Blind humor: Living with a sighted person

I break from work in the afternoon and go downstairs to brew tea for me and my mother. The electric kettle sputters and pops with a comfortable, homey sound.

I reach up to the second shelf and snag a couple of pottery mugs. My thumb and ring finger go around the handles and my forefinger and middle finger each go inside a mug. It's a quick grab and a secure grip. 

Image of Arie Farnam with long light-colored hair unbound and eyes closed as she looks into a fire at night

Image of Arie Farnam with long light-colored hair unbound and eyes closed as she looks into a fire at night

The mugs clink as I set them on the counter but then I feel the grime and stickiness on the inside and I pick them back up again.

"We need to check the spinning arm in the dish washer again," I tell my mom, as she comes in from her painting work.

"Whatever," she says with emphasis. "They look clean to me."

We've had this conversation a thousand times and I try not to bristle. I try to remind myself that it isn't exactly that she doesn't believe me. It's just a different way of looking at the world.

"There are fairly large chunks of greasy gunk inside the cups," I tell her, while I scrub and then add soap and scrub some more to get the super-heated dishwasher sludge off of the inside of the mugs.

"I believe you," she says. "It's just that if it looks clean visually, I don't care." 

I bite back a retort about how bacteria don't care what she can see and put the newly washed mugs out to pour the tea. 

This wasn't a crucial or dramatic incident nor was it the straw that broke my back. But it was telling and clear. I suddenly realized that there is an art to getting along when we see the world differently. And so, I started mulling over a list of tips for blind and partially sighted people who live with a sighted family member or roommate. 

Some of the common issues can be humorous, but I do mostly mean what I say.

Image of a red tea kettle blowing clouds of steam - Creative Commons image by Benjamin Lehman 

Image of a red tea kettle blowing clouds of steam - Creative Commons image by Benjamin Lehman 

Tips for living with a sighted person:

  1. As noted above, dish washing and other things requiring attention to invisible hygiene are not their strong suit. When I pick up a mug or a spoon, my hands automatically inspect it, I suppose just the way a sighted person's eyes do. But my hands detect a lot of crud that a sighted person's eyes don't. Sighted people are, however, excellent at dusting shelves, vacuuming and mopping floors. Divide up household tasks based on each person's strengths to minimize the need to correct and the incidence of food poisoning. 
  2. Try not to lose patience with their vague sense of location and statements such as "It's over there." Remind them gently to use specific words, and set a good example by giving them cues they can follow when directing them to find objects. This generally means referencing a significant physical object that they can see when you are giving them directions. Don't say for instance, "Your keys are at four o'clock three feet ahead of you," because they will often find this too technical and confusing. Instead say, "Your keys are behind the coffee pot." I know it may feel counter intuitive, but this can ease communication.
  3. It is a generalization but also often true that many sighted people have poor organizational and memory skills. Due to their reliance on visual cues they haven't exercised the muscles of memory and categorization. This is a common sticking point in household conflicts because sighted people have difficulty using organization systems for clothing, cooking utensils, spices, paperwork or household clutter correctly. Again patience is needed. Explain the need for the organization systems that keep your home running and which keep them from having to do all the housework and cooking without your help. Then remind gently and avoid a critical or irritated tone as much as possible.
  4. While floor clutter is related to the point above, it deserves its own point because of the potential safety hazards. Your home is one place where you can move around freely and quickly. Floor clutter destroys your sense of home and makes the daily routine difficult and even dangerous. Sighted people, particularly children, create floor clutter without even noticing. Believe me when I say that it is not specifically intended to hurt you. It is just more of their difficulty with organization and location concepts. Place a large box in an out of the way corner and then unceremoniously dump any and all items found loose on the floor into that box. When someone is looking for lost items, mention the box and patiently repeat guidance on organization and safety. 
  5. Be clear about personal space. Though it may be fashionable today to have a relaxed atmosphere around belongings and space, your time has better uses than searching for the scissors your family member or roommate put "right back" on your desk... two feet from where you keep them. Don't let this one slide. But as usual, exercise patience. It is genuinely difficult for sighted people to grop how exact they must be in returning things they have borrowed from you or moved while in your personal space. Generally it is good to enforce a rule that your things are not to be touched or moved at all. Have your own pair of scissors and all other handy household items. Then enforce a hard and fast rule that yours can only be borrowed in cases of emergency and then must be returned to your hands, rather than to the place the sighted individual believes is correct. 
  6. Childcare deserves a couple of special notes. First off, it's clear that children can create a lot of clutter and chaos. This is their natural state. Get child locks on everything and put everything up high for as long as possible. Then as children get older, use the same principles applied to sighted adults with an extra dose of patience. Sighted children are actually more likely than sighted adults to fully adapt to your home and abide by the house rules, because if they are growing up with you, they are more likely to learn the same skills you do and accept them as normal.
  7. On sharing childcare with a sighted adult: With small children safety is your top priority, but you've heard the phrase, "out of sight out of mind." Sighted people really mean it and especially when it comes to children. Some particularly annoying sighted people will question your ability to "watch" children and keep them safe from visible hazards. (Sarcasm and irony are much more helpful, not to mention legal, than aiming your fist at the place where their noise is coming from. But I digress.) Society and the media has trained them to believe that they, not you, are better equipped to keep children safe. Don't buy into this or your children may suffer from preventable accidents. Just because a sighted person is present, don't assume they are paying full attention. If you hear a match strike, batteries clatter or a chewing sound from a toddler who isn't supposed to be eating, always investigate. The child might well be hiding under the table or just around a corner and a sighted adult may not notice because they don't pay much attention to sounds. I can't tell you how many times I have relieved a child of choking hazards when sighted adults hadn't noticed, not to mention the three times I've pulled a drowning child out of water before sighted people reacted. The general rule is to keep alert at all times with small children.

I have written this with the hope of bringing awareness to the issues. I don't wish to give offense to anyone

There are many articles in the online and print media detailing what it is like to live with a family member with a disability. Some are meant to educate the general population and others offer necessary practical tips for families. I'm not against these articles. I do believe there are particular issues for people living with a person with a disability and good advice that can be exchanged with others with a similar living situation.

However, I couldn't resist telling how it is from the other side of the equation.

I wish you all luck and harmony in your homes.