Chris Markiewicz's Blog
Every Monday – thoughts, observations and ideas that hold up a mirror to who & how we are

Abuse? What abuse?

I was speaking to a friend a while back who told me he had listened to a radio phone-in about abusive behaviour, and even violence, towards blind and visually impaired people. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to hear the programme myself. However I have heard of this before, yet still found myself astonished at the fact that people can be so mistreated.

I was astonished on two counts. The first and most obvious being “how can anyone treat a person with a disability in such a way?”. The second was that, in almost ten years of being out and about with a white cane, I have never once encountered any hint of abuse or even rudeness as a result of my condition. The closest is that, at times, people may cheekily nip in front of me to grab a seat on the train – assuming that I can’t see them at all. I usually smile to myself when that happens and simply let it go.

Yet, another part of me is not altogether surprised that such a phenomenon exists. The reason may pull you up short:

I wonder whether the visually impaired individual may be contributing to the problem.

I’ll share two examples – one relating to something I witnessed and the other relating to an item on the radio.

I was in my local library when a man came in wearing heavy, dark glasses and carrying a white cane. As he arrived, the young girl working on the counter greeted him and asked:

“ May I ask, what is the nature of your visual impairment?”

The man responded by loudly saying:

“Blind my dear, B-L-I-N-D –  get it?”

The girl looked close to tears on having been treated this way. To this day, I bitterly regret not having a quiet word with this man for reacting so brusquely to what seemed a reasonable enquiry, put across in a friendly and warm tone.

Listening to “In Touch”, a programme for the visually imapired on Radio 4 a couple of years back, this topic of abuse came up.  A woman being interviewed related how a young man on a bus asked her

“ Hey missus, what’s it like to be blind?”

She apparently hit back by saying

“What’s it like to be stupid?”

Now, if someone calls me stupid, whether they are visually impaired or not, then I’m hardly going to take kindly to that.

Having a visual impairment is one hell of a drag. Of course it can leave me feeling grumpy, depressed and isolated. However, I never believe it is an excuse for any of us to treat others with disdain and expect extra special treatment in return.

Ryan Knighton in his excellent book “Cockeyed” about his experiences of living with retinitis pigmentosa (RP) has a term for such people. He calls them the “blind aristocracy”. I wonder whether those people who “attract” abuse or even violence are members of that group.

One of the acknowledgments he makes in the book is to a person who asked him to be more careful as he made his way through a public place – I can’t recall the precise locality, it may have been a bar. What Ryan was implying was that, even if we have a visual impairment, we still need to take care that we don’t bump into others, etc. The blind aristocracy on the other hand would be more likely to barge thir way through and expect others to move out of the way.

We’re ordinary humans who happen to be visually impaired, we’re not superior beings.

People will, however, treat us with a degree of discomfort or even be fearful of us. When people are fearful there may be a greater propensity to be abusive as a defence mechanism. When I was a child, my RP was mild and undiagnosed. I can imagine that some younger RP sufferers may have been picked on or bullied at school for being different. The more that we can dispel any fear-inducing mystique or “specialness”, the less likely that we will encounter abuse.

For my part, I do my utmost to be cheerful, to engage and to answer questions. If that youth had asked me what it was like to be blind I would have taken great pleasure in sitting him down and telling him – even if his question was phrased in a mocking or sarcastic tone. The hope would be that he would come away better informed and less fearful or wary.

I think the idea that anyone with a visual impairment should suffer at others’ hands is abhorrent, but those with such conditions may need to take a look at themselves and make absolutely certain that they’re not co-creating that situation in some way. I think the secret lies in  being as ordinary, open and engaging as possible – and if asked “stupid” questions or even mocked or laughed at, try to ride it as graciously as possible. You can’t fight fire with fire.

And finally a promise from me. Should I ever be on the receiving end of any abuse or worse I will write about it on this blog. What I will also promise is that I will do my utmost to try and understand why it happened rather than simply judge or condemn the perpetrator. I sincerely hope that I don’t end up eating my words!



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