Bursting Bubbles & Building Bridges
Editors Note: Last month our blogger Peter tackled the topic of personal awareness and taking accountability for your actions. In this blog, Peter acknowledges how living in Vancouver can be isolating - especially when you’re blind.
In my last blog I promised to address the overall question of how, and why, Vancouver culture is so different from that which I experienced in Ontario. I usually give people the benefit of the doubt. People are, well … people after all. Individuals, with different experiences, with different levels of consciousness, but everyone fundamentally cares for one another and wants the best for each other, right? I’m not convinced.
For those of you who don't know, I have the lived experience of sight loss; in fact, I lost my sight fully many years ago between the ages of 14 and 16. I’m now in my 50's and a relative newcomer to Vancouver.
So, here’s a quick story. A short time ago I headed towards a Vancouver beachfront bistro to meet up with some friends. I arrived early to select a table on the small and crowded patio. When I arrived the server said, "There will be a table opening up in a moment, if you wouldn't mind waiting." So, wait I did. There really was no place I could wait unobtrusively because of the small and narrow space, so there I was standing by a table, waiting for the people who were occupying it to leave. As I stood there, I could hear that the couple were engaged in a conversation. Easy, free, and totally unaware, or at least, not acknowledging, anything else that might have been going on around them. ME! I did everything I could to turn my attention away from them, but as time went on, I started feeling very uncomfortable, very self-conscious! These people are not leaving. I am literally hovering. They don't seem concerned, but neither are they giving me any kind of clues about what is going on.
“Where is my table? What has happened to the server?"
Finally, after a few more minutes of excruciating unpleasantness I spoke up and said, "Excuse me, but is this the table I am supposed to be at?".
"No" the male counterpart of the couple said, "…that table is over there".
Ah, the infamous “over there". A visual reference, often accompanied by a nod of the head, or maybe the point of a finger, which is so desperately lost on anyone who cannot see that.
As it turned out, the table I was waiting for had cleared, probably several minutes ago. Despite my lingering beside a stranger's table, nothing was said either by the occupants of that table or a server. "Why?" I thought to myself. "This is truly bizarre. Does no one see how strange this situation is, to leave me standing there for several minutes without any offer of assistance or explanation?" Apparently not.
But now I think this kind of experience is pretty typical for Vancouver. Everyone lives in a proverbial bubble. I think it has more to do with widespread cultural norms in this city about people staying in their bubbles than it actually does about specific attitudes towards disability. I think the culture here in Vancouver is particularly insular. Vancouver seems to take unconscious bias to a whole new level. The fact that I may need a little extra assistance from time to time magnifies the impact of these bubbles.
I tested my theory. After discussing the issue of my patio experience with several people, similar stories were shared back to me, "Try moving here and then dating" someone told me. Another person said, "… people in Vancouver just don't open up. If I am in a coffee shop and I start talking to someone who I don't know they think I am weird. So, I just gave up and started talking to them anyway."
I have now grown to love the city, quirks and all. I will be staying for a while. However, this blog is not just about Vancouver - it’s about the need for us to get out of our bubbles and acknowledge what is really happening around us; that is, stuff is happening around us all the time and we either think we know what it means, or just choose to ignore it. Because things 'look' a certain way we decide either they are that way and don't concern us, or we really don't want to get involved. This of course, is not endemic just to Vancouver, it happens everywhere, but having lived on both coasts, I can tell you firsthand that it’s much more prevalent here.
The silver lining? This has become a city I love and just like my friend who refused to stop being friendly to people in coffee shops because they thought she might be weird, I will speak up, get engaged and be involved. The truth is we never know who is just ‘hovering next to our table’. And it’s not about accommodating. It’s about valuing and embracing differences. I know Vancouver is different, but I embrace that. Frustrating, yes, but like any relationship you take some of the not so good with the good, the great, and the beautiful. Then you work with it. Remember blowing bubbles as a kid? Remember taking that plastic wand out of that detergent-like solution and waving it in the air to watch the bubbles float past? Remember how beautiful they were, all different sizes, a kaleidoscope of colours, gently drifting around you with the sun shining through? You never wanted them to burst. You wanted them to sail away, beautiful, until they were out of sight. Today the only bubbles I want to burst are those which stand in the way of valuing diversity and the wonderful gifts we all bring to the table. So, look up, see what is hovering beside your table, and reach out, otherwise you may never know just how beautiful that person, place or thing you don't understand really is.