DeafBlind: Behind Screens

A table set with dishes and drinks

Editor’s note: As the holidays approach and gatherings ensue, remember that the goal is not to prove yourself, a person who is blind or low vision, as worthy because you’re capable, independent, and mannerly. Enjoy your family and friends. George Stern, who is DeafBlind, shares a personal story about holding himself to an unnecessarily high standard at a family gathering.

I’ve never met a people more conspicuously averse to their native climate than Jamaicans and South Floridians. My quiet suggestion that we avail ourselves of Bone Fish Mat’s outdoor seating for my youngest sister’s post-graduation lunch was quashed forthwith under a one-two punch of “It’s too hot!” and “It’s about to rain!” No kidding?

So, inside it was—a long, narrow rectangle table against a side wall. It wasn’t terribly crowded for a popular restaurant, nor especially loud from a pure decibel standpoint. But for me, with my hearing aids sensitized to snatch sounds from the higher frequencies, the moderate clamor amid tile and glass surfaces could as well have been a fighter hangar at full scramble.

Removing my hearing aids

Well before the appetizers arrived, I caved and removed the aids, trading their distance and precision for the chance to hear something, anything clearly, however limited in scope: my sisters to my left, and the pitch at least of my parents farther down to my left. I could sense when the other guests arrived– a shuffle of chairs, a salutary ripple in the atmosphere of our table as it expanded to encompass more celebrants. But for who sat where, what conversations started up amongst whom, or even who had just arrived, I couldn’t have offered more than an educated guess. Indeed, my only clue to the expanded conversational currents of our table was occasionally catching my sisters’ responses or a ripple of laughter.

Inaccessible gathering vs accessible phone

I focused on the food when there was food to focus on. In between plates, I fought to be present in a world that was threatening to give me a migraine with its inaccessibility. I tried on smiles, interested and involved expressions, calm enjoyment, resisting the void face that had so disconcerted my high school classmates during freshman biology courses.

My phone was a rectangle of temptation in my pocket. Its screen of text messages, Facebook notifications, emails, and weather forecasts accessed via voiceover and communicated discretely through a single earbud, promised a level of engagement absent in the here and now. Engagement that I didn’t have to negotiate for, that wouldn’t cost me a concentration headache or the other celebrants unwanted sweat. I ignored it.

I’d read the articles citing studies about the decline of face-to-face social interactions in consequence of technologies; heck, I’d been an exemplar of said phenomenon. Not here, not now, I decided; I would be utterly, unequivocally present for this, my youngest sister’s big moment.

I felt grand and revolutionary making this declaration, sensing a practice that could be carried forward beyond this moment. Taking this stand now would set the fortitude-lending precedent for my becoming the one who talks in the airport gate rather than texts, the one who converses before class starts rather than runs out the clock on Facebook; the unmediated and un-deviated one not hiding behind screens.

The realization

Then, sometime towards the end of the main course, I reached over to catch my matriculating sister’s attention only to run smack into her iPhone held in full-immersion position: arm propped and bent at a 45-degree angle, off-fingers cradling the phone in a slanted portrait attitude for easy viewing, thumb swiping. She was on Facebook, I think, posting photos or checking responses to her graduation status. And she was breaking the rule I’d harangued myself into following.

Now, I know myself well enough to know that I need this rule, perhaps more than anyone else I’ve ever met. After all, I am the one who lugged a 10-pound 4-track tape recorder to a middle school picnic, preferring to immerse myself in the fictional race triumphs of Walter Farley’s Black Stallion rather than negotiate accessible play with my peers. I am also the one whose parents had to talk him out of bringing a tactile chess set to a family friend’s graduation party, again as a shield against boredom and loose-ended-ness.

And yet, I do think it’s a habit of ours in the disability community to hold ourselves and others too stringently to rules that, ultimately, don’t matter as much as we think they do. The point, of course, is to prove that we can; prove that we can interact “normally,” prove that we can dress appropriately, prove that we can travel independently, prove that we can eat decorously. If we prove ourselves often enough, the thought is, we’ll be more employable, more relatable, and more acceptable to society. Acceptable as who, though? Certainly not as ourselves, if we happen to be into sartorial edginess, social iconoclasm, introversion, or anything else off the beaten path of ideal behavior.

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