I’m sorry and other judgements

“I’m sorry,” is one of those phrases that can mean many things, and is often used as a catch-all for everything from, “what did you say?” when you misheard something, to “excuse me,” when you bump into someone, to “drop dead,” when you have been accused of something for which you should be apologetic, and are anything but. Seldom do the words “I’m sorry” express genuine contrition. Sometimes, the words “I’m sorry” are used as a way to pass a subtle judgement about the quality of our lives.

How many times have you needed to disclose your blindness in the context of facilitating assistance, only to hear: “Oh…I’m sorry.” For me, it’s been countless times. If, when explaining to a customer service representative over the phone that I cannot read them the product serial number because I am blind, they will respond with an embarrassed, “Oh, I’m sorry.” If I explain to the technical support person that I’m unable to click the green button at the bottom of the page because I cannot see the green button, I’m answered by, “Oh, I’m sorry.” When the counter clerk in a retail establishment, who hasn’t bothered to look at me when I ask for help finding something, waves a hand and says, “it’s over there,” and I must explain I need additional details because I’m blind, they will look up, and awkwardly mutter, “Oh, I’m sorry.”

Of course, some of these apologies may be a sincere mea culpa for inconsideration, but often I find it’s an automatic response from people who otherwise do not know what to say. When speaking to someone over the phone, for example, and getting the “I’m sorry” response after disclosing my blindness, I often say, “why are you sorry? How were you supposed to know I’m blind.” After all, it’s not as though they can see me, either. Why is an apology necessary? They are not clairvoyant. Apologizing in this context makes about as much sense as saying to a caller, “Oh, I’m sorry you’re six foot two.”

Then there are those who take it one step further, even when in person. When I ask, “why are you sorry?” some have actually responded by saying they were sorry I am blind. Or, they’ll say something like, “it’s just such a shame. You’re so pretty.” or, “it’s just such a shame. It must be awful. I feel sorry for you.” Or, they’ll resort to the inevitable stories of known others with my “affliction,” or they ply me with flattery for what amounts to misplaced inspiration and undeserved admiration.

In an effort to give most people the benefit of the doubt, I recognize that often there is no intent of harm, and in my experience, I think most people really want to do the right thing, they just don’t know how. On the days I feel like crowning myself the poster child for blindness, I gently and patiently educate. On the days when I’m feeling no such patience, I’ll pop off with something like, “I suggest you save your energy.”

As I have lived my entire life with vision loss, to a greater or lesser degree, thanks to the degenerative nature of Retinitis Pigmentosa, the words, “I’m sorry” in the context of blindness has, at times, felt more like a judgement than anything else. It is possible to be well-meaning, but demeaning. It’s another way of saying, “How can you live like that? I sure couldn’t. I’d rather be dead than disabled.” Whether it’s said in a flip and dismissive way, such as, “Whatever…it’s your drama, your trauma,” or it is said as a way to express true sorrow for my so-called plight, I am presumed to be living a substandard quality of life.

We assess judgements on others in many ways, and in many contexts. The disability community certainly doesn’t have the market cornered on prejudgement, the soft bigotry of low expectations, or edicts as to what we should or should not find acceptable.

Years ago, before mandatory vehicle shoulder harnesses and passenger air bags, Susan was in a devastating car wreck. She and some girlfriends were to go out for a celebratory evening, and the designated driver, who apparently decided earlier that night to abdicate her responsibility, was already impaired when she picked up Sue and her friends. Sue got into the car, unaware that the driver had already been bar-hopping. Under the influence of alcohol, and at speed, the driver lost control of the vehicle, left the road, and plowed into a building. Buckled up, and in the back seat, Susan, who was wearing a seat belt which was still considered optional back then, was partly ejected, but still held in by the lap belt that nearly tore her abdomen in half. Along with a broken back and neck, many other internal injuries that necessitated the removal of part of her intestine, Susan found herself in full body traction and a skull halo for many long months. “My God,” her hospital bedside visitors would marvel, “You’re lucky to be alive.”

“Lucky?” Susan recalled to me. “there were many days I didn’t feel so lucky. But it was drilled into me by almost everyone who saw me that I should feel grateful. There were days when I was in such excruciating pain that I did not feel grateful about much of anything.” Sue went on to tell me how much she resented the way many well-intentioned, but thoughtless people would attempt to dictate to her how she was supposed to feel. She should be grateful her husband didn’t leave her. She should be grateful her children had not been taken from her while she was incapacitated. She should be grateful it wasn’t worse.

Schooling someone as to how they should feel about something is tantamount to saying, you’ll eat it, and like it. Can you imagine going out to dinner, and the server judging you for not liking a menu item? The conversation might go something like this:

You: “Would it be possible to have green beans instead of broccoli?”

Server: “What? You don’t like broccoli? What’s the matter with you? This is the best broccoli on the planet.”

You: “No, really, I don’t care much for broccoli. I’d really appreciate it if I could have something else instead.”

Server: “Do you know how long it took to grow that broccoli? How hard we worked to make it for you? It’s good enough for everyone else. No one else has claimed they dislike it. What’s wrong with you that you don’t? Are you crazy? You’d rather have green beans? Isn’t that asking a bit much? I don’t have green beans to give you. Broccoli should be good enough, and if it isn’t, that’s just too bad. Do you think you’re something special, that you think you should have green beans? You have no right to want green beans. What do you think this is, the Ritz Carlton? People like you are never satisfied. let me list the innumerable things we’ve done to serve you this broccoli. You’ll eat the broccoli, and like it.”

Well,. I doubt that scene would ever play itself out for real, but it is not all that uncommmon in relationships. How many times have you been told that you can’t have what you want, because you ask for too much, want more than the other person can give, and should feel grateful for the way you are being treated, and if not, then there is either something wrong with you, or that you shouldn’t want what you want? Look at all the other person has done for you. You should be satisfied with how things are, good enough should be good enough. After all, are yu sure you are really qualified to decide what constitutes a satisfying quality of life?

Who are you to decide? You are the only one who CAN decide. No one else has the right to judge what should be good enough for you. No one else has the right to dictate to you what you should be willing to accept, whether that’s the choice to use “ghetto” assistive technology, being treated as a priority, or a serving of green beans instead of broccoli.

Recently, I saw a news story about a lifelong relationship between two friends who met as young boys, a friendship that had lasted through trials and tribulations, including the accidental paralysis of one of the young men, who then spent his days using a wheelchair. The story lauded the non-disabled man as a hero for not only continuing the friendship, but for later becoming his disabled buddy’s caregiver. Why was it that the non-disabled friend was held up as the hero? Because he was making some sort of sacrifice? Because he wanted to remain friends, even though the guy’s wheelchair…what? Cramped his style? Why wasn’t there any mention of what the non-disabled friend was getting from the relationship? How do we know that the non-disabled friend wasn’t some kind of supreme ass hat who had no other friends, and it was the guy in the wheelchair who was the hero for being the only person in his life willing to put up with his crap? For that matter, why would the guy in the wheelchair be a hero, either? Why would one or the other, and not both, be a hero? Why not consider both men as heroes for being stellar humans?

Because there is an implied judgement that someone in a wheelchair lives a reduced quality of life, and anyone who is non-disabled, who extends a friendship, or provides care, is doing them a favor. After all, who would willingly compromise the awesomeness that is able–bodied life, complete with better quality, able-bodied friends, unless they were magnanimous and self-sacrificing? Ridiculous. For all we know, it was a paid gig. But the audience is left ignorant, manipulated by the producers who were really working that hero angle hard.

There are certain responses that I can always count on when interacting with most non-disabled people. Some are borne out of curiosity: “So, have you always been this way?” Others stem from a desire to find commmon ground: “My sister-in-law has a co-worker who has a cousin who knows a blind guy.” Still others are offensive, in an effort to be ingratiating: “Hey, would it be okay if I told you a joke? A blind guy and a dog walked into a bar…” Hint: If you have to ask if it’s okay, it probably isn’t. Of all of these not so endearing, tried-andtrue conversations starters, one of my least favorites is, “I’m sorry,” because I’m sorry, and other judgements, place me in an imaginary hierarchy on which I do not belong.

Once, when interacting with someone who uttered the inevitable “I’m sorry,” after learning I am blind, I responded with, “that’s all right. I’m sorry you’re a brunette.” There was a few long seconds of silence, then she said, “I’m not a brunette.” “Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

I don’t think she got it.