Voices

I’m blind, not invisible

The illustration is divided into three panels. The one on the left shows a woman working on her laptop in a room with a red curtain and from the window we see a brightly lit sky. Next to her is a lamp and some documents in Braille. In the centre panel, there is a woman in a yellow dress with a plate full of food in her hands. She is surrounded by people, tinted in blue who are engrossed in each other, some looking at her but not talking to her. In the panel on the right, a woman wearing a red dress is seated in a meeting room with blue walls as another woman who is standing at the door, looks on her and frowns.

The non-disabled want to talk about us, but not with us.

I’d always imagined that the way to stun a room full of people into total silence would be to do something spectacular, or shocking – making a grand entrance, perhaps. But to receive this reaction merely for having a disability? No, I’d never imagined that would happen, until it did.

Many a friend with a disability had told me stories about being left out in the cold by non-disabled people. While I listened and commiserated, I was confident that I would never be one to feel that way. Yes, there were things I had to get used to, such as people talking about me in my presence, but without involving me in the conversation. Depending on the context, there are several ways I deal with this when it happens – either I butt in and speak for myself, or look bored enough to send across a message of disdain, or just leave things be. But recently, something happened that made me feel as though I’d been rendered invisible. 

Imagine my shock when I felt just as left out as my friends described they had, especially because this happened in a familiar setting. Recently, I was part of a work-related meeting, in which I was meeting most of my co-attendees for the first time in my life.

I was excited about this meeting, since my work is rather solitary in nature. I am most often in the company of my laptop, phone, and a disembodied voice over the said phone.

The illustration shows a woman working on her laptop in a room with a red curtain and from the window we see a brightly lit sky. Next to her is a lamp and some documents in Braille.

Imagine my dismay when I walked into the room, in the presence of at least fifteen men, and only one of them bothered to greet me. The voices were abuzz around me, but not turned towards me. In an instant all the excitement left me, leaving behind an intense feeling of isolation. It was not just about being acknowledged as a person with a disability, but as a fellow participant in a professional setting. I may not be flying across cities, but in my own capacity I do whatever I can. It was almost as if I wasn’t even there. This same behaviour prevailed for a second day too.

If this was not enough of a jolt, when we broke for coffee, everyone around me walked off towards the coffee counter, and there I was, sitting all on my own with nobody even having asked me if I wanted to accompany them, let alone offering to bring me a cup! It was only later that one of them realised this and got me a cup. Did I say ‘rendered invisible’? I felt like I had been zapped into a bubble from which nobody on the outside world could see me.

I was forced to wonder, what created this barrier of invisibility between the sighted in the room and I? Was it discomfort, a lack of interest, or simply apathy? In my mind I started policing my own body language… was I standing with my hands crossed, looking away, scowling, or hiding? I couldn’t remember doing any of it. If anything, I had met with some of them a day before one-on-one. They were perfectly friendly, and I distinctly remember offering a hand to shake as a classic ice-breaker. Then what else could I have done to make this less awkward and unhappy for myself?

To compound this, during lunch, nobody made any overtures to either sit with me or offer any assistance. Some people I did know personally were playing hosts, and were too busy. Finally, one of them came and asked what I wanted and served me. I could feel others at the table around me, but did anyone make an effort at conversation? Definitely not! Conversation and laughter rang around me, but I was once again relegated to my invisible bubble, all on my own.

The illustration shows a woman in a yellow dress with a plate full of food in her hands. She is surrounded by people, tinted in blue who are engrossed in each other, some looking at her but not talking to her.

This was not the first time that I had faced this in a professional environment. But during previous instances, I had blamed it on one individual’s response. I did not think of this as common behaviour. I used to have a colleague who would always shy away from helping me around our workplace on his own. He always delegated that job, even if he was the only person around who was free at the time. I let this pass as being his problem and not mine, because there were wonderful people too, who were always around to help. 

But then, where in a group is the will to take that first step to assist, or even acknowledge me? I have often been deep in conversation with people and suddenly been left alone, talking to myself. I have had someone peep in and tell me there is nobody in the room anymore. To say that this is always mortifying is to put it mildly.

The illustration shows a woman wearing a red dress is seated in a meeting room with blue walls as another woman who is standing at the door, looks on her and frowns.

Often in social situations too, I’ve had friends and relatives walk up to me, greet me, pat me on the back and continue talking about me with whoever is accompanying me. What am I? Someone without a voice or my own thoughts or opinions? In times such as these, I want to do the absolutely rude thing and turn my back on them, or just walk away. Unfortunately, I am well aware that this act of walking away can only happen in a familiar setting.

This behaviour is born out of ignorance, and a total lack of interest in knowing otherwise. It is great for the non-disabled to talk about us, but not with us! How then will the gap that has been created between us ever be bridged?

Featured image credit: Alia Sinha

About the author

Payal Kapoor

A hotelier by education and profession, Payal loves life in all its varying shades. Along with working with a group of hotels, she makes time for friends, experiments in the kitchen, and travels whenever possible. Writing gives expression to her deepest thoughts and reading copiously feeds her imagination with visions of happy endings!

4 Comments

  • Thanks so much for sharing this experience, Payal. As a sighted person who has often been in the company of blind people, I agree that the behaviour you describe is born of ignorance. However, I am not sure I would agree that it is also due to “a total lack of interest in knowing otherwise.” Ignorance often leads people to do stupid and insensitive things; so does embarrassment and so does fear. That doesn’t imply a total lack of interest.

    In social situations, most people like rules. When we don’t know what the rules are, we prefer not to engage. So the usual way to start a conversation with a stranger is to make eye contact and then take our cues from how that person responds. If the person is blind, we have no idea how to begin. Do I just walk up and start speaking? Should I touch the person so she knows I am talking to her? 

    Most of us have grown up in able ghettos. We have no experience to guide our behaviour. Yet, I think most people would be horrified to think they could be so insensitive as the people at your meeting. Inclusive education is the answer. I’m totally convinced of this. Children who grow up with other children who have disabilities aren’t afraid of them. They know they have more in common than not. They know how to talk to each other and they understand intuitively that if they don’t know what to do, all they have to do is ASK.

    Please keep sharing your experiences. They are so vivid and so startling. Most of us have no idea we are doing what we are doing!

    • Thank you Jo. your insight is so true and coming from the place you are at, makes it even more important. i agree with you on the fact that there may not be total lack of interest but just the pack tendency at work. what shocked me was the perfectly amiable behaviour on a one-on-one interaction and a total reversal when in a group. it threw me completely and forced me to think and put down these thoughts.
      i tend to agree with your observation about asking if not sure, but don’t always blame them for being wary in an unknown situation. what if i bite? or burst into tears? ice-breakers and constant communication is the key here!

  • This Samething Happens With Me Everyday , & I Am Never Able To Express My Feelings To Any1 Which Puts Me In Very awkward Situation &Leaves Me brokan inside. I am Very Happy To Go through Your Artical . Coz Manny Time I Am Claimed To Be Rude

    • thank you for leaving a comment here Krishna. it is a difficult situation to be in, and especially when you are unable to express yourself and are judged for it. i was unable to say anything in this situation either. however, it is essential for us to make an attempt to sensitize in our own environments in small bits so the process is at least started. consistently we can build on it and hope things get better. please try and surely you will feel better about having done it.

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