by John Buckley
Recently, my wife and I were invited to dinner with another couple who were anxious to introduce us to a third couple who “are really great people.” As tends to happen at such things, the men were seated at one end of the table and the women at the other.
I appreciate meeting someone with a disability can be anxiety-producing for many people. Some folks can be made very uncomfortable by the experience.
They may have never done it before. They may have done it, but it didn’t go well. They may be concerned about what to say or saying the wrong thing or saying the right thing in the wrong way.
On this particular evening, our host failed to appreciate that “the great guy” who he was anxious that I meet was clinically phobic about meeting someone who was blind.
As we all know, recognizing this in someone else doesn’t require great subtlety. It hits you like a Mack truck. He was as nervous as a pregnant nun.
Every time I tried to serve the conversational tennis ball, he failed to return service. After a number of my fat lobs had just died and I’d decided to concentrate on my mashed potatoes for a while, he ended five minutes of silence by asking, “Have you always been blind?”
At this point, I was having a hard time finding reasons why this guy was as great as our host had promised, but, reminding myself this was probably an entirely new experience for him, I decided to ignore the fact that he had dropped a verbal IED in the middle of our conversation and answer his question.
When and how I lost my vision is not a topic that is off the table. I’d recently been asked the same thing by two other people. The difference was that, in those cases, the subject came up as a natural part of our conversation. It didn’t just fall down from the sky like a conversational Molotov cocktail dropped in the middle of the table.
If, however, you’re blind or visually impaired, you can anticipate being asked questions like this out of the blue from relative strangers from time to time. Miss Manners won’t give you a clue how to deal with it either.
I have developed the Buckley Rule for dealing with situations and people like this: always be polite.
There are two reasons for this. First, while the other person is nervous and ill at ease and clearly unsure how to negotiate the situation, I’ve dealt with this sort of thing before and I’m not. Second, forcing myself to be polite ensures that I won’t say what I’m thinking, things like “Didn’t your mother teach you any better than that?” or “What planet did you come down from?”
By this point in the evening, it’s clear that my wife is having a great time with the other women, and I’m regretting being stuck with the other Y chromosomes. My next few conversational gambits with my new friend are as dead as Elvis and are followed by another couple of minutes of silence when he asks, “Did you ever work?”
Now, this guy is really testing the Buckley Rule. The Constitution gives us the right to be idiots. It’s just that some of us choose to exercise that right more frequently than others and do it in a more spectacular fashion, and this guy has just done it.
The assumption that, because I’m blind, I must almost certainly also be unemployable, is so offensive that, for a couple of seconds, I consider raising my voice loud enough to be easily overheard by the diners at the nearby tables and asking, “So, Bob, how is the Viagra helping with your little problem?”
But my better angels seize control, and I don’t.
Instead, I briefly run through my resume, explaining that I have a doctorate from one of the nation’s elite universities and have taught in higher education all of my professional life. This is met with complete silence.
At this point, I’ve decided that, despite my best efforts, I’m trying to apply conversational CPR to a mental corpse. Just then, I hear my new buddy tell the table, “You know, the President doesn’t run this country; it’s all being run by George Soros” and I give up and decide my mashed potatoes really are more interesting.