1

Background: I am totally blind. I am using a screen reading software to use the computer. I am a programmer.

Whenever I meet new people (especially in the IT industry), the following happens in many cases:

Person: "What is your work?"

Me: "I am a software developer in company x."

Person: "And you can't see at all? Oh wow! You must be so smart! I tried programming and I gave up. And my eyes are fully working!"

My question is in 3 parts:

  • How to interpret their response? I do not understand why they would willingly say something bad about their abilities in front of me just because of my disability. Can anyone explain the message they are trying to communicate? My initial guess is they are lying about their actual skills and they are patronizing me, though I can't be sure.
  • How to respond? Right now I stay silent because I don't know what to say, but sometimes the silence gets extended, as if they are waiting for a response. I'd preferably want to convey to them that my disability has nothing to do with my programming skills.
  • There are a few cases where conversations like this happens while my teammates are present (personally or virtually), and I feel extremely humiliated. I felt singled out, and it is as if the skills of my teammates (who are developers as well) are being belittled because of me. How to get out of this situation?
1
  • 4
    It's baffling... What do you think if I tell you: "Wow! Beethoven was deaf and wrote such masterpieces of music, yet he wasn't able to hear any of the notes or instruments. He's such a outstanding musician! I have an excellent hearing, trained almost 10 years and yet can't even properly play [whatever]"?
    – OldPadawan
    Apr 29 at 14:27

2 Answers 2

9

I am a (retired) software developer, and have a family member who is blind. Although not a dev, this person is very tech-savvy using smart phones, computers, braille readers, etc, and manages to get a lot of work done.

I am impressed because when I work, I need to have several documents open in front of me, and I look at them back and forth. I simply don't have the memory capacity to work without quickly referring back to other documents. I had not met other blind people in the past, and I continue to be astonished.

So to answer the OP's question:

  • How to interpret their response? - Very simply. They are extremely impressed. They aren't trying to patronize you, they are expressing their admiration for your skills.
  • How to respond? - You can respond the way you would to any compliment, with a simple thank you. If you want to elaborate, you can say that you don't feel this is a big deal or it's normal for you, but that isn't necessary.
  • Feeling bad or singled out when your teammates are present - I can understand this because the person I know doesn't want to be singled out or treated as "the blind person". Sighted people such as myself don't understand that. If you are ok with being blunt, you can treat this as a "teaching moment" and let them know that you and your teammates are all skilled software developers, and that your blindness is does not define you.
4

Actually, "I tried to program and I can't" is not destroying themselves. It's at most a mild put-down of themselves, though that is not how they intend it.

What they are trying to say is "I am pretty smart, but I couldn't do that. Therefore, anyone who can program is smarter than I am. In addition, you're doing it without seeing, which must be harder, so you must be even smarter than that!" They are trying to compliment you. As a result, they expect you to say Thankyou and nothing more. You don't have to comply, of course. There are three basic responses:

Thankyou.

Thankyou, it is hard work; I enjoy it.

I've found it's not so much about being smart as about putting in the effort.

This last one, because it corrects them, is drifting towards rude, but if delivered with a smile it can be ok. Do not say that they could have succeeded at programming if only they had put in the effort. Do not say it's a shame or a pity that programming didn't work out for them.

I get these sorts of "compliments" all the time and I personally find "you must be so smart" very frustrating. Yes, I am to a certain extent smart, something I just am, like being tall (which I am not.) But more importantly I am wise (choosing where to spend my energy), hard working, patient, humble, and a pile of other things I have put in the effort to be. And that has led me to a spot that other people wish they were. Often these people think it's just a matter of "being smart" to get there, and they're wrong. But correcting that is rarely worth the effort.

There is absolutely no case in which the person is belittling your coworkers skills. There is no need to feel humiliated. This is simply a clumsy attempt at praising you for achieving something difficult while not being able to see, by a person who literally cannot imagine how to do that at all. They are surprised and perhaps a little in awe of your abilities. This is a great chance to leave them thinking "I met a blind person once, and they were amazing, they could program and everything!" A smile and a pleasant acknowledgement that yes, programming is hard, and you like doing it and do it well -- that's all that's needed. The less you say, and the quicker you say it, the less focus is on you for being different. So acknowledge their clumsy compliment and move the conversation to something else.

4

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.