American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Special Issue: Early Childhood      PERSPECTIVES

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Sharp Elbows, Sharper Thoughts

by Ryan Strunk

Reprinted from Braille Monitor, Volume 60, Number 10, November 2017

Ryan StrunkFrom the Editor: Ryan Strunk is the lead accessibility specialist at Target, and he serves as president of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota. In this article he writes openly about some of the awkward social situations in which blind people occasionally find themselves and the ways they can affect self-perception.

Anyone who knows me knows I love a good joke, and anyone who has seen me in the right circumstance knows I love a good dirty joke. I don't know as many of them as I used to, but when I was a kid, I had a stockpile, and I let them fly pretty regularly.

Have you heard the one about the lady who . . . nah. I can't write it here. But I was perfectly happy to tell it to my ninth-grade buddies one afternoon after school, standing around in the nearly empty junior high parking lot. I was so focused on the joke, on impressing my friends, that I was completely oblivious to the world around me.

Halfway into the joke, as I was establishing the pattern, somebody kicked me in the foot. I didn't think twice about it; I just kept on chattering.

A moment later, Chad started coughing. No big deal, I thought. He just had something in his throat.

A sentence or two before the punchline, Jeremy straight-up elbowed me in the ribs, and still I didn't give it a second thought. Just wait till they hear how it ends!

It was at that climactic moment—the one with the shock-and-awe curse word in the punchline—that the adult standing nearby decided to speak up. "Young man," he said in that purposeful voice authority figures use on unruly students, a voice that, I'm sure, is much larger in my memory than it was at the time, "We don't use that language at school."

I stammered my way through the last few words of the punchline, then trailed off into silence, stunned at being caught and suddenly terrified, even though I didn't recognize the speaker. "I won't hear any more of that talk, right?" he asked. My face burning, my stomach roiling, I sheepishly mumbled that he wouldn't, and with a perfunctory "good" the man walked away.

After a moment of stunned silence, I swallowed my rising horror and plucked up the courage to ask, "Who was that guy?"

"Dude," said Jeremy, starting to snort laugh. "That was a cop. You just dropped an F-bomb in front of a cop!"

"Why didn't you tell me?" I demanded.

"I tried to," he said. "Why do you think I kept hitting you?"

I felt like an idiot, not only because I hadn't landed the joke, but because I felt my blindness had betrayed and embarrassed me in front of my friends. Had I not been blind, I told myself, I would have known there was a cop standing there, and either I would have landed the joke harder as a rebellious backhand to authority, or—more likely—I would have saved it for when the cop wasn't around.

These kinds of things can still happen to me today. I walk through the office, and my toe hits the protruding foot of a whiteboard. It clangs, and I feel like an idiot for not using my cane better. I turn down a different aisle than my shopping assistant. I realize suddenly that no one is there, and I kick myself for not paying better attention. My cane slides under a sign, and I find said sign with my shoulder. I curse my luck and myself.

For years I have struggled with negative self-talk, berating myself over every little slip-up that happens in my daily life. Every kicked whiteboard, wrong turn, and missed sign ends up being an incredible ordeal because of the stories I tell myself afterward—because of the things I tell myself about myself: "Everyone is watching you," "everyone is judging you," "you are setting a bad example for other blind people." I have spent a significant portion of my life carrying around a great deal of insecurity about who I am and what I'm capable of doing. I have spent far too much time and energy focusing on things in my life that, in the grand scheme of things, don't really matter very much.

I'm finally beginning to realize just how destructive these negative thoughts are, and I'm learning just how much they've been holding me back. Instead of shaking off my occasional mishaps, I have been fixating on them. I have worried about what other people will think and how I'll be judged until I become tense and edgy. With all this negative energy, is it any wonder that I get embarrassed, angry, and self-effacing?

One of the great truths about blindness is that, no matter how good someone's cane technique is, no matter how many skills a person has, they will eventually encounter a situation that might have been different had they been able to see. But one of the great truths about life is that, for a variety of reasons, awkward moments happen to everyone, blind and sighted alike. The difference, I'm beginning to understand, is that most people don't have blindness to blame for these accidents. When mistakes happen, most people shrug them off and try to do something better next time. Many blind people I know are good at this, too, and I haven't been one of them. I'm working on it, though.

I told a dirty joke in front of a policeman. He called me out for using bad language, and nothing else happened. My parents weren't called, the principal wasn't summoned, and I didn't get in trouble. And even if there had been bigger consequences, so what? These things happen. They will continue to happen. All I can do, if I want to be a happier person, is keep going and, if possible, do better next time.

"Okay, Jeremy, I got a good joke. Any cops around?"

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