Here’s an audio version
In a previous post, I described a remarkable incident at a restaurant in which two gentlemen paid anonymously for me and a dozen friends. It seems reasonable to conclude that such extraordinary generosity was related to the fact that 12 out of the 13 in our party are blind. The exact nature of cause and effect is impossible to know: charity, or a tangible sign of respect and admiration. What I can say for sure is that disability profoundly affects the relationship between me, the able-bodied, and money.
A couple of weeks after this incident, I was waiting at a bus stop, my white cane leaning on my shoulder, an obvious cue that I’m blind. A woman maybe 10 or 15 years younger than me asked three successive people for 50 cents, and was denied. I reached for my wallet and dug out a couple of quarters and held them out to her. Here’s an account of the conversation that followed.
Me: “Here you go.”
Young Lady: “Oh, no, it’s ok.”
Me: “No here, have it.”
Young Lady: “No no, I don’t need it, it’s ok.”
Me: “You needed it a few minutes ago.”
Young Lady: “Oh, I worked it out, I don’t need it.”
Me: “No really, you needed it, here.”
Five minutes later:
Young Lady: “Here, you can have your money back, I don’t need it, it’s ok.”
Me: “Is it because you think I’m worse off than you are?”
Young Lady: “No no, it’s not that, I just don’t need it, thanks.”
I’m pretty skeptical about whether the woman’s finances took a sudden upswing in the five minutes we stood there, so my conclusion is that, despite her denial, taking money from a blind person crossed some personal boundary not breeched by taking money from the able-bodied. Perhaps this is snobbish of me, but I can’t help feeling that, disability or not, I’m better off than someone soliciting charity at a bus stop. In my world-view, the flow towards equality is, therefore, served by her taking the 50 cents I offered, but she didn’t see it that way.
I, like many other blind people I’ve spoken to about this, have occasionally been offered money by strangers on the street. Attitudes towards this type of thing differ, but after one or two mild but sincere refusals, I always take it. I understand that money is a symbol, and a useful one. For some people, offering it is a way to acknowledge that, in some ways at least, my life is harder than theirs. If it makes them feel good to give, I’ll happily receive.
This gets a little muddier when there’s a skill involved. One of the ways I make money is to play guitar and sing in the subway. I place my folded cane out of the way, but highly visible in front of my open case, where I hope people will drop some coin. In part I do this to offer an explanation for why I fail to make personable eye contact with passersby as most buskers would. But I’ll be frank, if the fact of my blindness causes someone to pay more attention to my music, or at least to my tacit receptivity to being tipped, I’ll exploit it, and as in the example with which I started this post, I have no way to know about motivation. Because I can’t see, I don’t know whether people do a double take, then decide to offer coin when otherwise they wouldn’t have. Likewise, I can’t express extra gratitude when someone drops two $2 coins rather than two dimes. Unless coins happen to hit other coins, I won’t even know anyone’s dropped anything. If I hear coins and I’m not in the middle of a verse I always say thanks with a bright smile, but I’m sure sometimes people’s generosity goes unacknowledged. Does this irk them?
I like money; it’s necessary, I’d like to have more of it. The statistics regarding employment and income levels for blind people are pretty devastating. I feel grateful for my modest but cozy standard of living. For some blind people, money offered in exchange for nothing is disturbing and unwelcome. Some perceive such acts as patronizing, or based on false assumptions of helplessness and need. Sometimes this may be true. Personally, I can’t put a value or lack of value on someone’s motivations, but I know what a dollar or $20 is worth, and I’m not averse to random acts of generosity. If sometimes such gestures are based on false assumptions, the underlying motive is kindness. My life is harder because I’m blind, and I think it’s safe to say that money makes most people’s lives easier.