Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Lessons Learned

This past weekend San Diego held its annual Pride Festival. As a co-coordinator of San Diego Bisexual Forum (Bi Forum), I was heavily involved in planning and executing our parade contingent and informational booth. Tons of effort was expended by me and my fellow coordinator as well as a core group of members. Then, this weekend, the event.

I know this was specific to me, but my overwhelming feeling throughout was boredom. Parades are not for blind folks and the only thing worse than watching is marching. Actually, to conserve energy, I rode in the back of a truck. I was by myself and therefore had nobody to describe the sights. My only salvation was the group behind us that had a loudspeaker with an amusing man whipping up the crowd.

I spent Friday setting up the booth making sure I knew where each item was placed and that it was an obstacle-free zone. By the time I arrived at the booth Saturday, that was no longer the case. Chairs were everywhere. Bins tucked under tables were pulled partially out. People were in the way. I sat in the back and tried not to need to move. Had I been able to move freely, I would have not been equipped to snag those walking past and interest them in what we had to offer. Well, I could have talked to them, but getting there attention initially would have been…. impossible. I was utterly useless. I guess useless goes right up there with boredom as my overwhelming feeling. And, in case you didn’t know this, I loathe feeling useless.

I hold nobody responsible for this happening. Unless blind people were running everything, there was no way for me to truly participate. I can think of some ways people could have made me more a part of things -- of more use -- but bottom line is that it is not a great situation in which to be blind.

From the above experience, I learned a few things that will help with future events. This is not the first time Bi Forum has taught me something, though. Five years ago, when I began attending meetings with a friend, I was isolated. In fact, whenever people freely mingled, I sat alone. Sometimes people came to speak with me, the interaction having the flavor of them taking pity upon me instead of wanting to get to know me. And, conversation petered out fairly quickly. Less formal events like parties were equally disappointing. Previously, my experiences with LBGT groups was limited to organizations affiliated with universities. There, as you would expect, I felt a part of the community. Bi Forum felt like just another collection of non-disabled people who didn’t get it. Usually, time and repeated exposure to me solves the problem, but not in this case.

When my friend stopped attending, so did I. In June of 2008, I was present when some Bi Forum members were discussing Pride. At the time, I had been considering getting involved with something to test my limits in terms of “professional” commitments, so this seemed like a great option. Besides, if I failed I would not be letting down a group that was central to my happiness.

This time around, things changed. First, it was somebody commenting on how I had “stopped hiding.” I think he mistook the necessity of me walking behind a sighted guide in crowded areas as a personality trait. The fact that I brought baked goodies to every meeting also helped. Mostly, though, I think it was the leadership role I assumed. As a co-coordinator, I was in the middle of everything and people had to deal with me, like it or not. This became even more the case when I started facilitating the support group. They could not simply avoid interaction because they were uncomfortable or unable to figure out what to do. I never realized that leadership positions can actually break down barriers erected by social norms.

Another piece of the puzzle became clear when a member told me he was enjoying getting to know me. I bluntly said, “Umm, I have been around the group for four years. What’s the difference?” He told me he previously thought we would have nothing in common because I was blind and conversation would be limited. I found this to be especially interesting since we did share a common sexual orientation. To him, that common ground was not sufficient to bridge the gap between blind and sighted. I have no idea what caused him to change his mind, but he did.

I am not the most outgoing person on the planet and describe myself as a shy extrovert. Social interactions in large groups of strangers when I am not familiar with the surroundings are even more challenging. I think having a job brings out the overachiever in me and forces me to deal with other people as well as occupying my time. I suspect, but do not like to admit, that I could probably better deal with social situations if I pushed my boundaries just a little.

The tool of taking on a leadership role to force people to overcome their discomfort intrigues me. Now I need to find a way to apply it to my most irritating social situation – the live music venue I haunt. After more than three years of regular attendance, the people who acknowledge my presence can be counted on one hand. There is a cluster of regulars like me, but no means to become a leader. I shall ponder.

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