I met Joe* at a networking event. He introduced himself and we started talking. It was only a minute or so into our conversation when I realized that he couldn’t see me. He had visited Cape Town, South Africa before on a journalism internship, so we had a lot to chat about. Before I knew it, the people in our circle had all dispersed and moved on to other groups. We exchanged e-mail addresses as folks at such events do! He used a nifty gadget to jot down my information…
A day later I received an e-mail from Joe inviting me for a catch up over lunch. He suggested a nice Italian restaurant he likes. I was keen to pick up our conversation where we had left off so of course I agreed! #itsadate
*Joe is not his real name. And yes, I did get his permission to publish this post.
We met at the train station a few weeks later. As we made our way to the restaurant, I held his arm to usher him inside and to our table. The staff manager knows him well and he welcomed us warmly. Our waitress was lovely, but I could tell she felt a bit awkward when having to ask Joe what he’d like to order (let’s not talk about when we had to pay the bill later!). I chose the wine for us. When it came, I had to take his hand to show him where his glass was positioned. Our food orders eventually came and I’ll be honest here, I had never seen a blind person eat before: as he ate, he kept placing his hand on his plate to check how far he was with his meal.
The conversation was engaging throughout. We shared stories about our travels, hobbies, values, etc. We had so much to discuss because we have so much in common. We hardly discussed his disability; because it does not define who he is. Above and beyond the similar interests, our humanity is the common ground.
On a different occasion when we were walking around his neighborhood, because he was using his walking stick, I had to walk behind him so I wouldn’t keep bumping into it. Yes, some people kept staring at us, which bothered me a little. Because Joe was oblivious to this, he could just focus on my company. In a way, his blindness gives him immunity to the noise that distracts us who have sight… I admire that.
At some point, Joe said I am beautiful. I asked how he could tell. He said he could sense it from my voice, the way I address him, and from my energy… I was really touched by this because beauty that transcends what can be seen by the eyes is the type of beauty I desire. Moreover, he only asked about my ethnicity much later in our friendship to understand my background better; because to him, what is seen physically bears less weight. #digdeeper
Interacting with Joe made me realize the level of my ignorance: it was the first time I came to understand better the experiences of someone with a disability. England definitely provides more support and benefits for people with disabilities than other countries, making it easier to be part of society. Contrast this to South Africa where most individuals with handicaps are placed in homes or institutions which marginalize them from society. This tends to make us ‘normal’ individuals comfortable being surrounded only by people who look and function like we do.
Furthermore, when I think about accessibility of universities, restaurants, churches, gyms, job opportunities, etc., I shudder because people with disabilities tend to be sidelined. When we discuss the ideals of an equal and just society, we tend to speak more often in terms of race and gender, but what about accessibility for the handicapped? People with disabilities are human beings who should have the opportunity to experience the world as freely as they desire. #uhuruforall
When I imagined the type of people I’d connect with in the UK, I knew it would be a diverse crowd, but I never factored in all types of diversity. Meeting Joe has afforded me the pleasant opportunity to develop a genuine friendship with someone who experiences the world a bit differently, and more deeply I believe. I am constantly learning from him.
My ignorance before meeting Joe was not bliss, but a blind spot! The reality is, in a world as diverse as ours, hanging out with someone with a disability shouldn’t spark any extra curiosity: it should be the norm!
Indeed, it took a lunch date with a blind guy to open my eyes!