Friendship and Blindness: Socializing across Different Abilities

By Roqayah Ajaj
Image looking at Niagara Falls from a distance. The sky is blue. The crashing water creates a lot of mist.

Do you enjoy going out and exploring new places with your friends? I do. Since coming to the United States for graduate school, I have a pretty small social circle, but I still make an effort to reach out and schedule times to go out and socialize. I’d like to share some stories with you about what that’s like for me as a person who is blind.

In the early fall, I go for a walk over the Stone Arch Bridge with one of my friends. In our conversation, we cover many topics – we talk about schoolwork, our advisors, and current events. I use my cane to navigate and sometimes hold her arm as we walk. I have no idea what is going on around us, who the people are or what the scenery looks like. She doesn’t share any of that. I enjoy being able to commiserate about our lives as students, but I have the feeling that we might as well have been chatting on the phone from home. Suddenly, she stops. She says, “Just a second here.” She leaves for about two minutes. When she comes back, she says, “Okay, let’s keep going.” I ask her what she was doing, and she says that she found a beautiful view of the falls and wanted to take some pictures. I ask her to describe it to me, and she says, “Oh, I don’t know, it’s just a big waterfall…never mind.”

A little while later, we run into someone that we both know from school. The other person says hi to both of us and asks how we are doing. Then the conversation turns to the beautiful scenery of the park and the nice spot my friend had found for taking photos. They talk about how pretty the place is. I try to imagine it, but the picture in my head is blurry.

Image looking down at grey sneakers on grey pavement. The person’s pants are out of focus and blurry.

I have faced this type of situation with many people in my life. It might sound overly sensitive, but I always feel like I am a burden when we are out and about together. I therefore decided to hire an assistant to help me go to new places and fully enjoy my leisure time at least once a week. As you will see, going out with an assistant fixes some issues but creates others.

I am in the car with my assistant on our way to a park. She describes what she sees as we drive – trees, people, buildings, the names of specific stores. She gives me information about the neighborhood and what she knows of the history. We arrive at the park and begin walking. We ask each other briefly about how school is going. We each say that we’re quite busy but then move on quickly. She begins describing the place around us.

“The trees here are large,” she says, “and the colors of the leaves are changing to red and orange and yellow. Some leaves are still on the trees, and some have fallen already. It’s beautiful because the colors are so vibrant. Some people are walking around us, and they look happy. Children are running. We’re passing the one-and-a-half mile mark on the path. There are lines on the ground indicating where people should walk and where bikes should go. Move a little to the right – a couple is walking this way with their big dog, a Great Dane. The dog is white with black marks on it and has a smushy face. He’s running a little bit and looks happy. Kids are playing on the playground – oh, there’s the cutest little girl. She’s wearing a pretty little dress, but she is crying because her mom is trying to clean chocolate off her face. The lake looks greenish, and the sun is getting brighter as it starts to set. The sky looks beautiful with multiple colors – purple and pink.”

She mentions little white and yellow flowers in the grass and asks me if I want to touch them. We stop, and she reads a sign to me that describes the history of the park and who the founder was. As we continue walking, my assistant tells me that a woman wearing a scarf passes by and smiles at me.

Image of a park in the fall. A path winds between grassy areas. The leaves are red, orange, yellow, and green, both on the trees and on the ground. Children are playing, and some people are sitting at a picnic table.

I have learned so many things from walking with my assistant. I feel like I am connected to the area, and I know my city very well, but it feels like my relationship with her is, understandably, purely professional. With friends, we connect interpersonally and share stories about our experiences in school, but I have no idea what is happening around me. I am missing those deeper relationships that can both make me feel understood and meet my needs as a person who is blind.

Finding myself in this spot between two imperfect social scenarios, I’ve been reflecting on what “friendship” means. Within the general population, comprised mostly of sighted people, there are certain expectations of what it means to be a “friend.” Friends accommodate each other’s needs in many ways – for example, not talking about issues that are sensitive to someone in the group, choosing locations that are close to the home of someone who does not have a car, etc.. I believe that this set of expectations needs to be widened to include the needs of people who are blind or who have other disabilites. This would include a willingness to help a friend who is blind navigate and to describe surroundings and features of the environment. This way, we are able to fully immerse ourselves in the places we visit and enjoy more than just the conversation we are having.

What challenges have you faced in relationships between people who are blind and sighted? Please write in the comments below. I am happy to respond with some ideas! Please like and share this article.

2 thoughts on “Friendship and Blindness: Socializing across Different Abilities

  1. As an RPer who has not driven in 38 years, I hear you. Ibhave lovely college friends who I learned had gatherings without me because it was convenient for them. Initially, my feelings were hurt. But my brain said to rethink the logistics and where we are in our life stages with our kids, logistically. Now that more of us are not working, we made a commitment to meet more often. One friend said she would drive me to our friend who lives 5 hours away ,(but COVID…) Don’t be deterred from reaching out, and speaking your mind, expressing your needs. The real friends will step right in.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful response and advice! I agree that advocating for my needs helps with these situations. Sometimes I’ve asked friends to help me by providing navigation assistance, for example, and they’ve said it makes them nervous or that they worry they wouldn’t be good at it. How have you reassured your friends that they’re capable?

      Liked by 1 person

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