The Stranger on the Bus

08 April 2020

By Chrissy Brincat

I don’t know you, but you think you know me.

I've got my headphones in, and I'm just getting to the really good bit in my book. I'm on the way home from work. I've had a long day - I'm tired, hungry, and most likely in need of caffeine. I’m approximately seventeen thousand miles from my home city, give or take. I shouldn't be, but I'm always a little surprised to meet you again. You may have gone unnoticed, except for the tell-tale flump as you occupy the seat beside me, and a slight rustle as you arrange plastic shopping bags at your feet. Your chatter is instantaneous. I’m not giving any signs that I’m up for a chat, but this doesn’t deter you. My parents taught me good manners, so I'll oblige you, because, well, it is the polite thing to do, after all.

I am a 27-year-old master’s student who loves to read, write, travel and eat. I have long, somewhat untameable curly dark hair. I am moderately uncomfortable with ceremony, particularly if I end up in the centre of it. I laugh at my own jokes. Sometimes they are funny, more often, they aren’t. I will watch the same episode of a program over and over again and still laugh in all the exact same places. I have always hated having milk on cereal. I have never broken a bone in my body. My favourite colours to wear are blues and greens. When I was small, I had to be trained to like chocolate. Weird, huh? I also happen to be blind.

Whether consciously or not, it’s that last point you noticed first, courtesy of one white stick and a general difficulty making eye contact – the struggle is real, guys. Before you know it, I'm being verbally examined on my daily life and frantically trying to explain how I do the most mundane of tasks.

I'm sure I’m not the only one who has had encounters like this. I used to find them frustrating, because I was so used to my life with very little sight that it never occurred to me that to a lot of people, it actually wasn’t the norm. I would get so busy in my routine, travelling from point A to point B, going to work, studying, etc, that I would sometimes just plain forget that the majority of the world did all these things with an extra sense.

Quite some time ago, I took a moment to stop and think about how different people actually are from one another. Some differences, like a vision or hearing impairment, are noticeable straightaway. Others, like a mental illness or learning difficulty, are not. I remember thinking, if I were to meet someone who could not, for example, use their arms or legs, or someone who was living with a severe mental illness, who is to say that I would not have a host of questions of my own? Humans are innately curious creatures. And that’s a hell of a lot better than ignorance. So, dear stranger on the bus, I’ll do my best to satisfy your curiosity.

The most common question I get asked is “how much can you actually see”? It’s a fair question, and one that people aren’t always comfortable asking. The short answer is that my vision is pretty much limited to light and shadow.

I do not see total blackness. In fact, my eyes are particularly sensitive to light, especially when there is contrast. This means that my eyes respond to light in a relatively normal way. Darkness makes me sleepy. Light keeps me awake. Just as it would the average person, I suppose.

The shadow part of my vision frustrates me a lot, at times. When I see a shadow in front of me, for example, a wall, a pole, a car, it simply looks like a darker patch contrasted against its lighter surroundings. This means I don’t see any detail, colour, or any further feedback about the object, except whether it is above my head height or not. Chances are if it’s below my head height, I probably won’t see it. I also can’t seem to judge distances, at all. For example, when walking through a café, if there is a bank of tables coming up ahead, I can’t tell how far to either side they reach, or whether there is a gap big enough to walk through on either side. Yes, I do use a stick to get around. No, I don’t have a dog. Yes, I do think they are pretty cute. Yes, my computer talks. Yes, my phone talks. Yes, sometimes they both drive me absolutely bonkers.

I get a real kick out of travelling. I get a huge thrill out of not knowing what the next day will bring, where I might go, and who I might meet. I am fascinated by new accents, by new foods, by really feeling what life would be like in an entirely new place that I’ve never set foot in before.

Of course, there are moments when I don’t feel "so brave". Anyone who says they aren’t is definitely lying. But it is not a lack of sight that scares me. It is the typical, every-day things that you worry about when you’re travelling. The thought of being robbed, losing my passport, running out of money. It is the thought of being left behind. That everything will have changed when I return. That my life will have moved on, without me in it. That people will become used to living without me, will no longer need me. That I'll fall in love with a city thousands of miles away from my hometown, that I’ll find my ideal job on the other side of the world, that I'll never want to stop travelling. That I'm not feeling as homesick as I should, and that damn, when it’s all over, I still don’t really know what I want to do with my life.

By this point, you've either nodded off to sleep, or at the very least, got more than you bargained for. If you're still with me and fully conscious, you've likely figured out that I'm actually pretty ordinary after all, and that I'm just doing what you're doing, and what everyone else on the bus is probably doing — muddling along the best way I know how.

Chrissy Brincat is a Marketing Graduate at Vision Australia as part of the Career Start Program. "The Stranger on the bus" originally appeared in the April edition of Blind Citizens Australia newsletter.