by Sheri Wells-Jensen
From the Editor: Sheri Wells-Jensen is a professor at Bowling Green State University. She focuses on linguistics, teaching English as a second language, Braille, and perceptions of blind people. What she discusses in this article is one that perplexes all of us from time to time: when I make a mistake, is it because I am blind, is blindness a contributing factor, and do I make these mistakes more because I am blind? Here is what she says:
I was standing at the counter in the world’s most perfect coffee shop (which just happens to be in my hometown), engaged in the pleasant task of selecting the exact right combination of sugar and liquid caffeine. I was there to meet with some friends, and while I waited my turn, I pulled my phone out of my pocket, planning to send along a smug little text about how they were all late for once, and I was on time.
My phone came out easily enough but brought with it a shower of sundries: a set of ear buds, my keys, a guitar pick, some change, and a couple of folded-up dollar bills. All this rained down around my feet like an unwelcome summer shower. Embarrassed, I made a dive to collect things, fishing around among other people’s shoes on the muddy floor, and heard that unmistakable noise that a white cane makes when it hits tile and bounces out of reach.
At least, I thought from my position half under the cash register, I hadn’t completed the humiliation by cracking my head on the counter on my way down. People stepped back to clear a little space, and somebody squatted down to help me corral everything.
We all laughed and made little jokes about needing coffee and the dangers of overstuffed pockets. “Thank yous” and “no problems” were exchanged, and I got my cane back and ordered my coffee without further incident. The whole business couldn’t have taken more than twenty seconds, and by the time my friends arrived, I had removed myself from the scene to a nearby table. No harm done. I don’t expect myself to be perfect. This sort of thing happens. To everybody. And it’s no big deal, right?
But the little incident stayed with me, and questions began bumping around in my head. Sure, everybody theoretically makes mistakes, but how often really does this sort of thing happen? How often is it a blind-person thing? Am I clumsier than the people around me? Or, rather, I thought, flipping the question, are the people around me more dexterous and graceful than I? Very much despite myself, I had to admit that, at least sometimes, I sort of feel uneasily that maybe they are.
I’m a college professor, and one of my areas of research actually is the study of human error, and I often joke to my students that I’m my own best subject. I notice when I drop something or miscalculate and brush the side of a doorway while passing through or fumble with my change. I notice when I accidentally kick a student’s backpack that I knew was in the aisle, lose momentary track of my direction of travel, or put the wrong key in my office door. But, since they mostly happen quickly and almost silently, I rarely detect these kinds of errors when other people make them. I only notice mine.
It’s worth noting that my understanding of how other people move about and physically interact with each other is to some extent shaped by scripted narrations like those in books or audio description of movies, where the action is tidied up. Unless they are central to some upcoming plot twist, there’s no reason to include little mistakes or incidental miscalculations when creating a scene. So, as I read or listen to narration, I absorb the idea that the people around me just do not make these kinds of mistakes very often. Logically, of course, I know they do, but I don’t hear about it.
So how often do sighted people spill their pockets or drop things or take a misstep off a curb? It occurred to me that I could find out. My job, after all, is not to sit in coffee shops musing darkly about the state of the world. My actual job as a college professor is to gather data and answer questions.
I asked my sighted spouse to do a little covert observation; my expectation was that he might find one or two errors if he watched carefully. Here is what he said:
I sat in an inconspicuous corner of the student union where I had a clear view of a busy open area near a food court. It was around lunch time, and the place was full of students. The hardest thing about the task (besides trying not to look creepy as I stared into the crowd) was that I couldn’t look everywhere at once, and when I did see something, I usually had to look away for a moment to write it down, which meant I wasn’t watching the crowd at all for at least a few seconds. So I’m sure I didn’t see everything that happened, but here’s what I did see in thirty minutes of observation:
Do the math; that’s a sighted person making a notable error every seventy-five seconds.
I remember a story Kenneth Jernigan told about moving through a cafeteria with a friend. When a glass of water fell from a tray, he made two assumptions. First, he assumed the glass had come from his tray. There’s something I have in common with Kenneth Jernigan: despite my convictions and my training, stereotypical ideas about blind people have a way of sliding themselves into my mind. If something is bumped, dropped, or knocked over, I reflexively blame any available blind person. What, then, do I make of all this bumping, dropping, and knocking going on in a space where there were exactly zero blind people present?
The second assumption Dr. Jernigan made was that, if the glass had come from his tray, people around him would attribute the accident to blindness. This is almost certainly the case. It’s clear to me that, if anybody tells a friend about my little coffee shop misadventure, the fact that I’m blind will almost certainly feature in the story as if it were pretty important. This, despite the self-evident fact that pulling a phone out of a pocket has precisely nothing to do with being able to see.The answers to my questions, then, are: yes, this sort of thing does happen all the time, and no, it’s not a blind-person thing; it’s a person thing. The little physical intricacies involved in getting through the day go wrong for everybody, and for me, it’s good to understand myself as an unremarkable part of the crowd. And although I can’t say if sighted people are generally more graceful than I am, I can say that whatever grace they do possess does not seem to prevent them from occasionally scrabbling on the floor to pick things up or whacking each other with book bags.