No, I Don’t Want to Feel Your Face: or, a Quick Guide to not Insulting Someone with a Disability

This Blogging Against Disablism Day, I find myself reflecting on a refreshingly honest question I received from a student several years ago: “What do you think is the most difficult thing about being blind?”
“Everything,” I quipped, only half-joking.

To the average non-disabled person, living with a disability can often seem like trudging daily up a steep, endless hill that you can never reach the crest of. On most days, I cope as well as anyone, but on some days, I simply don’t have enough spoons—a term popularly used in the disabled community to describe a lack of energy to accomplish simple everyday tasks that a non-disabled person takes for granted. In this, however, we are not altogether different than the rest of you. The experience of the “terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day” is universal, but living with a disability, or at least with certain disabilities, isn’t necessarily an interminable struggle. It involves developing coping mechanisms that allow us to live normal lives, and normal is a term relative to our own experiences. Harnessing my guide dog or picking up my white cane with one hand and my keys with the other before I walk out the door is just as normal to me as getting into your car and driving to work is to you.

The term normal, when invoked in conversations about disability, sets up a dangerous binary; it associates an implicitly negative connotation with anything that’s somehow different. Someone who navigates the world with a guide dog, or a white cane, or a wheelchair, or a scooter might appear different to you, but this is their normal. When you stare, when you point, when you walk up to us and ask impertinent questions that you’d never consider appropriate to ask a non-disabled person (questions ranging from state of health to whether someone lives alone), you place us on exhibition. On a side-note, I have frequently been asked whether I live alone, always by men, never by women, and always when I’m unaccompanied in public, which raises questions about the intersection between sexism and ableism; why do non-disabled men think it appropriate to approach a woman with a disability in this way?

I raise these issues not to discourage questions about disability; on the contrary, questioning is essential to productive dialogue. As a teacher, I have the job of guiding students through the process of asking questions to gain a deeper understanding of the world they live in. Most of the time, questions come from a place of genuine curiosity and a desire to seek understanding. Having said that, we must also recognize that asking questions about one’s disability potentially crosses boundaries of privacy, depending on the nature of the question. Some disabilities, like mine, are genetic; others are the result of illness or injury. Whatever the cause, learning to cope with a disability is sometimes traumatic and always challenging, and we reserve the right to decide when, how, and with whom to share those narratives of struggle and triumph.

When encountering a person with a disability for the first time, determining what to say or fearing that you’ll inadvertently give offense can create a lot of unnecessary tension. The lists of dos and don’ts can very depending on the person and the disability, but from my experience, here are some of the more common pitfalls to avoid:

1. Don’t tell me that if I pray harder, someday, god will heal me; there’s nothing to heal because I’m not broken, and frankly, he could have saved himself the trouble by giving me a fully functioning pair of eyes in the first place. He had his reasons. I work with what he gave me and don’t ask questions. On another note, as a practicing Catholic, I find this comment particularly irritating because it implies that my disability is somehow the result of my own lack of faith–or worse, my sinfulness.
2. Don’t ask me if I want to feel your face; I really don’t, and I never will—ever, ever, ever, ever. I can’t reiterate this enough, and the world just doesn’t contain enough Purell for me to wander around touching random strangers’ faces.
3. Don’t assume that if I’m with someone that the person is my “keeper”—a word I’ve actually (and unfortunately) heard used before, as if people with disabilities are zoo exhibits. There are, of course, individuals who work as aids and personal care attendants, and this is just the reality of living with a disability—that we sometimes require varying degrees of assistance. This does not, however, mean that people with disabilities cannot form fully functional relationships; we have families, friends, and romantic partners who choose to spend time with us because they find pleasure in our company, not because we require them too. Similarly, personal care attendants, ASL interpreters, readers, drivers, mobility instructors, etc. often develop deep bonds of friendship and mutual respect with their clients—the natural result of the access they’re granted to the daily rhythms and routines of another person’s life. In short, people with disabilities can and do develop strong interpersonal relationships not entirely founded on our dependence on others.
4. Don’t speak to the person with me instead of addressing me directly. This applies particularly in food service and retail. I might occasionally forget the name of an outlandish dish someone’s just read me on the menu, but please do me the courtesy of allowing me to speak for myself. I once had a sale’s clerk in a department store ask my mother questions about my dress size, because apparently my inability to see my reflection in a mirror also meant that I couldn’t judge the shape and size of my own body, even though I’m the one occupying said body. A little sensitivity training over here, please and thank you?
5. Don’t ask me if I can “see any better today,” which sadly has also occurred because some people missed the memo that a permanent disability is, well, permanent. Unless gene therapy makes more impressive strides than it already has, my answer to this question is never going to change.

Believe it or not, the salient takeaway here is both glaringly obvious and profoundly important. People with disabilities are just that–people. We have hearts, minds, hopes, dreams, jobs, families, friends, and talents to share with the world. Extend to us the same respect you’d extend toward any human being. More simply put, to borrow a quote from Henry James, “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind, the second is to be kind, and the third is to be kind.”

Coffee and Conversation: or, the Time I Accidentally Insulted Siri

I wish we were actually having coffee instead of virtually, because if we were actually having coffee, we’d be having an actual conversation about something worth-while, like how to solve the problem of world hunger, or establishing once and for all how many licks it takes to get to the Tootsie-Roll center of a Tootsie Pop.

Since we aren’t really having coffee, though, we aren’t having a real conversation, which means that I’ve been reduced to having conversations with my technology. I don’t think I’ve crossed over as far as Raj on “The big Bang Theory” just managing to avoid arguing with Siri over wine selections in Trader Joe’s, but I fear that tipping point is dangerously close.

Confession: I did tear a leaf from Raj’s book and train Siri to call me “Darling.” Yes, I do use the British male voice, and I do like to pretend being called Darling by a disembodied voice is comparable to being called darling by an actual man*mumbles* Colin Firth. Yeah, judgement-free zone here, remember? Moving on.

I recently upgraded to an iPhone 8 and quickly discovered that its new and improved home button is about as sensitive as our president on Twitter. The simplest thing sets it off, which I discovered to my frustration when I attempted multiple times to access my home screen and kept accidentally engaging Siri. At one point, I became so aggravated that I exclaimed, “I don’t want you, Siri!” To my surprise, Siri responded, “You don’t? You Don’t?” in a tone that might as well have said, “Thanks for mercilessly crushing my soul and obliterating my reason for existing. See if I wake you up tomorrow.” What does it say about me that I can’t recall the last time I bothered going to Confession, but I’m rendered nearly prostrate with guilt over inadvertently offending my smartphone? Such was the severity of my guilt, in fact, that I immediately retracted my rejection with an “I’m sorry, Siri.”
“It’s forgotten, darling,” he replied. Now I’m not sure if I feel disturbed by the extent of my emotional attachment to my phone, or spiritually rejuvenated because my phone just granted me Absolution.

Do you carry on conversations with your smart phone? What was the oddest thing you asked Siri? Do you greet Alexa before you say hello to your kids? Tell me about it.

Bidding a Fond Farewell: a Tribute to Knight, 2002-2017

Dear Knight,
Whenever someone who hasn’t met you asks me to tell them a story about what you were like, I tell the story of the day we met. It was a hot, sticky, Long Island day in mid-July, the summer before my junior year of college, and I was about to embark on my greatest adult adventure to date: moving off-campus into an apartment with two of my best friends. Quick walks to class from my dorm to the main campus would now be replaced by arranging my own transportation. No more popping into the campus café for my customary tuna sandwich on the way home from class; now I had to walk across the street to the local Super-Target for my groceries. Increased independence meant increased mobility, and getting a guide dog seemed, to me, the blind equivalent of receiving a driver’s license. Not to mention, being a young woman with a disability, I saw a certain appeal in having the security of a big scary dog. As it turned out, our nearest neighbors were a group of boys whose major threat seemed to be smoking marijuana, playing beer-pong, and reciting drunken, impromptu poetry to us as we passed in the hall, and you were more afraid of them than they were of you, but that’s another story.

As soon as I completed summer classes, I boarded a plane to Smithtown, New York to spend four weeks at the Guide Dog Foundation, learning how to navigate the world with a furry, four-legged pair of eyes. After two days of introductory instruction on guide dog handling and dormitory rules, which included, among other things, no dogs on the bed, we were called into the lounge to receive our dogs’ names before returning to our rooms to wait for trainers to bring them to us so we could spend a few minutes bonding before our first walk. I remember very little about the wait time, other than wiping my sweaty palms on the white shorts that I really wished I hadn’t packed for the trip once I learned you were a black Lab. Eventually, a knock sounded at the door, a trainer entered, placed a leather leash in my hand, and backed out.
“So, what now?” I thought as I ran tentative fingers along your silky ears—ears that would soon listen to and put up with more than any human I’d ever known. For the first, but not the last time, you seemed to read my mind. Sensing my hesitation, you cocked your ears, put your head on one side and regarded me with mild curiosity. Then, without invitation, you leapt onto the bed, settled down in the center, rested your head on your front paws, and thumped your tail once as if to say, “Okay, I’m waiting. I’ve got a job to do here.” There was that rule about dogs on the bed, but apparently it didn’t apply to you. Rules were for anyone who didn’t know their way around the world; you did, and you wasted no time letting me know that.

At only 19 months old, you possessed the poise and wisdom of one who had seen, done, and learned much; you sized me up and decided you were smarter than I was, and you took it upon yourself to show me that whatever we did, wherever we went, we did it your way or not at all. Over the next four weeks of training, we butted heads a lot. One afternoon, we took 45 minutes to complete a route that should have only taken us 15, and probably would have if I’d listened to you and turned right at that corner instead of crossing the street. If you could talk, you’d insist that we didn’t actually get lost in the middle of Flushing; I got lost. You just went along with my stupidity to silently teach me a lesson. You did that a lot, and eventually, after countless wrong turns, a few floods of tears, and several scraped knees, I began to listen to your words of wisdom, spoken in the quiet, self-assured way you carried yourself in every situation. When I wanted to turn left and you knew we needed to turn right, you’d stand perfectly still and swish your tail against my thigh. “Trust me, I know what I’m doing,” you seemed to say.

We took a lot of walks during the years we spent together, traversing everything from college campuses to crowded airports. In your spare time, you chased lizards, rifled trash cans, discovered how to pry the lid off a container of dog treats, and insisted that however much room you had to yourself, the best place to sleep was on my feet. You loved wishbone chew toys, having your ears scratched, and licking babies’ fingers; you feared absolutely nothing—the single exception being inflatable snowmen, for reasons that none of us have ever satisfactorily understood. You graduated college with me, yawned your way through my Master’s degree, and when I embarked on my first semester of teaching, you were everyone’s favorite student. You even saw me through the first two years of earning a PhD before you decided you’d had more than enough school than any dog should have to endure.

It seemed fitting that the last journey we took together was the plane ride back to New York, to the very same spot where we first met. As the moment of separation approached, I wished, not for the first time, that God had seen fit to give dogs the capacity for speech. How was I going to explain to you that when I kissed your nose and said goodbye, it would be for the last time? I was returning to the Foundation to train with a second dog, and while I knew rationally that I would come to love your successor as much as I loved you, handing your leash off to my uncle, who’d generously offered you a retirement home with his family, felt like detaching a piece of my heart. When my uncle walked back out to the car to take you to his home—your new home—would you wonder where I was?

Even as, hours later, my lap and heart made room for a new friend, I wondered about you. Were you looking for me? Would you be happy? I stopped worrying when my uncle called to tell me that the first thing you did when you arrived at your new home was jump on the couch and knock over the Emmy Award statuette my uncle had received for his graphics work for NBC during the 1992 Olympic Games. I was mortified; you shrugged it off with one dismissive tail-wag. The fact that they kept you after that is a true testament to how easily people fell in love with you. I’d spend the next six years receiving regular bulletins from my family about your adventures in retirement, which consisted primarily of indulging in the forbidden fruits of a working dog: sleeping on furniture, feasting on table scraps, and being generally lazy. True to your nature, however, you continued to live a life of service to others, devoting yourself to the business of loving your family with the dedication of one who takes pride in having a job to do, even if that job was as simple as being there with a wet tongue and a wagging tail at the end of a long day. You approached life with a Zen-like calm that I always envied and never mastered. You left indelible pawprints on the world and the hearts of everyone whose hand you licked.

When, several weeks ago, it came time for you to leave us, you made your exit as you did all things—in your way, on your terms. Under no circumstances would you forgo your last bowl of kibble; the journey across the Rainbow Bridge was long, after all, and you needed sustenance. I laughed when I learned that, on arriving at the vet for the last time, you wouldn’t settle until you’d shoved your head into a box of blankets for one last, great sniff, and finally, when you were ready, you lay down. I wasn’t surprised to be told that the last look in your philosophical brown eyes was one of all-knowing peace: “I was given a job, I did what I came here to do, and now it’s time for me to leave.”

Some religious doctrine tells us that dogs have no afterlife because they have no souls, but a dog is the absolute embodiment of unconditional love, and what is the soul if not a reflection of God’s love? You were formed for a purpose by the Creator of all things, and I can do no less than believe that when your soul crossed that rainbow bridge, the Creator was there to greet you with a much-deserved pat for a job well done. May you have endless space to run, your wishbones have eternal flavor, your ears be always scratched, and your tail wag eternally.

Coffee, Pumpkin, and a Dash of Snark

This week, if we were having coffee, we’d be having pumpkin coffee, because tis the season, and that’s what we’re serving here. If you don’t like pumpkin, then you can get your coffee someplace else, or seek professional medical advice, because you probably had your taste buds surgically removed by aliens without your knowledge. My pantry is currently hosting all manner of pumpkin-flavored treats, from coffee, to oatmeal, to Costco’s pumpkin muffins, which produce a feeling of joy only second to that which I occasionally experience when taking Holy Communion.

Girl dancing alone in an autumn forest (image credit Ed Gregory via Stokpic)
The heavens are telling the glory of autumn!

In an ideal diet, the four food groups would be chocolate, peanut butter, alcohol, and pumpkin. What? Alcohol is fermented fruit. Don’t tell me that’s not a food group. Sit down.

If we were having coffee, you’d get to hear about how one of my paratransit drivers on the way home from work last week tried to convert me to Christianity, because apparently Catholicism doesn’t count. I’ve heard this misinformed argument before, but this is neither the time nor the place to debunk it. I could have thrown all kinds of historical evidence at him to argue that all denominations of Christianity are derivatives of Catholicism, but in fact (and this might surprise you) I’m actually not that obnoxious. Sufficed to say, however, I don’t take kindly to the suggestion that I’m not a Christian.

I talk for a living, so usually at the end of the day, I like my head space, and I don’t want anyone invading it. It’s not that I’m rude or uncommunicative. On the contrary, anyone who knows me well will tell you that once I start talking, good luck shutting me up, but when you’ve spent your entire day repeating the rules of the Oxford comma five times in a row, trust me, it dulls your enthusiasm for conversation.

“So, do you know Jesus?” the driver asked.
“Yes, he lives next-door.” (I wish I’d said this. Hello, staircase wit. We meet again.) “Yes, I’m Catholic,” was my actual, underwhelmingly non-witty reply.
“Oh, you’re Catholic?” The driver asked this in the tone you might imagine someone asking, “Oh, you eat babies?”

He proceeded to continue asking questions including was I married? Did I have children? Why didn’t I live with my parents? (Yet another person who hasn’t received the memo that people with disabilities can and do live alone without harming themselves or their immediate neighbors). The questions continued for my entire commute: Did I have friends? Was my dog Catholic too? (That one, I had to admit, was funny, so, small bonus). As a rule, I limit my conversations with my paratransit drivers to “Turn left at the mailbox,” so my reserves of patience had been stretched well beyond their limits. When he asked me why I didn’t live with anyone, I may or may not have replied with some variation of “because I’m not really a fan of people.” He seemed to run out of questions at this point. Make of this what you will; I’m admitting nothing.

In the department of happy-making things, autumn, in addition to the season of pumpkin, is also my season for cozy mysteries. Since the crimes are generally culinary in nature and often include either recipes or tangential mini-lectures from the main character about food, cozy mysteries are, quite literally, junk food for the brain. My current series of choice is the Coffee House Mystery series by Clio Coyle, which is surprisingly more cerebral than some of the other cozy mysteries I’ve read (Joanne Fluke, anyone?). Full disclosure: despite what I’ve always said to the contrary about genre fiction not being a dirty word, I have rather discerning tastes when it comes to the cozy mystery genre. Okay, let’s not mince words; I’m a total snob about my cozy mysteries. I’m not far enough into the series to offer a balanced review, but I love a good cozy. Give me one that pairs a credibly-spun plot with the perfect cup of coffee, and you’ve brewed me a braingasm.

So, tell me about you; what are you reading? What are you drinking? What do you love about autumn? If you noticed that my sweat is starting to smell vaguely of cinnamon and nutmeg when you hug me, would you tell me?

From Hilarity to Heartbreak and Back Again: some Thoughts on Seeing “Kingsman: the Golden Circle”

When news broke that “Kingsman: the Secret Service” (2015) would be followed by a sequel, my initial reaction was one of skepticism. I only became a convert after the trailer dropped at this year’s comic Con, and I approached the film much as I approach any film that falls somewhere on the parody spectrum—fully intending to embrace it for what it was without allowing my hyper-critical eye to interfere with my enjoyment. When I finally saw “Kingsman: the Golden Circle” on opening weekend, I didn’t expect my emotions to run the gamut from hysterical laughter to heartbroken in what amounted to 2 hours and 20 minutes of emotional whiplash.

In short, after the Kingsman headquarters are destroyed, the agents journey to America and team up with their “American cousins,” the Statesman, and work to bring down a drug cartel known as the Golden Circle.

*****WARNING!***** Some of what follows is shamelessly spoiler-y. I make no further apologies. Read on at your own risk.

Given that the first film left me reeling, I recognize in hindsight that I should have braced myself for the roller-coaster. Even after having weeks to reflect and process, my emotions are still spinning madly in multiple directions, so what follows amounts less to a review than a list-style breakdown of the key takeaways for me.

Happy-Making Things

Eggsy- When I reviewed “Kingsman: the Secret Service,” I observed that Taron Egerton held his own remarkably well amongst the likes of seasoned actors including Mark Strong, Samuel L. Jackson, and Colin Firth. In “The Golden Circle,” Egerton owns the screen. Now adorably awkward, now authoritative, Egerton has matured both as a Kingsman agent and as an actor. Committed to putting his training into practice and living out Harry’s legacy (more on that later), he still maintains a certain tenderness beneath his toughened armor that made us first fall in love with and cheer for Eggsy.

Merlin- Mark Strong brings immense depth to this character. Alternating between tough and tender, he’s clearly shouldered the responsibility of filling (or at least trying to fill) the void that losing Harry has left in Eggsy’s life. Beneath the repeated remonstrances to “remember your training,” Merlin’s respect for Eggsy not as a mentee, but as a fellow agent shows itself markedly when the pair find themselves the only survivors after their headquarters are destroyed and together they must bear the grief of their lost colleagues as they continue the work they’ve set out to do. Not to mention (SPOILER ALERT!) you can’t help but admire a man who can muster the strength to belt out a chorus of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” in his final moments as he stands on a landmine.

Harry Hart- Once again, Colin Firth delivers an exquisitely nuanced performance. With seamless precision, he balances tender timidity with—there’s just no other way to put this—ass-kicking authority. The scene in which Eggsy uses the puppy to trigger Harry’s memories demonstrates this balancing act most effectively; in the instant that Harry regains his awareness, we can almost hear a click in Firth’s brain as he activates that switch. Can I just say here that their embrace, with Harry cradling the puppy in one arm, is pure hurt/comfort fanfiction gold? My heart crumbled like a warm brownie straight from the oven.

Admittedly, the idea of resurrecting Hart by injecting fluid into the brain after covering the eyes with something that resembles the plastic wrap in my kitchen cupboard stretches the boundaries of plausibility, but Matthew Vaughn never promised us plausible. On the contrary, from the moment we learned that Harry Hart would be returning from the dead, Vaughn was basically saying “check plausible at the door. Here are your suspension of disbelief glasses. Have fun.”

Poppy- Julianne Moore makes a delightfully devilish villain, and this is quite possibly one of my favorite of her performances. Saccharine sweet and smooth-talking, she utilizes every moment of her screen time to hypnotize her audience. If she can convince one of her henchman to swallow a bite of a meat pattie consisting of one of his own dismembered limbs, the rest of us don’t stand a chance. Go home, villains of the world. Poppy’s got this one covered.

Critical Concerns

Storyline- admittedly, the plot is all over the map. from Eggsy’s relationship with Princess Tilde (Hanna Ahlstrom), to Harry’s Amnesia, to the war on drugs, we never quite know where to look. Despite this fact, however, the film still works, because what it might lack in plot continuity, it more than makes up for with character dynamics. These characters—and the actors who portray them—have established such clearly authentic bonds of friendship that we want to spend more time with them in whichever wacky direction they choose to take us. Most of those adventures predictably involve some heavily alcohol-lubricated, testosterone-charged male bonding, but when you give me Colin Firth cuddling a puppy, my iron feminist resolve will immediately crack. I’m sorry, but you can’t read the words Colin Firth and puppy in the same sentence and not feel, just for a moment, that nothing bad will ever happen to the planet ever again. Don’t judge. On that note, though…

Ginger Ale- In an otherwise scathing review, the New York times pointed out, not altogether unfairly, that The Golden Circle is a man’s film, and women have to get behind. Unfortunately, this proves largely true in the case of Halle Berry’s brilliantly-played Ginger Ale. Intelligent and capable, she can clearly hold her own amongst the male agents and can handle far more than tech support, yet she constantly gets passed over for field work when Agent Whiskey (excellently portrayed by Pedro Pascal) votes her down. In fairness, however, “The golden Circle” manages a challenging balancing act in a film that’s part-parody, part-tribute to the spy genre—a genre that has a notorious reputation for being less than kind to female characters. Of course, Ginger Ale does get her moment of glory in the end, and while I’d have liked to see her character developed further, her promotion gestures toward that potential development since whispers have already begun circulating about rounding the franchise out into a trilogy.

“The Golden Circle” also boasts performances from Jeff Bridges (Champ), Channing Tatum (Tequila), and a hilariously outlandish appearance by the one and only Elton John. If audiences continue to respond well to the film, the likelihood of that third sequel materializing will increase. It finished first in the box-office on opening weekend, grossing $39 million in the U.S and $100 million worldwide, and its earnings have since nearly doubled its $104 million production budget. Despite mixed critical reviews, fans have clearly not been disappointed, and I for one am already on board with Eggsy, Harry, and the rest of the gang in whatever adventures await them.

Writer and Teacher

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