and a snob (when someone waves to me from across the room, I tend to not wave back). On many occasions I’ve answered the front door during bright-sunlight hours and had the person ask, “Did I wake you?”
All of the above were easy to laugh off or let go. Let’s face it; we all say lame things and if I didn’t know me I’d probably wonder what was up with that lady too. I felt a tiny bit offended when someone asked if I planned to have children, but by the time my first prenatal appointment ended with a referral to check on the likelihood of me passing Achromatopsia on to my first baby as if low vision was comparable to being born with three eyes, I could add that to the “Let It Go” list. I am quick to explain why I squint and read with my nose pasted to the page and would much rather a person ask questions, than get the wrong impression of me. When I speak or teach workshops, I find a creative way to mention the sight thing immediately. I always apologize when I cut in line. Occasionally, someone forgets that I’m visually impaired. Yesterday, Nathan asked me a color question. Now that I enjoy! I consider it a compliment.
I can only think of one experience that I struggled over for a long time.
Someone who’d known me for a couple of years suddenly felt the need to observe and analyze how I adapted to low vision and point out some inconsistencies. He did have a point; I can appear very inconsistent. My vision changes depending on the lighting, and, because I’ve been legally blind since birth, I’ve developed methods of adapting that trip people up. But when this “friend” got tripped up, he didn’t only get the wrong impression, he made assumptions that called my character into question. He basically implied that I made more out of my vision problem when I had an audience or was not getting my emotional needs met. For extra fun, he verbalized his observations in a group setting. I tried to explain, but his response (“Hmm. Interesting.”) revealed that he still had doubts.
I was crushed! Shouldn’t he know me better than that? Did he really think I was the kind of person who would fake it? Who else thought I was playing games? This felt much worse than being mistaken for a snob! I had never felt so misunderstood.
Years later, I decided not to add the experience to the “Laugh It Off and Let It Go” list, not because I refused to get past it, but because I knew that person’s words had done some damage. That very strange conversation opened up a whole new category of insecurities. Do I appear to be faking it right now? Who is watching me? Am I doing this because I need to or for some other reason? When I explain myself to someone, do they believe me?
Once I recognized how deeply it hurt to be misunderstood in such a mean way and let the wounds start to heal, I considered ways that the incident impacted me in positive ways.
- I would never get so personal with someone in public. Probably not in private either.
- I understand the importance of considering what I know about a person before I start making assumptions and what my snap judgments say about their character.
- When someone explains their limitations to me, I believe them.
- Yes, some people inflate their physical problems to get attention or get out of things, but it’s not up to me decide who is doing that and call them on it (unless Nathan claims to be too injured to clean his room ten minutes after I watched him have a Nerf gun battle with the neighbor kids).
- I know from experience that adaptation skills are as individual as snowflakes and some disabilities are complicated, so I have no right to decide who is being inconsistent.
- I try to give people the benefit of the doubt.
- I understand how freaky it is to suddenly realize someone has been watching me. For this reason I try not to be a stalker.
So, when have you felt misunderstood or judged? What helpful things did the experience teach you? When have you caught yourself making snap judgments about someone else?