Is Community Really Back?

By Dawn M. Sanders

In Saturday’s Guardian, Mark Rice-Oxley talks about a revival of community and in many instance’s resulting from the pandemic, he’s right, so I don’t want to throw cold water on it, but…

Life under lockdown is hard enough for those of us who live on their own or for whatever reason, are already socially marginalised, when coming up against additional barriers, its hard to see how community spirit has supposedly returned due to coronavirus.

At the height of the lockdown, I expressed to the community builder in my area of Exeter, how extreme the isolation was for me and it was causing me to feel more depressed and isolated than usual.  So, he hatched the idea of a phone circle where, someone would ring me and have an initial chat to get to know one another, talk about things in common etc.  I would call the next person and she would call the guy who rang me – yeah, great idea I responded.  For the first few weeks it all worked well, I had been paired up with 2 cracking people who were easy to talk to and we all seemed to be into the same things: walks, music, a bit of light political  banter and so on.

However, the last time I spoke to the guy who rang me first, I don’t remember exactly how it came up in conversation (the three of us had been talking a lot about walks and eventually meeting up).  I think it was when I mentioned how, because I’m visually impaired, I have faced blatant discrimination and exclusion when wanting to join walking groups for walks – some moderately challenging.

I had held off saying anything about being VI because, there wasn’t a scenario that needed drawing attention to it as, I actually often hold off saying anything unless absolutely necessary on first contact, because inevitably, people change their attitudes and start in with the assumptions, the ‘oh dear it must be so hard’ ‘are you managing’ blah blah.

I for one get sick of all of that and, after having to deal with it all my 53 years, it doesn’t get any easier and I have less patience with it.

It’s what I call, ‘the other racism’ the one where people either get squeamish, let it wash over them and carry on a conversation or, pretend it makes no  difference when, it obviously did in his case.

So, after initially telling him of the utterly infuriating experiences I’ve had here in Exeter, where there is a thriving community of both visually and hearing-impaired people, predictably, his attitude and things he said to me, changed.

“Have you tried laser surgery?” “When the lockdown lifts a little, you can come for a walk with my wife and I and we’ll ‘get you out’.”  The gesture would have been fully appreciated if he didn’t end it by implying that, just because he now knew I’m visually impaired, I’m automatically assumed to be house bound.  He also kept saying, ‘you have to be careful; you have to be careful’ upon finding out of my impaired sight.

I hung up regretting I had even bothered saying anything and I haven’t heard from him sense.

Last week I had been in what I thought was a good conversation with the woman I ring in the phone circle, I had mentioned casually at one stage about my visual impairment and she didn’t seem to flinch – great, I thought at the time.

However, at the end of our conversation, we talked about this week’s phoning arrangements and she said: “I’ll ring you” so I made a mental note of it, because it usually means someone isn’t ringing back and doesn’t really want you to ring them, but I tried to avoid the assumption.

This week she didn’t ring, did I say something wrong?  Well I’ll probably never know, because if I did say something off, people, in my experience, are not that forthright in letting you know, so the circle has been dissolved at least, as far as I am aware.  I kept thinking of what we were talking about and it was all trivial – health problems, tiredness,  the usual perils of modern life in middle age, so I’m not sure where I could have said anything offensive.

When I say to certain people, I’ve been in Exeter nearly 3 years and haven’t made any connections – the response I reliably get is, have I contacted the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB).

Firstly, why is it assumed I will automatically relate to other people who happen to be VI, just because I am?

I’m not into the whole guide dog culture, I don’t need a charity to facilitate making friends, a lot of people who are VI (and I don’t like to pigeonhole here) are fairly conservative in nature and, I don’t necessarily mean their political leanings.

I for one happen to like going out to gigs, festivals, gravitate toward a more adventurous and bohemian/alternative persuasion, but in my experience, a lot of people with a visual impairment tend to adopt a more play-it-safe, conventional approach to life.

I often read blogs written by people with VI who, seemingly need to thrust their visual impairment forward like a big neon white stick – I don’t need to do that.  I’m not saying I’m unique or above anyone, I just don’t relate to thrusting any label before my identity first or attaching it to every aspect of my daily life, as some people will convey; being blind it’s like this or, because of my visual impairment, it needs to be like that.  Of course, it affects daily life on a lot of practical fronts, but why milk it?

I identify by my name first and foremost, as woman, mother, journalist, Socialist, Egalitarian, feminist – oh, and I happen to have a visual impairment which, is a part of me, but will ‘NEVER’ come first among equals!

When I first came to Exeter I wrote this article on the unwelcoming reception I seemingly got at the time.

In all the places I’ve lived, and I’ve moved around a lot, I have never come across the kind of social discrimination I have until coming here.

In terms of a return to community, well from where I’m sitting, that seems to only apply if one adopts the mould of vulnerability.  When the lockdown first hit, I had a mate contact me via Facebook, asking if I was okay which, was nice, but I think she was referring to whether or not I was getting my shopping and essentials.

Well, I never stopped going to get my shopping in the way I always do it.  Without living in complete fear or paranoia, there are ways one can social distance and still get any level of help they need as a visually impaired person.  I’m not vulnerable to the virus, due to my visual impairment, because it doesn’t have anything to do with my immune system and I don’t have underlying health issues.

The thing people don’t ‘get’ is there is more to making sure someone’s needs are being met, than just functional.

We are all humans and humans need company, just as birds or other animals.  It doesn’t help that I split up with my partner just before lockdown.  After the break-up, I went to an International Women’s Day event and it took my mind off things, but with every groundhog day melting into weeks of identical drudgery, no matter how creative one tries to cut it, at the end of the day, if your too strong and independent – people just leave you alone in an all-or-nothing mindset of the unspoken, if you’re not vulnerable or needy, you’ll manage and be okay.

Yet, many articles have been written on the effects of loneliness and isolation and, it isn’t just elderly people who suffer from it.

We are all social creatures and as a woman with a visual impairment, I don’t need to be wrapped in cotton wool or go on a flat easy-going walk – I haven’t got bad legs.

I don’t need to be medically fixed, because someone thinks it’s tragic that I have very little vision – I actually like to think I have a hell of a lot of insight.

I definitely don’t need to ‘stick with my own kind’ as is often implied, best intentions or not, if people of colour can in the main, mix without the assumption they need to segregate, then why shouldn’t anyone with additional challenges be treated the same?

For those who insist on being identified as ‘dis-abled, down trodden or hard done by, because they aren’t getting more benefits or categorised as vulnerable in this pandemic well, they aren’t doing me or those of us of a more empowered stance, any favours – there is never, ever a one-size-fits-all…

Yet, people’s attitudes towards those with additional needs will never change, unless people themselves, take on a more ‘can do’ trajectory or more positive language in defining their identity.

In the mean time, the solitude bites.

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