Last week I recorded a version of my life story for a New York Public Library oral history project, an experience that caused me to think about how we communicate who we are. (The recordings are being posted here, and I assume mine will be sometime soon.) The interviewer, Brian, came to my home to record the session. As it developed, I did a series of monologues occasionally sparked by a question from Brian. As soon as he switched off the recorder, all my mistakes and omissions came tumbling into my mind.
In one monologue, I’d mentioned how the city’s regulations prevented me from adding a second bathroom to my new apartment seven years ago because it couldn’t be made wheelchair accessible. After we stopped recording, Brian told me about his own renovation travails due to those same regulations. Only then, with the recorder stopped, did I get to the point of my story: that when government enforces rules strictly out of ideology instead of pragmatically, it is bound to generate hostility toward the rules’ intended beneficiaries. No one begrudges paralyzed people wheelchair access for new construction and wherever it is feasible in existing structures. But applying those rules to homes where the adjustments are physically impossible is maddening and thus counterproductive.
That topic of wheelchairs led to my telling Brian about the frustration my partner, Laura, feels on my behalf about cutaways at street corners that are designed to save wheelchair users from being stranded at curbs. I told Brian that I accepted them because, while they sometimes make it hard for me to tell where a sidewalk ends and the road begins, curbs without cutaways would deny independence to wheelchair users. Brian pointed out that many now have lines cut into them. He was right; these cuts in cutaways, which can be picked up by a cane, usually do alert me to the border.
These are the kinds of conversations people who have little experience with disabled people should hear, and would have heard if only we hadn’t stopped recording. As recently as thirty years ago, the emphasis for disabled people was on getting around insurmountable barriers: printed books, stairways without nearby elevators or ramps, the absence of interpreters for the deaf. Now we’re at the stage of eliminating barriers completely. But barrier removal involves some inherent difficulties, whether it be excessive regulation or the curb cutaway solution for wheelchair users that creates an extra element of difficulty for blind travelers.
One time Brian prompted me was after I’d talked about how technology has allowed me to live more or less independently since leaving my law office sixteen years ago. I’d described how speech-synthesize computers enable me to do most of my own editing, pay bills and make all my investment moves. I stopped, thinking I’d finished and unsure where to turn next. Brian asked if technology had helped in any other ways. I couldn’t think of any. But how about shopping online at Amazon and a local supermarket? How about downloading the books I choose to read when I want them, instead of waiting for a library to put them in the mail? How about the research I do for my writing?
Much of what I said came out as stream of consciousness, but I had imagined beforehand what I might say. I’d even brailled six or seven reminders to myself on an index card. One topic I broached was how blind people handle appearance. Speaking to the recorder, I began with the dubious premise that blind people aren’t concerned about fashion because, of course, we don’t see. It was exactly the kind of generalization I resist when someone else says it. How can I know what all other blind people think? Besides, I’d always been concerned with appearance, including dress. I bought my suits from Brooks Brothers and Paul Stewart. Fortunately, I’d made some reference to suits and ties, so maybe I didn’t leave such a blanket impression. But what I did say simplified the point I really wished to explore: that blind people can’t fully know how other blind people handle their lives to the extent that these lives are revealed visually. For example, how do other blind people appear as they walk on a sidewalk, or what gestures do they make on greeting friends? I don’t recall other visually impaired people or educators in the field acknowledging that to this degree, our models are picked up mostly second-hand, through verbal explanations.
I left numerous other incomplete thoughts and made one or two errors on the recording, and on the brief excerpt I heard, I thought my enunciation was unclear.
All in all, the experience has made me think about how we assess each other. Within minutes of meeting someone, we form a host of often barely conscious impressions, among which is whether we think we’d want to get to know that person better. I’m sure listeners to the recording will get an immediate picture of me, and much of it may well be valid. But the more I talked, the more I forgot to say or explain. Even though I imagine myself cursing the television watching someone perform the way I did, the fact is that we are just too complex to explain in an interview, in an hour, even in a lifetime—even a biography. Oscar Wilde said, “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.” Yes, our initial impressions are likely to be right, and yet they are always so far from complete.
© Copyright 2015 by Adrian Spratt