My Blind Life in a Sighted World: Educated and illiterate?

One fine Wednesday morning in 2008, after having convinced myself of the need for a second bank account, I decided to go to Kingdom Bank, (Sad now it is closed). My friend who was with me assisted me to fill in all the details in the forms to open an account except for the signature. Upon submission of the forms, The bank teller responsible for opening accounts handed me a pen and instructed me to put my signature. I told her that I had no knowledge of how to use a pen to make any intelligible mark which I could remember for purposes of it being my signature. I requested her to allow me to use a thumb print instead. This, she flat-footedly refused charging that a thumb print could never be considered a signature in terms of the rules of the bank. The teller then made a fatal error of interaction which triggered the activist in me.

“You can’t say you cannot sign”, she said. “In this bank we have Judith who works in the bank and she is blind like you but she signs”. With a stern face and a very resolute voice I said to her, “Excuse me mam! In case you did not read my papers. My name is Abraham Mateta and not Judith. Never dare repeat that blunder again or else you will live to regret it for the rest of your professional life. I can’t use a pen just as you can’t use a braille stylus. That’s all. Stop bringing the name of a third person into this conversation because it’s me who wants the account not Judith.”

The argument got heated and tempers flared. The bank teller told me in no uncertain terms how much power she wielded concerning the opening of my account and she emphatically stated that even if she were to use her discretion, bank rules would never allow her to open an account for a person who could not put a signature like me. She authoritatively told me therefore that my request for opening an account with the bank was declined. To this, I just said,

“Please kindly put it in writing then I will definitely sue you individually and will also sue your bank so that it be held vicariously liable for your conduct which in my view amounts to discrimination on grounds of disability”. That statement was the turning point because from that moment onwards, I never heard from the young teller again. I found myself face to face with a certain gentleman who addressed himself as Ronald and apparently he was the one to whom the young taylor reported. He allowed me to use a thumb print as a signature but indicated that since their bank had no fingerprint scanners, I would have to do my transactions at the branch until my ATM card would be out.

Of course, with time, I have learnt to negotiate issues of signature more softly and at home, it is a generally accepted norm that I can use my thumbprint to sign. In 2017, I went into a very reputable financial institution in the United States for a small transaction which required my signature and I was shocked to learn that they did not have a way around this situation as well. I was advised that I had only two options. Either to sign in print or get a power of attorney which indicates any other person who could sign on my behalf. I said to the person serving me,

“seriously! so in the US where we read about the blind people being passionate about their autonomy, how are you managing to do that?” Here in Nairobi, where I am currently based, it had to take more than a month for me to have my account opened by a very reputable bank and this was partially attributable to the issue of the signature. It is therefore, clear that the obstinate sighted world is much bigger than I ever imagined. This sighted world refuses to come to terms with our blind lives.

Picture of Abraham Mateta standing

dear reader, in case you may be wondering why I am raging like this, a gentle reminder will do. I am one of those who fortunately lost sight when I was so young and had to do my first grade in Braille. I have never learnt officially and unofficially how to use a pen and as a matter of principle, I have found attempts to teach me to use a pen very oppressive. I find it quite discomfiting that with all my education, the sighted world continues to treat me as an illiterate person. This is done first by refusing to accept alternative methods of marks for purposes of signatures but secondly and more broadly, by refusing to offer information in accessible formats. The latter is a discussion topic which I may want to deal with separately.

On a lighter note, a close friend sent me a message in June that almost broke my ribs with laughter,1Ndakapotsa ndatyoka mbabvu nekuseka (My apology, I am thinking in Shona and writing in English).

This friend, whose name I will protect for security reasons wrote to say,

“I dreamt of you seeing and there was not even a trace of blindness in you.” In my gracious response to my friend I just said, “I do appreciate that it is very cold in Zimbabwe. I therefore encourage you to have enough blankets. Cheers”.

One thing which I did not tell my good friend however is that I do have more than a thousand reasons why I never wish to see and one of those reasons is precisely that I do not wish to join the oppressive sighted world.

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    Ndakapotsa ndatyoka mbabvu nekuseka

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