I had just landed in Geneva for work, it was 2pm and the check-in was at 3. I had to log in to the Internet and send the emails sitting in my Outlook outbox. I connected to the Internet and, damn, my computer showed an error. My emails were urgent, they needed to go. I picked up the phone and WhatsApp called a friend who answered, ‘All okay?’He remained on the other line for nearly 45 minutes, solving whatever mess my laptop was throwing at me. Being my only sources of note-taking, reading, emails, and more, it was important that my screen reader behaved and my laptop functioned. He intuitively understood the intensity of the problem I was facing — because, like me, he too was blind.
It is amazing to me how people imagine that persons with disabilities are somehow defective, damaged and, of course, only receivers of care. The mental image that most non-disabled persons have formed of a blind person is the helpless lone character standing at the corner of the street, holding a white cane and wearing big black glasses. And a popular saying goes, if the blind lead the blind they will fall into a ditch! This ignorance makes me snort. People can believe it only because they have not been a part of the vibrant, large, lovely and warm community of blind and low vision people that I’m part of, in Mumbai in particular and India in general.
When I first interacted with a large group of blind and low vision individuals, I was twenty-two and seriously questioning whether I belonged to this community. All I can say is that I found varied personalities there — the shy, the strong, the chatty, the rude and also the creepy. I knew somehow that eventually I would end up being in touch with most of them. But it was really a few years later that I realised how much the community had taught me. It had taught me about empathy and diversity, and introduced me to friends with whom I would never have crossed paths if I were not blind.
With this community, some of the stigma surrounding us turns into amusement. My friend was once sitting in a restaurant, waiting for me. He called me to say he was there and I said, ‘Don’t worry, the waiter will bring me straight to your lap.’ Sure enough, as soon as I entered the restaurant, the server, without asking me anything, took me straight to him, assuming blind men only meet blind women. This is what I call forced dating!
The beauty of the community lies in how ready so many people are to offer not only their individual support but also help from their support systems to assist other blind individuals. ‘My secretary is free, she can fill this form for you’, ‘My brother is getting his car, we can take a detour and drop you as well’ or ‘My sister can describe the picture if you WhatsApp it to me’ are very common conversations that we have with each other.
What also makes me happy is that as a community we have subverted some gender stereotypes. Here it is not necessary that a man will drop a woman home, or that only a man pick up a woman for dinner. It is really whoever is more comfortable with their mobility or navigating the outdoors. When we all walk together, in a queue, often relying on one sighted guide, at a restaurant, in a mall or on the street, the one who feels the most confident in leading goes ahead. Sometimes the group pushes someone who needs to build their confidence in independent navigation skills ahead.
We book taxis for each other and check on people when they reach home, not just for safety but to encourage each other to take baby steps out of parents’ over-protectiveness. ‘Don’t worry, they might be upset that you travelled alone this time, but next time do it again and they will get used to your travelling alone and getting late,’ is an common piece of advice you will hear us give each other.
We always watch out for each other. I have often picked up the phone and called a friend and said, ‘Hey, do you know this guy? He says he is selling new technology or wants to meet for a collaboration.’ It is amazing the number of honest, unabashed responses I have received to this kind of question. Our ongoing and open conversations have saved so many people from getting tricked into false business collaborations. Because we share the names of harassers from inside and outside the community, we also warn each other and prevent many women from getting harassed.
We encourage each other, coax each other to move to better things and push each other out of our comfort zones. This is how I have been able to experience so many new apps. My blind friends have listened with a smile to my cribbing about the teething issues I face with a new technology that they pushed me into trying. And I have applauded their first independent rickshaw rides and tea-making escapades.
The safe spaces that we create for each other to grow out of challenges that our blindness may present are beautiful. We don’t necessarily tell each other that everything is easy, we say it is a little cumbersome, but, what the hell, you have to do it. It helps us to grow together. I remember visiting London for work and calling friends from there saying, ‘Listen, I use this cane my fabulous brother introduced me to and I think you should get it too. I don’t care if you don’t pay me for it, just tell me your height now and I will get an appropriately sized cane.’ This is me just expressing my maternal care instincts.
It is not that the community is saintly and only full of goodness. We are closely connected — and so we have, gossipy and unpleasant characters too like any other community. Many a times a lot of gossip reaches me and receives an eye roll in return. Many a times there is unpleasantness by a few members and others stand up with you and for you. But the key point remains that this is a community that forgives, stands up for you and loves you through your awkward and confident phases of adjusting and living with life with blindness.
The best part of being in the community is you don’t have to explain why you are you. You don’t have to be apologetic about being lost on the street or for taking time to sort out inaccessible currency notes, or asking for assistance to get to the toilet, or for making the waiter read out the menu to you. You don’t have to explain your anxiety if you can’t find a scribe before an exam, you don’t have to describe the discrimination or invisibility that you face at workplaces, you don’t have to break down the ableism that prevails in society — we just get it, we really do.
Personally, my favourite part of belonging to this community is what I call blind humour, that a non-disabled person will unfortunately rarely be able to comprehend or enjoy!
At a gathering I organised at home, some of the guys were playing pranks on each other. One guy finally turned to the other and said, ‘I thought you were a simple introvert, I really saw your true colours today,’ to which the other turned around and responded, ‘Hey man, cool, my pranks are now helping you see too!’ And the room was in an uproar.
For me, this is what it boils down to — friendship, shared laughter and empathy — a space for many of us to thrive, but also to just be.
Nidhi Goyal is a disabled feminist, an activist and a comedian working on disability rights and gender justice. She is the Program Director of Sexuality and Disability at Point of View and is the co-author of wwwsexualityanddisability.org. She also runs Rising Flame — a Mumbai-based non profit working on the rights of persons with disabilities.
Featured image credit: Upasana Agarwal