How Can You Learn Without Asking Offensive Questions?
June 1, 2013
The restaurant bustles with activity as my date and I sit opposite each other, talking about ourselves and what we do. To my immediate right, a woman is talking to her mom on her cell phone about the baseball game she missed. Different smells bounce off my nose as men and women pass us making their way to their tables. Dishes clatter in the kitchen behind me, and my date's cologne, masked over with deodorant, sprays my sense of smell as I gaze toward his ebony-accented voice. We're chatting jovially, our laughter dicing holes in conversations around us, making people stop and, I'm sure, stare at this interracial, gay couple.
When the dishes come, we get into the topic of careers. He's a teacher. With a mouth full, and hesitation dotting his syllables like rain, he asks me a very important question.
"If you're blind, how can you be a journalist?"
Instantly, the talons rise, and my fingers toy with the idea of creeping toward his throat. A dozen retorts bang into my head as if it were a chamber full of bullets, ready to blast this rude, insensitive, sighted person away. After a split second however, I suddenly realize that he's never seen adaptive technology, and he's never seen a braille display, and he's certainly never seen a Victor Reader Stream or a computer with a screen reader before. He's not in my world and he never was. Taking a deep breath, I explain how I'm a journalist when I'm blind, all with a huge smile on my face. The reason I choose to answer all his questions, and many others, instead of following my gut instinct to be sarcastic is, he may not be in my world, but I know he can be if I just teach him.
Whenever I hang around blind people and we make jokes about speech synthesizers that sighted people wouldn't understand, a sentence is uttered without fail. Sooner or later, we get to talking about sighted people and their lack of blindness knowledge. The words fly at me like sharp bullets that are not meant for me. They're angry at the sighted people who ask us how we type on a computer. It's an angry question that's become a common one in the blindness community.
"They should know better. Why are they so stupid?"
When that's uttered, I immediately see things through the sighted point of view. The truth is, they won't be an expert about blindness ways or technology. They shouldn't know better, because no one knows everything, especially about a different way of living. They shouldn't know better. Instead, we have to get angry less, and educate more.
Education is the key of knowledge that will turn itself, unlocking the right doors if the right direction is given. Among the disabled community who tend to get angry when they're asked to educate, this applies to people with HIV/AIDS as well.
I've seen countless instances where someone with HIV or AIDS gets offended when a potential partner asks him if he will contract if they exchange saliva. The positive person became offended and stormed off, hurt. Upon further investigation, I learned that his date didn't even know what HIV did. He didn't even know that it didn't have a cure.
A lot of people say ignorance is bliss, but it's also a divider. Even today, the biggest hurdle that we all have to overcome is inclusion and acceptance, even among the gay community, disabled community, and HIV community. In today's day and age, just simple curiosity could ruin a good friendship or relationship because of "offensive questions." That divide grows because we are easily offended at the questions we asked ourselves at one point.
When I was learning the bus route for my daily commutes, I wondered if it would even work, me having to travel on the bus for field reporting. I've asked the same question as my restaurant date. "How am I going to be a journalist?" With patience, and persistence, I figured out the answers with trial and error and learning from my own past mistakes. If I would have let my own question offend me, then I wouldn't have figured out the answer.
I don't have HIV, but I had to ask the above question in order to find out that you can't get HIV from a small exchange of saliva. I know now how to better do my job as a blind journalist because I had to find an answer. I couldn't let those two questions go unanswered. If I did, then how blissful would I be, ignorant about knowledge that would help someone else as well as me, in the future?
I don't think anyone should remain in the dark if I have an answer to a question. Answers, with all their simplicity, sprinkle awareness along with their validity. Not far behind awareness comes understanding, and soon, acceptance. An answer to a seemingly offensive question doesn't just satisfy curiosity, but it opens up a door to understanding. There are a lot of other positive things behind that door even if they're not visible immediately. Some effects are immediate, such as inclusion, and others are far off, such as advocacy born from awareness.
When I look around and see a world that's divided as it is, I don't want to divide it even more just because someone asks me how I use a computer. If education breeds positive results, then people who live in different conditions should educate others how they do it. It's the only way to end these "offensive questions."
The goal of inclusion is to do just that, include. My sighted date lives in an ethnic world I'll never completely understand, because I've never lived through the discriminatory history. But I can ask questions, and with each answer, I'm no longer on the outside anymore. We're together. With every answer I give about my adaptive life, we're coming together in a way that offended people won't be able to do for a very long time. He understands me now and that's the most valuable education I could ever give.
If people really want to have us unite to stand for a positive voice, then we can't widen the distance because we're offended at questions. Instead, we should open our world to people and share as much as we can, if asked. If we keep doing that, I know that the door will open wide enough to let all of us through to a better world, a world where we all know each other, stand for one another, and unite for equality and embrace the best teacher of all, differences. That would make a beautifully educated world, one where I'd be happy to say that this positive change was the result of answering offensive questions.
Robert Kingett is a blind journalist specializing in audio description and adaptive sports. His essays have been featured in a variety of magazines, blogs and radio stations across the country and overseas. He's the chief writer consultant for AmericasComedy.com and a regular writer for Chicago Inside. He's a corresponding editor for Slate and Style, a magazine by the National Federation of the Blind Writers' Division. He's happily single, enjoying the city life, and working toward a BA in journalism. Follow Robert on Twitter: @theblindwriter.
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