restricted access Looking Blind: A Revelation of Culture’s Eye
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Looking Blind A Revelation of Culture’s Eye tanya titchkosky Iam not blind. I have, however, acted as though I were. I have performed the role of blindness, not in the theater, but on the stage of everyday life. Sociologists refer to a non-normative person’s performance of normalcy as “passing.” I have passed as blind by using a guide dog and wearing sunglasses , and thus being seen and treated as blind. Although I caused others to regard me as blind, I did not simulate blindness for myself: I acted blind while seeing. This essay uses the experience to disrupt conventional notions of disability and theorize the tie between oppressive cultural assumptions and the meaning of embodiment—even though we are able, through our bodies, to perform, or insert into the world, new meanings of ourselves as bodied beings. Interactions between blind and sighted, including sighted persons’ performances of blindness, reveal cultural assumptions regarding the meaning of both identities. My performances of blindness were accomplished through wearing dark glasses and handling a guide dog. These two cultural representations meet the eye of sighted others and are enveloped by cultural assumptions regarding blindness. To be seen and treated as blind is to be subject to cultural conceptions. In this way, a performance of blindness takes place upon a stage where cultural conceptions of blind or sighted embodiment play themselves out. 219 While by convention disability is simply lack or limitation, consideration of blindness as performance reveals that disability is an achieved social status . It appears to others through social conceptions of embodiment, and thus any appearance of disability is a status constituted by and between people . Disability theorists and activists have shown that cultural conceptions of, and responses to, impairment can teach us about the social signi‹cance of disability.1 In order to take a closer “look” at disability as an achieved social status, I consider how it is seen and treated by other persons, and how such reactions represent conceptions of disability performed by nondisabled others. I invite the reader to imagine the backdrop of my lived experience of my performance of blindness. By revealing the meanings constituting disability on the stage of everyday life, I problematize the dichotomy between ability and disability and highlight the complex relation between these categories of interpretation of our embodied existence. I focus speci‹cally on experiences in which disability confounds conventional modes of thought, showing the permeable boundaries between the body and society.2 Insofar as a person passing as blind experiences collective assumptions regarding what blindness looks like, even the most ordinary experience can reveal extraordinary cultural values as they constitute the meaning of persons . I avoid quanti‹cation of my experience since the methodology derives from the understanding that any “slice of life,” a text, a sentence, an action, can reveal the meaning of the social space within which lives are given shape. First let me set the stage of my passing by providing an account of why I did so. Seeing Blindness The ‹rst occasion on which I passed as blind occurred quite innocently. Some years ago my partner and fellow sociologist, Rod Michalko, was teaching in downtown Toronto on a hot and humid summer day. His workday extended into the evening, and Rod (a real blind person) became concerned that his guide dog, Smokie, was getting hot and tired. He asked if I would come downtown and take Smokie home on the subway. Smokie was a big, strong dog who liked to be in charge. I left his harness on so that I could give commands and follow his decisions about moving through the crowds. We got within thirty or forty feet of the stairs down to subway, I gave Smokie the command “Left, ‹nd the stairs.” To my surprise, he went right, toward a patch of grass. Just as I realized what Smokie was doing, a man grabbed me by the arm and said, “I’ll take you to the subway.” Down the stairs we went, the man tugging me all the way to the ticket booth. 220 Bodies in Commotion On the way, I did protest. I said, “I can do it. I’m ‹ne. He just wanted to have a pee. I can do it!” Curiously enough, I did not say, “I can see.” In fact, I did not even look the man in the face. I had just been grabbed and pulled in public by a stranger, and yet I felt ashamed to...