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Christmas is almost upon us (or at least me), and we all know what that means. ‘Tis the season of brightly coloured boxes, eye-catching holiday cards, dazzling lights, beautiful bows and all things aesthetically pleasing. What’s not to love? Plenty, if you’re me, since the emphasis on appearance seems to shift into overdrive during this time of rampant consumerism…I mean quality contemplative congress with the ones you love. 🙂

Trouble is, I love Christmas. Almost everything aboutt the season mmakes me happy, possibly due to the many years I spent belting John Rutter descants in concert venues around my city. I also hail from a family that decks the halls from floor to ceiling when December rolls around. No light fixture is left unadorned, no ornament left unpacked. In such a high-intensity festive home, a love of the season stubborn enough to overcome the more distasteful elements of the modern western Christmas couldn’t help but flourish. Unfortunately, so did a sense of propriety around Christmas gifts, inspired no doubt by the fact that I grew up around a woman who could make a lump of coal look attractive through sheer gift-wrapping talent. Take all these elements, plus a latent competitive streak and fairly high-pressure household, mix them all together and you have a conundrum for the blind Christmas shopper…or do you?

Not really, actually. To get too bogged down in the aesthetics of Christmas is to miss the point of the season entirely, in my humble opinion. Still, some effort is required to make the gift-giving part of Christmas as meaningful as it ought to be, at least according to my self-imposed standards. My effort is put into personalizing the present as much as possible.

Each year, for instance, I’ve been tasked with putting together a stocking for a family member selected through a draw (this year it’s Mom). Most people devote time and energy to selecting just the right gift, but must focus what’s left of their attention on packaging the present just so. Being the world’s biggest quad when it comes to gift-wrapping, my efforts go elsewhere. I take the gift selection process a step further and try to present it creatively. My mom will be receiving a theme stocking entitled “around the world in eight packages.” Each item, selected according to Mom’s tastes, preferences and history, will represent a country and be labelled with a short verse spelling out the connection and providing a hint as to what the item might be. The moroccan spice blend she’ll enjoy for her culinary experiment is pretty self-explanatory, as is the Julia Child “French Chef cookbook” that she specifically asked to have replaced. The espresso beans are a more oblique tie to Italy, while the Benazir Bhutto biography could stand in for any of the locales where that fascinating lady once lived but will likely represent Pakistan. An audio soundtrack for a book she loves will honour India, after the author’s nationality (read An Equal Music by Vikram Seth, it’s excellent). Her favourite bronzer will give her the sunkissed look of a tropical locale, a spanish glass angel figurine will make a nice addition to the collection she displays on her mantle piece, and some obnoxiously red lipstick will hearken back to family jokes past and represent a return to Canada. I’m seriously considering writing this all up in the form of a travel itinerary that she’ll have to follow.

It’s been my experience that a little creativity will thoroughly distract even the aesthetically minded from any deficiencies of packaging. It also salves my conscience as I try to be more eco-conscious in my day-to-day life. When the creative wellspring runs dry, however, it’s time for more practical strategies that help out blind and sighted alike. They’re called gift bags and in-store gift-wrapping, and they’re the best thing since sliced shortbread. 🙂

How do you cope with the aesthetic demands of your holiday obligations? Do you find you have any? Sound off below! Oh, and now that I’ve set up this blog’s very own Twitter account, you can keep up with me there. Follow @eyeronicblog

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My grade one teacher probably thought she was wasting her time the day she ordered me to stay away from my friends. Her stern warnings about cutting myself off from sighted students had little theoretical chance of registering, after all, drowned out as they were by the incessant laughter of the two fellow blind kids sitting at the lesson table with me. The clatter of our braillers, the chatter of our audio books and the click of the abacuses on which we mastered math calculations was more than enough to compete with the scratch of pencils emanating from the classroom next door where our sighted peers were also hard at work. As far as my blind buddies went, her words certainly fell on deaf ears. They couldn’t understand why our merry trio should split up during the only fun time scheduled in the day. What good would it do them to seek out “seeing guys” simply so they could be excluded from a game of tag or soundly defeated during the first round of Red Rover? They shrugged off her reprimands for spending too much time together and openly defied her the day she meted out punishments for avoiding sighted classmates, likely assuming I bore them company in their feelings as I always had before. They were wrong, however, and so was my teacher. Her words hit home, the very place where I had heard them for the first time, and proved oddly prescient in my dealings with the two worlds I inhabit.

I grew up with the notion that blindness was to be rejected as much as possible. This attitude may have seemed normal to my parents, who welcomed a fully sighted infant into the world and brought a blind toddler home from the hospital nine months later after cancer destroyed both retinas and threatened to do much worse. They grieved, as any parents would, fearing that their child would be doomed to a life of limited prospects and social isolation. No daughter of theirs would spend her life weaving baskets or tuning pianos, they vowed..and so their active pursuit of a “normal” life began. Not for them the nursery school where most blind children attended…They found it lacking and promptly enrolled me in an alternative program featuring mostly sighted children of varying abilities. They had always planned for me to get my earliest education in French, the language spoken by all my maternal relatives. Why should blindness change that? Kindergarten passed in a blur of Allouette and Le Petit Prince, all of which shielded me from any knowledge that I was different.

My parents’ alternative leanings prevailed when primary school began, too, deciding to send me to an integrated day school where both sighted and blind students learned side by side rather than the residential facility specifically for the blind that many other families advised instead. That integration was emphasized to me as I prepared to switch schools, and indeed I felt no qualms. Hadn’t I spent my final days of kindergarten promising to marry the sighted guy who sat next to me on the carpet and sworn we’d build a house next door for our other friend so that we could always stay together?

But something strange happened when I arrived and met my blind classmates. They were more like me. Not in appearance or attitude or even sense of humour, but in ways that were even more fundamental. They understood concepts the same way I did, had the same curiosities about the sensory world beyond what most kids wanted to explore. This was never discussed, of course, it was just understood. So well, in fact, that we gravitated towards one another and formed a clique so tight that it aroused the anxiety of our erstwhile teacher. She understood, as my devastated parents had, that the mainstream world didn’t function like this. A blind person hoping to make his/her way among sighted peers would need to master their frames of reference and acquire the confidence to literally walk their walk. My friends, both more rebellious by nature than me, ignored this traditional advice and went about doing things their own radically different ways. For me, that wasn’t an option. My teacher was just reinforcing the lessons resonating in my earliest memories. Her cautions were no different than my mother tilting my chin to teach me to look at others when I spoke, or preventing me from rocking back and forth when forced to stay stationary. Both Mom and my teacher were only trying to negate the impact of my blindness and make it as easy as possible to act sighted. Why should I fight against that?

Their lessons paid off. By grade four I had transferred to my neighbourhood school, joined an extra-curricular choir and become an enthusiastic piano student. Periodic bullying commonly experienced by artistically inclined kids was compensated by the true friends I made, many of whom remain close to this day. I maintained regular contact with my two blind pals of primary school days, but no longer could we weave an auditory world around ourselves. That time receded further into my memory as middle and high school flew by, all in the company of sighted friends who embraced me and absorbed me fully into their everyday lives. The trappings of blindness that I did carry, such as my cane and braille textbooks, were conversational icebreakers rather than isolators. As I aged, my parents’ wishes became my own. Feeling grateful for the ability to mesh in a world that I knew was not easily accessed, I made it my goal to assimilate into it as much as possible. I never actively denied the limitations of my blindness, but sincerely believed it would never hold me back from anything substantive.

Reality checks came thick and fast starting the summer I worked at a camp for blind people. I chose the job as a poor man’s alternative to the regular camp I’d attended for years, which very understandably declined to hire me because of my inability to be a lifeguard. 🙂 While there I saw many examples of people who had become isolated from mainstream society and the bitterness such solitude could spawn. I felt a kinship to these people, yet also experienced internal tension as I fought to distance myself from that feeling. Things were different for me, I told myself. This sense of connection was downright dangerous and could jeopardize my chances of being normal! Such were the absurd musings of a seemingly confident teenager who was fighting to stem the rising tide of insecurity. Challenging one’s place in the world was terrifying and not the way an ordinary person spent the summer, after all, so I quashed the questioning voice and continued to do so for the next several years. University made it fairly easy to keep my head in the sand, feeling as it did like a continuation of my high school experience. Learning skills from my sighted housemates, going on tour with sighted choir friends and landing satisfying jobs at major corporations that epitomize mainstream life only deepened my sense that my blindness was an occasional inconvenience rather than a salient part of my personality. But there’s nothing like a change of career into an inherently questioning atmosphere to force a person to do some soul-searching and face the facts they find there.

Breaking into journalism first taught me that my facade of sightedness wasn’t going to pass muster under real scrutiny. I was outright told I couldn’t do the job and should pursue a career in academia instead. I flouted that advice and excelled in the journalism graduate program I attended, but received the same message when it came time to get a job. Only persistence, networking and extreme good luck got me the break I needed, first at a national newspaper and later at the wire service where I work to this day. The five years I’ve spent there have taught me a lot about the truths I tried to ignore. I am blind, no matter how much I may be able to ignore it. There are barriers in the sighted world I will never be able to cross, despite my own efforts and the best intentions of those who try to help. Being blind comes with frustrations and challenges that only a select few can truly understand. Pursuing that understanding is healthy, not a sign of sliding standards.

There’s a flipside, too. Too often I hear blind people rail against the iniquities of “the sighted world.” They lament that those who can see simply don’t care about the struggles taking place on the other side, or are simply too busy succumbing to the superficial lure of pretty exteriors to engage with someone who doesn’t fit the mould. Such thinking is grossly unfair — the disability world’s equivalent of reverse racism. Why should stereotypes and truisms be applied to sighted people if they’re not acceptable to the blind? Why does an “us vs. them” mentality have to exist? Don’t the concept of blind and sighted worlds only deepen the divides that circumstances have entrenched without any help?

I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to that teacher from so long ago, as well as to my adored parents that worked so hard to smooth my path. Their lessons created a dissonance that I still struggle to resolve, but also gave me access to a community that I could so easily have shunned. The conflicts I felt growing up seem so much simpler now. My blindness is a part of me, much like my dark hair and love of writing. Just as I wear red to play up my colouring and read voraciously to keep my language skills sharp, I must embrace my blindness and bring it to bear in a way that helps bridge the two perspectives I’m lucky enough to have. One of the people I love most in the world lives this reality in a much more concrete way, having neither enough vision to be considered legally sighted nor enough telltale signs to let the world know he struggles to see. He’s channelled that experience into a profound empathy for nearly all around him and a sincere desire to help in matters great and small. I wish to emulate him by helping connect the dots for blind and sighted alike. If I can facilitate dialog between groups that may not instinctively connect, then I have indeed found the place where I belong.

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I wanted everything to be perfect when my teachers came to dinner. It was to be a milestone in my nearly 15-year relationship with them, as it was to be the first time I felt I was giving something back. Mr. and Mrs. C had shepherded me through high school, teaching me so much more than the lessons in latin and classical civilizations they planned so carefully. Their example of a well-suited married couple who managed to work comfortably in the same school set many of us a shining example of what matrimonial harmony should look like. Their compassion and humour levened even the dryest subject, and their quiet competence made lessons in archaic languages seem both effortless and fun. Indeed, his humour, her empathy, and their shared sense of intellectual curiosity made them unlikely favourites among the student body, and their inherently uncool classes were always enrolled to capacity. The special attention they paid me helped restore my confidence after a bruising few years in the private school system, and I gradually came to see them both as mentors rather than mere teachers. Their presence at extra-curricular piano recitals filled me with gratitude, their phone calls and emails never failed to make me smile, and the regular dinners they treated me to through my university years became highly-anticipated social occasions.

Once ensconced in apartment and equipped with the culinary skills to give them something worth having, I lost no time in inviting them for dinner. A phone call in June secured a date in July, and I filled stray moments planning menus of increasing complexity. The week of the gathering I phoned to confirm and received a dreadful shock: Mr. C, who had beaten cancer once before, was showing every sign of a relapse. He was suffering from chronic fatigue, considerable pain and shocking fluid retention, all of which kept him from enjoying the retirement life he’d only begun enjoying a few months before. Two days before our scheduled soiree, he got word that his cancer had indeed returned, this time as isolated cells floating in his entestinal area rather than a single, concentrated tumour. Despite his obvious weakness, Mr. C wouldn’t hear of cancelling our dinner, and I resolved to make it worth his while in any way I could.

Mr. C’ s diet restrictions, which became legion after his diagnosis, cast my menu meditations in a whole new light. He cautioned me that he likely wouldn’t be able to eat more than a few bites, but I was determined to make those few mouthfuls as enjoyable as possible for him while still providing a good dinner for the rest of the guests. My original plans included such inappropriate fair as red meat and my specialty spicy guacamole, which clearly wouldn’t do for a man in my teacher’s condition. Smoked salmon spirals took the place of the guacamole, while spanakopita and homemade hummus rounded out the selection of appetizers. Dinner was to be an Italian-inspired dish, as an homage to Both Mr. and Mrs. C’s favourite type of cuisine. The veal piccata I had planned was easily changed to chicken piccata, served over angel hair pasta and alongside fresh steamed asparagus.

A picture of my chicken piccata in a large frying pan. About eight chicken breasts are covered with a smooth, creamy sauce with a few capers floating in it.

Chicken Piccata

A light, seasonal salad seemed like a worthy addition, and I decided a simple combination of tomato, mango, red onion and basil (with a simple vinaigrette) would complement the meal while hopefully tempting less robust appetites.

A picture of my tomato and mango salad in a metal bowl. The dominant colours in the dish are red from the tomatoes, yellow from the mangoes, and green from the lavish helping of basil leaves.

Tomato and Mango Salad

I suspected Mr. C wouldn’t be up for much in the way of dessert, but that wasn’t going to prevent me from trotting out a dish reserved for my most special guests. My homemade tart, with shortbread almond crust and lemon curd both made by hand, is a time-consuming enterprise that always proves to be worth the effort. My lavish decorations — comprised of fresh seasonal berries — allow me to indulge my taste for aesthetically pleasing objects while deluding myself into believing I’m actually serving up some nutrients, and even my sugar-averse boyfriend usually comes back for seconds. Fresh fruit was available, too, for those who wanted an alternative.

A picture of a large lemon tart sitting on my kitchen counter. The tart is 11 inches in diameter and has a scalloped crust. It's filled to the rim with thick lemon filling and scattered with fresh strawberries and blueberries.

Lemon tart

My delight at receiving Mr. and Mrs. C into my home was tempered with shock at his condition. At least 30 pounds had melted from his frame in the three months since I’d seen him last, and his usually jovial voice had been replaced with the tremulous quavers of an old man. His agile mind was unimpaired, but his probing questions, political barbs and witty repartee were punctuated with long stretches of silence while he tried to recover his strength. He insisted on trying every dish I had made despite my insistence that he eat only what he felt like. He was quick to praise every one, even lamenting the fact that he couldn’t indulge his wish to tackle a giant slice of lemon tart. When the focus shifted to conversation, he thanked me repeatedly for giving him a break from the house he’d been confined to, saying the evening out did nothing but good for his spirits even as it taxed his strength. As we hugged goodbye, he thanked me for putting so much effort into the evening, and I promised to out-do myself when he was well enough to return.

Little did I know that I would never get that chance. The evening at my home was the last social occasionMr. C ever attended. His rapidly deteriorating condition prompted some emergency chemotherapy treatments, which stretched into a month-long stay at a local hospital. He warded off blood infections, pain, and every imaginable discomfort before briefly returning home, where he died in late August.

Bitter-sweet emotions colour my recollection of that evening, which could have been so commonplace at any other time. I rejoice that I had a chance to host him in my home, while regretting the messages of thanks I never got to pass along verbally. I hope, however, that my gratitude to him was communicated another way. Knowing he recognized and appreciated the effort I put into his final dinner out, I like to think the small details spoke to him in ways I didn’t. I hope they showed that, by at least one student, he was loved.

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Some time ago I indulged in a little rant about things sighted people do that drive the average blind person mad. The post generated a lot of interesting discussion, for which I thank everyone. But despite the different perspectives introduced by my lovely readers, the conversation remained a bit one-sided and failed to explore the flipside, i.e. the things blind people do to contribute to prevailing social stigmas and irk their fellow blindguys in the process. My perspective may well wind up rousing the ire of some other blind readers, but bare in mind mine is just one opinion. I’m also speaking in fairly broad strokes aboutpeople who are only dealing with vision loss i.e. don’t have additional physical, neurological or psychological issues at play too. So here you have it, my personal take on the top five most detramental things blind people do to themselves:

1. Acting helpless
In disability discourse, blindness is frequently referred to as a handicap. While it undoubtedly places limits on certain activities, career options etc, some people have chosen to treat blindness as a barrier to doing much of anything. Some have had this attitude ingrained from childhood when concerned adults took responsibility for everything and expected nothing of the blind person. One anecdote concerned a young child whose parents did so much for him that it distorted his sense of reality. If he dropped something, he would immediately start to look for it on the table rather than the floor because his parents promptly picked it up for him. In his own words, “everything comes back to the table.” Such acquired helplessness is difficult to break through, but it can be done if the inclination is there. Worse, to me, are those who simply decide to use their blindness as a cop out. In my experience, these people refuse to learn independent travel skills, make no effort to maintain a decent living space, opt to rely on social assistance and simply choose to turn their lives over to others to manage. This drives me beyond crazy. Attitudes like these undermine the efforts of those blind people who wish to be more proactive and integrate into mainstream society. Many of those people find this to be a struggle, and lack of effort from some of their peers contributes to the troubles they face. Like it or not, visible minority groups are frequently stereotyped, and the actions of a few are often wrongly believed to represent the whole. People who are on social assistance because their job hunts have been unsuccessful should never be confused with those who remain on the dole just because it’s easier. Assuming blindness is the only issue you have to contend with, there’s no excuse for being helpless! You can still walk, talk and use your head. Kindly do so! 🙂

2. Being sloppy
I’ve sounded off at length about why I feel it’s important for blind people to dress well. I don’t even necessarily mean adopting the latest fashion trends — in this context, a neat, presentable appearance is enough for me. I have encountered a number of blind people who actively dismiss all aesthetic questions simply because they don’t understand the issues or don’t care about them. In my estimation, doing so is a mistake. People who look unkempt, either through clothing or grooming choices, reinforce the stereotype that blind people are incapable of looking after themselves. This is not an image I appreciate having to fight against, and I suspect others share my sentiments.

3. Giving attitude to would-be helpers
A few years ago my fully-sighted brother was walking down the street and spotted a gentleman standing at an intersection looking confused. My bro stopped to see if the guy could get his bearings, and after watching him turn this way and that in a vain attempt to get oriented, thought he’d offer some help. Having spent his life guiding his sister and listening to her pet rant about people who make assumptions about the kind of assistance someone might be looking for, my brother walked up to the man and simply asked, “excuse me sir, do you need me to give you a hand?”
“NO!! Fuck off! I can do this myself,” came the irate reply.
That kind of reaction raises my blood pressure. It’s rude, disrespectful and just plain uncalled for. There’s self-advocacy, and then there’s shooting yourself in the foot. Like the boy who cried wolf, people like this may find that help won’t be forthcoming when it’s finally wanted. Sighted readers, if you’ve had similar encounters, please don’t tar us all with the same brush; most of us will appreciate your offers of help, even if we don’t take you up on them!

4. Overcompensating for your blindness
People who try this tack are at the absolute opposite end of the spectrum from those I described in my first point. These are people who take an almost ostrich-like approach to their blindness and do their damndest to pretend it doesn’t exist. White canes or other symbols that would brand them as blind are summarily dismissed and never used. They’ll plunge into any activity on the grounds that they can do absolutely anything they want and refuse to be held back by people or circumstances. They may even shun other blind people for fear of being lumped in with them. This kind of approach has definite merits, but can easily be taken too far. People who subscribe to it are potentially putting themselves in danger by disregarding basic safety precautions or engaging in activities that just aren’t a good idea. Being adventuresome and taking up something like skiing (with sighted guidance) is great, but pretending you’re perfectly able to drive a car crosses the line. It’s also naive and interestingly enough doesn’t always garner the respect of the sighted community. I had an eluminating experience while working as a counsellor at a camp for blind adults and children. My primarily sighted coworkers didn’t really accept me on the team until I laid down limits on the things I felt comfortable doing. The day I declined to take a totally blind guest out for a canoe paddle and instead recruited some sighted help for the job, a colleague told me they felt better about having me on board because I had proven I was “in touch with reality.” People who refuse to accept facts are treading dangerous ground. Polyanna-esque approaches seldom work, and their naiveté may land them or someone else in trouble.

5. Assuming sighted people don’t understand or don’t care
Note to people who fall into this camp: You know how you hate it when you’re stereotyped or marginalized? You’re not alone. No one digs that, including sighted people (emphasis on people). Making assumptions about their attitudes towards you and your blindness is hypocritical in the extreme. Some people with vision may not be tuned into the issues you deal with, but many others are empathetic, broad-minded, thoughtful and even inspirational if you free them from the constraints of labels. Creating an “us vs. them” dynamic serves no purpose. It alienates you from potential friends and resources, belittles people who have done you no wrong and reinforces the stereotype of the embittered, cynical blind person who’s angry at the world and everyone in it. Do unto others, please and thank you!

So there you have my two cents worth on this admittedly touchy subject. Got comments? I’d love to hear them. And if you want to hear more on this or any other topic, feel free to drop me a line in the suggestion box.

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There are dozens of reasons why people try to dress well and are willing to put effort into devising appropriate outfits for a variety of occasions. Most of my reasons are directly informed by my blindness, and dozens of others were discussed in depth over on YouLookFab in a fascinating thread on why people want to look their best. One of the common themes emerging from that thread is one that resonated strongly with me, but seems to miss the mark with a lot of others I’ve encountered lately. Is the notion of showing respect through clothing choices going out of style? Based on a few recent experiences, I’ve got to wonder if more people shouldn’t crank the Queen of Soul’s classic anthem for the spelling impaired while getting dressed!

I’ve attended a number of weddings already this summer, and those occasions have clearly demonstrated the wide array of fashion standards people apply to these occasions. I personally believe weddings require you to put your best foot forward as a mark of respect to the bride and groom. With some luck, this will be a once-in-a-lifetime day for them. They have spent hours working through guest lists, logistical arrangements and endless other details in an effort to make the day as special as possible. Regardless of the vibe or venue, most couples have also dedicated significant financial resources to their special day. To me, it’s imperative to dress in a way that acknowledges both the significance of the event and the extraordinary efforts required to make it happen. To my way of thinking, turning up in jeans would send the message that this occasion is no more important than a get-together at a local bar. Unless the bride and groom have specifically indicated that they’re going for a casual vibe, I’m going to arrive in a cocktail dress and heels with my hair done and my evening makeup in place. I take my cue from the venue to some degree, but I happen to believe this type of dress code is applicable regardless of the location. Just because the festivities aren’t being held at a posh venue doesn’t mean they didn’t require a significant financial commitment. Dressing up for a wedding is just a fundamental mark of respect in my book. My boyfriend is of like mind and insists on wearing suits to all but beachfront weddings. But based on what we’ve seen at the first two weddings of the season, our approach is far from universal.

My boyfriend took it upon himself to do some people watching and made some discoveries that left our collective jaws agape. Men wearing golf shirts? Check. Women in dresses more suitable for poolside barbecues? Uh-huh. None-too-dressy capri pants? Mm-hmm. Jeans on both genders? You bet. Even flip flops were in evidence. The real winner had to be the woman who turned up at a beautiful waterfront yacht club sporting denim cutoffs and a spaghetti-strap tank top. I realize that some people are trying to contrive a dressy appearance from within narrow budgets and limited wardrobes, but you can’t convince me that shorts and a tank were the best she could do. There are bargans to be had, and even making the effort to pick up a simple pencil skirt and blouse on sale would show greater appreciation for the bride and groom. It’s a privilege to be invited to a wedding, not a right. The outfits my boyfriend spotted didn’t reflect that fact at all.

In general it seemed easier for women to miss the mark with their clothing options, probably because we have such a vast array of fashion options at our disposal. But men were by no means exonerated. My boyfriend was particularly affronted by adults wearing juvenile-looking ties that were either tied too short or featured patterns you’d expect to see on a six-year-old at his first formal function. He contends that only collared dress-shirts fit the bill for occasions like this, while acknowledging that jackets may be a bit hot at certain outdoor venues. I’m personally delighted by his sartorial standards and was thrilled when he wore his suit despite some relatives’ assertions that “khakkis and a golf shirt would be just fine.” Our outfit choices were directly proportional to the amount of effort the bride and groom put into their wedding day, and we could therefore enjoy the weddings confident in the knowledge that we were paying them the respect they deserved. We were by no means the only ones who chose to dress up, but even if we were, I don’t think either of us plan to change our approach any time soon.

The situation is a little merkier when you enter the realm of what I’ll call hybrid dress codes. I usually balk a little when I see things like “cocktail casual” or “biker chic,” since that involves striking a sometimes tricky balance. My personal strategy is to err slightly on the dressier side of the scale in question. The outfit I wore to a recent “cocktail casual” party, for instance, featured one of my smarter-looking day dresses that got sassed up with cocktail-worthy accessories. According to my fellow party-goers, that strategy served me well and my ensemble fit right in.

A picture of me in an outfit I wore to one wedding held at a slightly more casual venue. I'm wearing a knee-length black dress with white polka dots that change slightly in size as you go down the dress. It has a not-front below the bust, a deep v-neck and a waist-tie at the back. I am holding a dark red clutch in one hand and wearing dark red lipstick. I have accessorized the dress with sparkly silver sandals and a double-strand of white pearls.

A wedding held at a more casual venue still calls for a dressier getup

A picture of my boyfriend and me posing at a wedding. I am wearing my turquoise cocktail dress along with sparkly strappy silver sandals, a double strand of white pearls and diamond stud earrings. I am holding a rectangular silver satin clutch in my left hand. My hair has been blow-dried and is worn in its usual bob, but it has more volume than usual. I've applied a little eye shadow, blush and dark red lipstick. My boyfriend is standing on my right wearing a black suit with gold-ish pinstripes, a tie the same shade as the stripes and a blue shirt.

When wedding bells ring, this is the kind of thing we wear

What do you think. Are my boyfriend and I old-fashioned in our approach to things like weddings? What’s your strategy for occasions like the ones I’ve described? And what do you think of hybrid dress codes…are they liberating or maddening?

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Guilty of neglecting this blog to a shameful degree? Too true. Apologies, readers — a hiatus of this length won’t happen again without some advance warning! Sadly, quasi-abandonment is not the only thing I have to accuse myself of.

In previous entries I’ve discussed the unusual social behaviours and bizarre conversational liberties that people sometimes fall into when interacting with a blind person. I don’t think it’s reaching too far to suggest that those actions are driven by biases and stereotypes about the blind. It’s easy to assume that people on the receiving end of such treatment are somehow free from such influences, but as I can sadly attest, that’s far from the case.

Last weekend I travelled to New Jersey to take part in a training weekend for the guide dog school that matched me with my wonderful girl. I was among a handful of students asked to help promote the school in our local areas, and I had to fly down to the States to take part in a weekend of corporate-style training about the organization’s mission, programs etc. I planned for the weekend with excessive care — drafting presentations, rereading preparatory material and of course agonizing over outfits float my boat a little too much, I think. 🙂 But I was brought face to face with my own blindness stereotypes the day before my departure while finalizing travel logistics. The training organizer, who is blind himself, took it upon himself to coordinate transportation from the airport to the hotel where we were all staying. Five blind travellers, arriving over three widely-spaced terminals, were to congregate at the pickup point by following only the most cursory instructions. I think the ones sent to me read something like “get up to the departure level, go out any exit and turn right until you get to a railing.”

My reaction to this missive let me stunned by my own hipocracy. I wouldn’t have hesitated to give such instructions to a sighted friend, but found myself scratching my head at the perceived inadequacy for a blind person. Did this guy seriously expect a bunch of blindguys to follow these vague guidelines, meet up with each other and find our airport limmo without turning it into a gong show of epic proportions? Of course he did. And of course he was right to do so. The five of us met up no problem, connected with our car quite easily and made it to the hotel half an hour ahead of schedule. But I still couldn’t believe my own thinking.

I realized that I was guilty of applying stereotypes learned in early childhood, as well as my own foibles, to a situation where I’d be expected to be more than usually open-minded. I grew up listening to advice that directed me away from blind peers. I was encouraged to mix more with sighted kids for fear of “being lumped in” with those who shared my disability. I had blind friendships, but many of them were hard-fought and not many of them have survived. That kind of thinking taught me to function in the sighted world, but also left me with some biases that I struggle to combat to this day. Even now I’m rarely drawn to groups with a blindness focus (further deepening the irony of this blog), and my friends and romantic partner all have at least some degree of sight.

My expectations for the weekend rendezvous were also shaped by my own projections. I’m a nervous traveller at the best of times and prefer clear, detailed directions in most aspects of my life. Last weekend’s scenario flew in the face of my usual preferences, but that proved to be quite a good thing. The experience was both eye-opening and liberating. It boosted my confidence both in my guide dog and in myself and reacquainted me with some of my more unfortunate thought processes. Note to self: practice what you preach!

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A funny thing happened tonight.

So I walk onto the elevator in my apartment building, press the button for my floor then promptly offer to do the same for other passengers streaming in. A few people gave me their floor numbers, which I promptly punched in, but then had to listen to a rather unusual monologue from someone sharing the lift. One gentleman proceeded to ooh and ah about the fact that I’d found the elevator buttons and managed to press the correct ones. To hear him talk, you’d think I’d morphed into MacGyver, produced a clove of garlic and a roll of duct tape from my pocket and whipped up a cure for the common cold. It honestly made me feel very uncomfortable, and judging from the awkward silence that prevailed in the elevator, I wasn’t alone. I’m the first to acknowledge that this man meant well, and for this I tacetly thank him, but the whole incident brought me back to an observation I’ve made from time to time — people seem to take more conversational liberties with me than they do with my sighted peers.

Let me clear one thing up right away — these conversational liberties are rarely, if ever, insulting in and of themselves. Today’s little encounter is actually quite typical of the sort of thing I mean. People seem to feel the need to shower me with praise when I accomplish every-day tasks (running down the subway stairs to catch a train, walking down the street, producing the correct change when paying for something at a cash register). I’ve always wondered why they felt such comments were necessary. What is it about a person’s blindness that makes it ok to eschew conversational norms and verbalize things they likely wouldn’t say to a sighted person? Have you ever been complemented for “knowing your way around so well” while taking a stroll through your neighbourhood? Has someone ever told you you were “very pretty” while standing in line to buy a set of measuring spoons? Has your prowess on the escalator or knack with a turnstyle ever singled you out for public adulation? :p It may sound like I’m exagerating, but I assure you I’ve received comments on every one of these things. I’m grateful for the complements and appreciate that people mean well, but truly don’t understand why people feel such remarks are necessary. Sure I have daily challenges to overcome, but so do countless others. It takes genuine courage for someone who is severely agorophobic to brave public streets, while a person with an eating disorder is undergoing an intensive internal battle every time s/he does something as straight forward as sit down to dinner. Such people are forced to plum their personal resources just to get on with the business of living, but I bet they don’t get recognized for doing so. Their struggles are internal and less obvious to the public eye and somehow seem to command a different level of social etiquette. Personally, I wish it weren’t so. I’m not advocating for wholesale praise to be showered on everyone who’s getting on with their day — in fact quite the opposite. In my opinion, you do a great deal more to bolster someone’s confidence when you accept their “achievements” as a matter of course and silently afirm your confidence that they can overcome whatever obstacles they face.

That isn’t to say that people can’t ask questions. I actually love it when people overcome their shyness about my blindness and spit out whatever queries they might have. Had my elevator co-passenger simply turned to me and asked how I was able to identify the buttons, for example, it would have led to an exchange that was both more natural and fruitful for all concerned. But maybe I’m alone in finding questions less awkward than arbitrary praise that I usually feel to be undeserved.

So tell me, who’s the oddball? Have I gone off half-cocked because of a bizarre incident or am I making sense? Have you ever noticed different social standards being applied to certain groups?

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