But I did not use the word. I was not blind. Blind people saw nothing, only darkness. Blind meant the man in the subway station, standing for hours near the token booth, tin cup in hand, a mangy German shepherd lying on a bit of blanket at his feet. That was not how I saw myself. Surely there was some sort of mistake. Or else it was a lie, and as long as I did not repeat it, refrained from speaking the hateful word and claiming identity with the beggar in the subway, I could keep the lie from becoming a reality. Because if I were blind, or going blind, surely someone would do some- thing about it. I'd read about Helen Keller. I knew what went on. Shouldn't someone be teaching me braille? At school they didn't use the word either. They moved me to the front row, stopped telling me to hold the book away from my face, and kept an eye on me. From this I understood not only that the word should not be spoken, but also that I shouldn't ask for special favors, shouldn't draw attention to my disability (a word I didn't use either), shouldn't make a spectacle of myself. I learned to read the blackboard from the motion of the teacher's hand while writing. If I suspected that I would have to read aloud in class, I'd memorize pages of text, predicting with reasonable accuracy which paragraph would fall to me. The routines of my teachers saved me. Also, by the sixth grade, reading aloud was usually required only in French class, and then only a few sentences at a time. Outside of school, if other kids said, 'Look at that!" I determined from the tone of voice whether they saw something ugly, strange, or cute and would adjust my response accordingly. On the bus I counted streets to know my stop. In elevators I counted buttons.
The most I would adniit to was a "problem with my eyes.' sometimes adding, "and they won't give me glasses,' indicating that it was not me but the willfully obstructionist medical establishment,which,was to blame for my failure to see as I should.
Many years later, in Paris, I met a banker who announced to me, as he shook my hand, that he had un probleme with his eyes. He explained that this was why he couldn't look me straight in the eye. I understood that a person in his profession had to say something. For him, as for a used-car dealer or clergyman, failure to maintain a direct gaze would affect his business. I noted, too, that he did not use thewords aveugle, malvoyant, nor any medical term, nor any other phrase I could translate into one of the current American ones to designate impaired sight. The imprecision of his phrase allowed for the possibility that the problem might be temporary, a side-effect of medication, an adjustment to new glasses. But the tension in his tone gave him away. He was a French banker of the old school. His suit was that particular shade of navy, and his repertoire of elegant pleasantries was extensive. Everything about him was calculated to affirm, in the most reassuring way, that he could dispatch even the most distasteful or compromising financial matter,with discretion so deft that it would seem effortless. But his own phrase, "un probleme avec mes yeux '' tripped him up. In his rehearsed delivery, his haste to move the conversation along, I recognized the uncomfortable anticipation of the usual responses, the hushed surprise, the "So sorry for your loss.'
Reluctance to use the word blind, even in modified form, is as common as the desire to keep one's visual problems a secret. Many people concead their sight loss for years, even from people close to them and certainly from strangers. They compose their faces in expressions of preoccupation. They walk fast, purposefully they do not ask directions. Forced to read something, they pat their pockets for reading glasses they do not own. When they make mistakes, they feign absentmindedness, slapping their foreheads and blinking - it feels safer to pretend they're addled and forgetful than to admit they are blind. And looking sighted is so easy. For one thing, the sighted are not all that observant. And most blind people are better at appearing sighted than the sighted are at appearing blind. Compare the bug-eyed zombie stares that most actors use to represent blindness with the facial expressions of real blind people, and you'll see what I mean.
An astonishing amount of the literature on the "training" and rehabilitation" of the blind deals with appearance, the visible manifestations of blindness. Eliminate 'blindisms;' the experts say, the physical traits to which the blind are allegedly prone-the wobbly neck, uneven posture, shuffling gait, unblinking gaze. Discolored or bulging eyes should be covered with patches or dark glasses, empty sockets filled with prostheses. But the books and pamphlets go further, urging that the blind, or their sighted keepers, be extra attentive to personal grooming and choose clothes that are stylish and color-coordinated. Having nice clothes and clean fingernails may contribute to a person's self-esteem whether or not she can see these things. And certainly hints about labeling socks or applying makeup can be useful. But the advice of the experts has another message: Blindness is unsightly, a real eyesore. No one wants to look at that.
So the blind, of all levels of impairment and all stages of sight loss, find themselves encouraged to sham sight. And even if there is no overt encouragement from well-meaning family members or social workers, we know, or sense instinctively, that our charade of sight is easier than the consequences of speaking the single word blind. Because the word bears such a burden of negative connotations and dreaded associations, it can hardly be said to have any neutral, merely descriptive meaning. Blind means darkness, depen- dence, destitution, despair. Blind means the beggar in the subway station. Look at him slouching there, unkempt, head bowed, stationary among the rushing crowd. Intermittently, an involuntary twitch jerks his arm upward, making the coin or two in his cup clink. Otherwise he is silent, apparently speechless. A sign around his neck reads: "I'm blind. Please help.' Because blind means "needs help' " and also "needs charity." But the people rushing by barely oblige. They barely see him. They don't stop to stare, and they certainly do not expand their vision to allow for any other image of blindness. Told that there are blind people in all walks of life - medicine, law, social work, education, the arts -they are not impressed. They see those successes as flukes, exceptions, the beggar in the subway as the rule. Those people went blind late in life, after the habits of their professions were formed, and probably, if you looked closely, after their major accomplishments were already achieved. Or else they're not "really" blind. They have just enough sight to get by. Besides, they probably had special help. If, behind every great man there is a woman, in front of every accomplished blind person there is a sighted helper, spouse, child, or parent leading the way. Helen Keller had Annie Sullivan. Milton had his daughters.
The blind beggar stands alone. As long as we can manage, we keep our distance, both because he makes such a displeasing spectacle and because we know the consequences of claiming identity with him.