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I Think You Can’t; I Think You Can’t

One of the unfortunate and unavoidable consequences of losing, or never having, vision is that many people, and this may include family, friends, and teachers, to say nothing of the general public, may have a lower expectation of you. We all get negative feedback that doesn’t enhance our self-image, sometimes subtle (Bob, I’d love to go out with you but I need to finish this paper), sometimes not (Bob, you have breath like a blow torch). If you’re blind, you’re going to get a lot more. You’re not paranoid; that’s just an unfortunate fact of life.

I was reminded of this the other day when attending the annual meeting of our condo association. One of our neighbors walked pass my guide dog when going to the front of the room to make a report. Apparently, seeing the dog triggered a memory because, instead of beginning his report, he began by telling the audience how, the day before, he had “seen John out with the dog and the dog stopped several times on his own when there was traffic. It was just amazing.”

I wouldn’t want to make too much of this incident; after all, it lasted no more than thirty seconds and was probably quickly forgotten by almost everyone else at the meeting. I, however, remember the day before very differently than my neighbor. Our small cul-de-sac was completely silent, the only sound the faint hum of traffic from a highway several blocks in the distance. I was heeling the dog so that he was just having a leisurely walk and was not responsible for my safety. The door from to one of the garages began going up, a noise that is about as subtle as an M-1 tank, followed by the sound of a car slowly backing out of the driveway. All I did was to stop yards away from the driveway, causing the dog to stop as well. There was nothing “amazing” about it. Anyone, sighted or blind, with even marginal hearing would have done the same thing.

The noise was so loud and so obvious that I wondered why an observer would assume that I wouldn’t have enough sense to recognize what all the racket meant and that it would take a highly trained dog to save me. To be fair, we tend to see what we expect to see. The neighbor saw a guide dog and, so, expected to see the dog do something amazing.

I suspect, however, that there is another explanation. After all, I would have had to be pretty dense not to realize a car would be pulling out of the garage after all of the noise. I very much doubt that the neighbor, for all of his kindness and fundamental decency, would have assumed that anyone else in the neighborhood was so clueless as to need saving in the situation.

This incident, in and of itself, is trivial. If you’re exposed to something like this once in a while, it really doesn’t matter. If, however, you are blind, experiences like this are not an uncommon part of daily life. They are frequent, subtle reminders that a great many people, some of whom are quite bright and some of whom don’t have the sense to come in out of the rain, don’t think you’re capable of very much. Of course, like everyone else, there really will be things you’re not very good at. However, experiences like the one with my neighbor are like water dripping on a stone. Each drop, by itself, has no impact; but, thousands of drops over a lifetime gradually, imperceptibly wear away the stone or, in the case of the blind person, their self-image. It is the reverse of the children’s story in which the main character repeatedly says, “I think I can; I think I can.” Instead, people, without being consciously aware of it, are telling you, “I think you can’t; I think you can’t.”

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