My Turn by Robert Kingett
No Stupid Questions
Asking in the spirit of understanding need not divide us
The restaurant bustles with activity as my date and I sit opposite each other, getting to know each other. To my immediate right, a woman talks to her mom on her phone about the baseball game she missed. Dishes clatter in the kitchen behind me, as different aromas waft through the restaurant. Men and women pass making their way to their tables, and then my date’s cologne turns my gaze back to his ebony-accented voice.
We’re chatting jovially, our laughter escalating and periodically drowning out the conversations around us. Occasionally people stop and, I’m sure, stare at this interracial, gay couple. As our meals arrive, we get around to the topic of careers. He’s a teacher, but has a hard time believing that I can be both blind and a journalist.
Instantly I become angry, and I’m ready to blast this rude, insensitive sighted person away. But then I realize that he’s never seen adaptive technology; never seen a Braille display; and never seen a screen reader before.
Taking a deep breath and putting a huge smile on my face, I explain how I’m both a journalist and a person who is blind. The reason I chose to answer all of his questions and those of many others on this subject—instead of following my gut instinct to be sarcastic—is that they may know nothing of my world, but they will learn if I patiently teach them.
Whenever I hang around people who are blind, we make insider jokes about speech synthesizers and other assistive technologies that people with sight have no clue about. Sooner or later, we get to talking about people with sight’s vast lack of knowledge around blindness. There’s a lot of anger that gets expressed.
Among people with disabilities and health conditions, some get angry when they’re asked to educate others, which applies to people with HIV and AIDS, as well. I’ve seen countless instances where someone with HIV or AIDS gets offended when a potential partner asks him if he will contract the virus if they exchange saliva. The person who has HIV or AIDS becomes offended, and storms off hurt. But the date may not know what HIV is, or the fact that it does not have a cure.
A lot of people say ignorance is bliss, but it’s also a divider. Simple curiosity can ruin a good friendship or potential relationship. That divide grows because we are easily offended by questions that we once had to ask ourselves. When I was learning the bus route for my daily commute, I wondered if it would even work, me having to travel on the bus for field reporting. I’ve asked myself the same question my restaurant date posed: “How am I going to be a journalist?” But by being patient, and persistent, I figured out the answers through trial and error, and by learning from my past mistakes.
If I would have let my own questions offend me, then I wouldn’t have figured out the answers. I don’t have HIV but I had to ask the above question in order to find out whether you could contract HIV from a small exchange of saliva. I now know how to better do my job effectively because I had to find the answers. I couldn’t let those two questions go unanswered. If I remained ignorant, how blissful would I be? The information helps me, and allows me to help someone else in the future.
I don’t think anyone should remain in the dark if there is an answer to a question. Answers, in all their simplicity, sprinkle awareness. Not far behind awareness comes understanding, and beyond that is acceptance. An answer to a seemingly offensive question doesn’t just satisfy curiosity, it opens up a door to understanding. There are a lot of other positive things behind that door. Some effects are immediate, such as inclusion, and others are a ways off, such as the advocacy that is born from awareness.
As an African-American, my date lives in a world I’ll never completely understand because I’ve never lived through the discriminatory history he has, but I can ask him questions, and with each answer I begin to form some understanding. With every answer I give about my adaptive life, we’re coming together in a way that people who are easily offended won’t be able to do for a very long time. My date understands me now, and that’s the most valuable education I could ever give.
Robert Kingett is a blind journalist specializing in audio description, adaptive sports, and disability news. His essays have been published widely in magazines, blogs, and read on radio stations across the country and abroad. He has been published in several anthologies. He’s the chief writer for America’s Comedy, as well as a columnist for Truth Is Cool. His most popular column has been “Kingett Reads Fifty Shades of Grey.” He holds several editing jobs. He is a strong supporter and advocate for LGBTQ rights and has raised a great deal of funds for HIV and AIDS research.