THE BLOG

I Am More Than My Disability

04/10/2015 12:32 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

At one time, the best news was hearing about a gay house party. I was 17, newly out, and feeling great about coming to terms with my sexuality. And while I had never been a wallflower during my short straight-pretending days, being immersed in a sea of gay boys my age somehow made me even more outgoing. With my crew, the same group of friends that years later would blind me, we made attending gay parties our thing. We swept through backyard gatherings that year, dressed in the flashiest clothes our mall jobs could afford.

In retrospect, my teenage confidence came from my choice of hairstyle -- a military buzz-cut -- and from the brand of clothing I wore. But as I got older and attended clubs and, later, work-related functions, my self-assurance derived from being able to converse on various topics. Technology, wine, literature, I could yap about just about anything.

Seventeen years later, I am now blind, a writer, a college instructor and a staffing consultant. Still, when I attend social functions, people focus on my disability. No matter how hard I try to discuss the news or the hottest restaurant, people always revert back to my lack of sight. And at gay parties, people tend to ask more intimate questions.

"Do you dress yourself?"

"Who feeds you?"

"Do you want your sight back? Why not?"

The inquisitive nature of the LGBT community sometimes takes me back to my adolescence -- that era full of uncertainty. If I tell the inquiring person that I don't want to discuss my blindness, they tend to walk away, leaving me talking to myself. But if I don't hold back, and I share that I lost my sight from a brutal assault in San Francisco's infamous Castro District, they cry or start to vent about the hate that goes on within the gay community. Either scenario feels like a downer and makes me think hard about what to share and with whom.

Because I cover technology, careers, gay culture and disability stories for various publications, I find meet ups through Meetup.com very useful. The website, which is fairly accessible for the blind, suggests events to go to based on hobbies and work interests. So, when I heard my laptop read an email alert suggesting I may want to join a meetup called Gays Who Tech, I could not help but smile. Clicking the "Yes, I will attend" link, I flashed back to the last gay meet up I showed up at, where I heard the five attendees cry over my blindness story. Petting my guide dog Oslo's soft head, I pushed the memory away and decided to give the gay techie meet up the old college try.

Oslo and I arrived at Blush on 18th and Castro and were seated at a large table. Over some light chatter, I ordered a glass of wine, feeling good about my decision to attend. Like I had done with other meetups, I posted a comment telling the group I was blind and that they needed to greet me as I would not be able to spot them. Wondering how many guys may have read the note, I waited for the group.

One by one, the men began to show up and reach out to me. Large and small hands tapped my shoulder and I heard different voices ask if I was Belo.

I quickly engaged many of the men in conversation and I was stunned to hear that none of the inquiries that evening dealt with my disability. All questions were aimed at Oslo, my writing or my experience recruiting for startups. And before I knew it, the event began to wrap up. With a handful of business cards that I would later scan, I left the event feeling energized.

I know that people don't mean to be malicious or rude when they zero in on my lack of sight. However, having to answer things related to how I function in the world often becomes taxing. Maybe the gay techies didn't focus on my blindness because many of them are familiar with adaptive technology or perhaps they've even created applications themselves to help someone with a disability. Whatever it was, the Gays Who Tech meetup brought me to that time when I was 17, in someone's backyard, and socializing simply for the fun of it.

Belo Cipriani is a freelance journalist, the award-winning author of Blind: A Memoir and Midday Dreams, and a spokesperson for Guide Dogs for the Blind. Learn more at www.BeloCipriani.com. You are also invited to connect with him on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and YouTube.