How a Friend Avoids an Elephant in the Room and Others Walking on Eggshells

I have one blind friend who has given me permission to repeat the parts of our conversation that relate to my site, and to her disability.

I met her when she posted, on an "Introduce yourself" thread on an online forum, that she was a triplet and that she was "totally blind from birth, please ask any question you have." I pounced, and asked her for an accessibility critique of my website, hoping to populate my to-do list for how to make my website more graceful for blind visitors. I was caught completely off guard when, a few weeks later when I had forgotten that I requested an accessibility critique, I received an email saying that my website was already accessible, and she had gotten drawn into the writing ("You write verbal icons!") enough that she had forgotten that she had been asked to visit the site to give an accessibility critique. And she said that The Powered Access Bible was "the most JAWS-friendly online Bible I've seen," another remark that caught me off-guard. ("JAWS" was at that time the primary web browser used by blind people.)

In a later, separate conversation, she talked about how she noticed a mother with young children telling her children not to ask questions, and she came over to them, and introduced herself and explicitly invited the children to ask any questions they had.

I don't want to make her speak for all blind or all disabled people, but I believe she was buying something very specific by her conscious and deliberate choice to bring people's questions about blindness out into the open.

More specifically, I believe that whether or not she would put it in these terms, political correctness creates an elephant in the room. It bids people not ask a blind person questions, and in general creates an uneasiness that one may act in a way that shows prejudice or insensitivity and will hurt her. And so the polite, politically correct person will be uncomfortable and worried about hurting her and let her disability be an elephant in the room.

I don't know how she would react to a malicious question, but I do know how she responds to ignorant questions, because I asked her several and I never became afraid of asking an ignorant question. She never seemed to become upset at my ignorant questions, just answering them with unruffled feathers and treating the question as one treats an ordinary social question. And I may mention that while I was interested in the web and interested in web accessibility (and knew a thing or two about what assistive technologies were available for the web), I was completely ignorant of the fact that a blind person with assistive technologies can use a "reader" to handle a paper book or a printed paper letter. And one time I asked, "Do you have any questions about sightedness [being able to see] that I can field?" and after a pause, she answered, "No..." followed by, "But no one's ever asked me that before. Thank you for asking!"

What her decision to invite questions, and bring them out in the open, brought was that it completely took away from her disability the status of an elephant in the room, and with getting rid of the elephant in the room she also completely got rid of the other person's perceived need to walk on eggshells in fear of hurting her. I do not say that she cannot be hurt at all, but it takes something fundamentally worse than a merely ignorant question to get her feathers ruffled. She did not, so far as I remember, speak in terms of "There are no stupid questions," or as one fellow IT friend commented, "There are no stupid questions except the one you've asked five times and gotten the same answer to each time," but what her decision produced was a sense of being socially comfortable around her and an ease in enjoying her conversation and enjoying her as a person.

So I salute her as someone whose social graces got rid of one of the effects of political correctness that, like the new racism, leaves people uncomfortably walking on eggshells for fear of showing prejudice against her specific minority.

Cheers to a good friend!