I Can Do This With My Eyes Closed: Blogging Against Disablism Day 2017

Once again, it’s Blogging Against Disablism Day—a day when people all over the world take time to write about their experiences with disability to dispel stereotypes and challenge attitudes of ableism. Every year, this date creeps up on me like a stealthy shadow that tip-toes up behind me, suddenly grabbing me and yelling “Boo!” This has largely to do with the fact that BADD inevitably falls in the thick of end-of-semester grading for me, when I can’t tell if the headaches are the result of too much caffeine, not enough caffeine, washing down comma splices with shots of Peach Schnapps, or some combination of all of the above.

Then too, this year, I haven’t written a single blog post in…a while—I don’t know precisely how long it’s been since my last post. Periods between blogging for me have become like the periods between going to confession; bless me readers, for I have sinned. I don’t know how long I’ve been away, but my conscience tells me it’s time to return. In past years, I’ve hastened to cobble together deeply philosophical reflections laced with humor about what I’ve learned from my life as a person with a disability; I’ve written about how my disability has made me a better teacher; I’ve written about the dos and don’ts of interacting with a blind person. This year, however, I dipped into my bag of writing tricks and came up empty, my excuse being simply—and albeit lamely—life.

What, you may ask, have I been doing? I’ve been teaching my classes; I’ve been advocating for the improvement of local public transportation for people with disabilities in my community; I’ve been playing fetch with my dog; I’ve been sharing laughs and bottles of wine with friends; I’ve been watching my nephew grow, marveling at how quickly, how eagerly he’s grasping with tiny hands at this big, big world. In short, I’ve been living, and this, quite simply, is the story that we tell every year on this day.

All day, every day, people with disabilities find themselves the recipients of some form of pity. “Life must be so hard for you,” someone will say. “I don’t know how you do that,” a passer-by will declare when we unlock a door, bend down to pick up a book we’ve dropped, or tie a shoe. All the while, we live; we go about our daily routines, performing these and many other tasks, large and small, in various ways. I don’t mean to minimize the challenges that we do face—difficulty accessing buildings, getting disoriented in unfamiliar places, or depending on the kindness of those around us when our adaptive equipment fails or our service animals are sick, just to name a few. Yet our life experiences are not altogether different than anyone else’s. I teach; I write; I make spaghetti sauce while dancing in my kitchen to the “Mama Mia!” soundtrack. I take long walks with my dog; I bake cake from scratch; I go on dates; I cook dinner for friends; I flirt with the cute bbarista at Starbucks; I drink cheap wine and cry during Colin Firth movies. I live a relatively healthy, relatively happy life, with the added twist of doing it all without looking. All of these rituals and routines, so seemingly mundane, testify to the fact that every day, everywhere, people are barreling through the barriers of ableism simply by living. Can you beat that? No, I didn’t think so either.

It Isn’t Only a Diary: How Bridget Jones Helped Me Find Myself

Dear Bridget,
I’ve wanted to write this for some time now, but whenever I sit down to draft a letter, the words get stuck between my brain and the page. It seems odd, really, to suffer an attack of writer’s block when addressing a woman who was once famously accused of verbal incontinence. You, with your candor and ready wit and your lack of (or perhaps refusal to activate) your brain-to-mouth filter, have often inspired me to practice greater honesty in my life, with others and, more importantly with myself. I have also discovered, as have you, that alcohol, while a seemingly effective tongue lubricant for confessing honesty, occasionally does more harm than good. Over the years, I’ve tried to express to others how much your story means to me, but nothing I’ve ever said has felt like an adequate tribute, so in honor of the 20th anniversary of your story’s publication this year as well as your return to the silver screen this month, now seems a fitting moment to thank you.

I first met you as an overwhelmed, twentysomething, budding feminist graduate student in English Lit, between crying over my inability to grasp Michel Foucault and eating entire cartons of ice-cream. When not slaving over novels that I seemed destined never to finish reading and feeling intellectually inadequate because I couldn’t use the word epistemological in a sentence, I gradually discovered that my social life had slunk off into the darkness, crawled beneath a pile of dirty laundry, and died. As I slumped on the sofa with a bottle of wine and a bag of pretzels, I convinced myself, in a fit of despair reminiscent of my elementary school days, that no one wanted to befriend the strange, bookish blind girl; never mind that I was pursuing a graduate degree in English and was entirely surrounded by strange, bookish people. I imagined everyone was attending swanky wine and cheese parties on Saturday nights and couldn’t be bothered inviting me because no one wanted to give me a ride. The fellow graduate student on whom I’d been crushing turned out to be a Mormon divorcee with three kids who flirted blatantly with me while being engaged to another woman and then tried to set me up with one of his friends. Had I known the textbook definition of a fuckwit at that time, I might never have landed in that particular mess, but I digress. To add insult to injury, my roommate (an undergraduate who was also blind) told me one night that “you dress like a woman twice your age, and it’s really off-putting. People think you’re older than you are.” So now I was not only unpopular; I was so criminally unfashionable that even other blind people shunned me.

Thus I found myself, during winter break after that first semester, de-fogging my brain with your diary. As you poured your heart into my lap, counting calories and alcohol units, self-consciously scrutinizing yourself in dressing-room mirrors, and worrying about dying alone and being eaten by an Alsatian, I realized something. Your struggles, your insecurities, your doubts, your fears were mine too. When I agonized over whether or not the size of my butt was the reason I couldn’t get a date or sulked about not being invited to any fabulous parties, you were doing the same. For one of the few times in my adult life, I experienced the thrill of bonding with another woman over the struggles of, well, simply being a woman.

I had spent most of my life struggling to fit comfortably in my own body, let alone fitting in everywhere else. Rationally, I knew that I couldn’t bow to the stigmas of disability; I couldn’t conform to the image that many people associated with a blind person who groped every day for one of three identical pairs of jeans to avoid a citation from the fashion police. How though, I wondered, could I construct a body image that reflected my personality without having my physical appearance and fashion trends filtered through the eyes of others? Trips to the mall were my personal purgatory, spending hours in front of a mirror that reflected nothing to me, relying on others to tell me honestly whether or not horizontal stripes made me look like a circus tent. This reliance on the judgement of others’ opinions of my body, believing that I couldn’t construct a self-image without the ability to see my own reflection, instilled me with a deep sense of self-loathing. I believed that if someone else told me that I was too tall, or too fat, or my hair looked like a bird’s nest, then it must be true, because they could see what I couldn’t. My body was disabled, abnormal, and therefore unattractive, and this, I gradually learned to believe, explained why I seemed to be a social pariah.

Then, Bridget, I met you, and I felt, for the first time, that someone understood me. My struggles, my self-scrutiny, my feelings of inadequacy had nothing to do with my disability and everything to do with the realities of being a young woman trying desperately to keep up with, as you put it, “Cosmopolitan culture.” You, Bridget, helped me to recognize that what I see in the mirror every day is as much a projection of what I believe my self-image to be as what is actually reflected there. On the one hand, you critically yet comically revealed a sadly enduring pressure on women to maintain unrealistic body image standards; on the other, you revealed to me that I wasn’t alone in my insecurity. My seeming inability to maintain a steady, healthy relationship with a mature adult male had nothing to do with my so-called disabled, abnormal body or the circumference of my thighs and everything to do with the fact that I simply hadn’t met the person who was ready and willing to love me just as I am; moreover, it didn’t (and still doesn’t) matter if I ever do, because being a woman of substance means loving myself with all of my flaws, not defining myself in terms of how others, especially others of the opposite sex, choose to see me. You gave me the courage to believe that if I choose to pursue love, I should settle for nothing less than someone who celebrates my strength and values me as a strong, independent woman; if I choose to remain single, my life and my work make no less valuable contributions to society because of that choice.

In the same way that you dramatically imagined that everyone had forgotten to invite you to their Christmas parties, I allowed my acute loneliness to exaggerate the perfection of everyone else’s lives. I imagined that everyone else had a successful job, a fashion magazine-approved BMI, glamorous circles of friends, and wildly sensational sex lives. Their reality, I gradually discovered, was far closer to my own. You gave me what I’d spent most of my life searching for: the validation that my lived experiences as a woman were, in many ways, no different than those of other women despite sometimes being constructed through the lens of disability.

After connecting with your story, my life didn’t magically change overnight, but that reading experience opened a space for me within the communities of women I began to encounter. You helped me to find a voice to participate in the narratives that women told and bonded over every day, from agonizing over the seemingly unattainable quest to find a perfectly-fitting pair of jeans to wondering if the barista at Starbucks who always gave me extra foam was hitting on me. Having reached this realization, I gradually found myself forming deep, enduring female friendships with women who have loved me, laughed with me, cried with me, eaten countless trays of chocolate chip cookies with me, drunk through enough bottles of wine to fill a black hole, and endured hours of agonizing dressing-room scrutiny and relationship analysis as only women can. You, Bridget, with your self-deprecating humor and your willingness to keep buggering on, taught me to embrace the wonderful, tumultuous, imperfect beauty of simply being a woman.

Be Not Alarmed, Madam, on Receiving this Letter: my Tribute to Jane Austen

Anyone who follows my writing regularly knows that I am a self-professed fan of all things Jane Austen. Recently, I had the honor of being published at the Dear Jane Project, a blog whose mission is to unite Janeites across the world and pay tribute to her brilliance through fan-written letters.

to learn more about the Dear Jane Project, visit the homepage; you can read my letter here. Please do also take the time to check out some of the other letters written to Jane and consider following the project.

As always, thanks for reading!

“But You Don’t Look Blind”: a Reflection on Blogging Against Disablism Day 2016

Several weeks ago, a friend and fellow blogger, Blindbeader, responded to and encouraged her readers to participate in a blogging challenge, entitled “But you don’t look blind.” The challenge asked bloggers to reflect on the statement, whether or not they had found themselves on the receiving end of it, and their thoughts about the statement’s intent and broader implications. As we celebrate Blogging Against Disablism Day, I thought today would offer a useful opportunity to examine this question and the nuances of ableist language.

Who Gets the Comment?

Mostly, sighted people will direct this observation to a blind or visually impaired person whose eye condition is genetic or whose eyes don’t bear the marks of surgery or illness. Someone might also make this observation to a visually impaired person who doesn’t travel with a white cane or a guide dog and appears able to see, read print, and navigate independently using proscription glasses. Many people don’t recognize that blindness, like other illnesses and disabilities, exists on a spectrum; some of us are totally blind, some have peripheral vision, vision in only one eye, or have only light perception (the ability to detect light and shadow). Some of us, like me, have conditions that don’t affect our eyes cosmetically, except for occasional muscle spasms. Since I can only detect light and shadow, my eyes have lost the ability to focus, so I often, especially when tired or in a room with bright light, have difficulty controlling my eye muscles. While it’s often visible if you look closely, someone might not immediately recognize my blindness since I generally try to make eye contact with whomever I’m speaking to, or at least look in the direction of the person’s voice.

Is it a compliment?

Most of the time, when someone observes “you don’t look blind,” she intends it as a compliment. She’s saying—or thinks she’s saying—that the blind person has risen above a disability and refused to let it interfere with the day-to-day rhythms of a fulfilling life. Yet the implicit ableism of this supposed compliment sometimes does more to perpetuate than to dispel myths about disability. To say that we “don’t look” disabled in effect congratulates us for assimilating into able society, concealing our disabilities (as much as we can, if we can) because they make people uncomfortable, or hostile, or can even cost us a job or access to adequate housing. Rather than simply allowing us to comfortably inhabit the bodies we’re born with or have had to learn to fit into, the comment applauds us for performing a “normal,” ableist narrative.

Broader Implications

Ironically, the compliment that applauds us for essentially performing an ableist narrative lends a certain performativity to disability, particularly when we require accommodation; if we don’t appear disabled, very often businesses or individuals will attempt to deny us appropriate accommodation because we don’t appear to need it. As a result, we either have to produce documentation (which can be an inconvenience at best and invasive at worst) or reduce ourselves to performing disability, adopting the perceived traits that you’ve just commended us for overcoming.

Case-in-point: when I moved back to my hometown last summer, I had to apply to ride paratransit because I cannot easily access the stop on the bus route nearest my neighborhood. Paratransit, for those unfamiliar, provides door-to-door service for people unable to drive or to use fixed bus routes because of a disability. You would think, wouldn’t you, that being legally blind and thus not permitted to hold a driver’s license would automatically qualify one for such services, given appropriate medical proof of disability. You would be sadly mistaken.

After submitting my application, I found myself engaging in a strategy session with two friends who use the service to determine how to pass the physical evaluation; in other words, how could I make sure that I appeared disabled enough to qualify for the accommodation I was requesting?
“You’re legally blind,” one friend said. “You’ll qualify. I’m sure they won’t give you a problem.”
“Well, here’s the thing though,” chimed in the other friend. “I don’t know if you realize how independent you are, and in a case like this one, that’s going to count against you.”
“so basically,” I concluded, “You’re telling me that I have to appear helpless?”
“Pretty much, yeah.”

In short, I was expected to perform disability, conform to the mold of what the system expected of a blind person to prove my blindness, because any sign of independence would count as evidence against my case. Blind people don’t have PhDs, or live alone, or hold down steady jobs, or essentially do anything independently, according to that logic. My independence, for which I had labored so long and hard, was now, in an irritating twist of irony, holding me back.

I ultimately refused to bow to this logic, because when we do, we just perpetuate the myth. Living independently doesn’t make me Wonderwoman, and it doesn’t deny me rights to reasonable accommodation. At the other end of the spectrum, reasonable accommodations don’t make people with disabilities helpless; on the contrary, they enrich our quality of life and increase our independence. To assume me somehow less capable because I have a disability, and then to believe me somehow unqualified for reasonable accommodations because I don’t appear to need them assumes false knowledge about my life with a disability. That cliché about walking a mile in my shoes before you criticize? Yeah, that applies here.

Why Can’t We Just Accept the Compliment?

I have tried, over the years, to accept this “compliment” gracefully, but unfortunately, ableist thinking has conditioned us to bristle at these comments—to react with suspicion to any observation that could potentially be an accusation that we are not, in fact, legitimately disabled. Do we want you to ultimately see past our disabilities and respect us as diverse, unique, talented individuals who can contribute to society just as productively as you can? Certainly we do, but are our disabilities also an inescapable reality of the narratives we live every day? Unfortunately yes. The implication that we are faking disability implies that we’re simply trying to manipulate the system so that we can receive services and accommodations that make our lives easier, and it’s this mindset that has actually created increasingly annoying roadblocks for legitimately, legally disabled people to receive those services, whether related to transportation, employment, education, housing, or government financial assistance, the last of which has become so convoluted that many people simply abandon the process because fighting the red tape takes more hours in a day than any human has. When you tell us that we don’t “Look blind,” you imply that we look “normal,” according to your ableist definition of normal, but did you ever consider that for us, our lived experiences in our disabled bodies are our concept of “normal?” Today, as we consider how to break down the stigmas of disability, I challenge you to step back and reexamine the ways that your words and actions can disable us just as much as, if not more than the disabilities we live with.

Question

Has anyone ever told you that you “don’t look disabled” or “sick”? How do you handle this comment?

A Love Letter to my Future Husband

Dear future husband,
I don’t know your name or where you live; I don’t know how or where we’ll meet, or if the sound of your laughter will send the butterflies in my stomach into an Olympic gymnastics routine. I don’t know your favorite food, if you prefer coffee or tea, if you’re an early bird or a night owl. I don’t know if you leave socks on the floor or compulsively fold your underpants at night. I don’t know how your skin smells straight from the shower or if you like the way my hair tickles your face when I tuck my head beneath your chin. But I do know one thing. I know you probably have a lot of questions, because you probably never imagined you’d spend the rest of your life with someone who can’t see. Life has a funny way of blind-siding us like that.

Picture of a couple holding hands (image credit Ed Gregory via Stokpic)

You’re probably wondering how I can hold down a job or cook a meal, or how I’m going to bathe our children and change their diapers. You’re probably wondering how, in the early stages of our relationship, your family and friends will accept me—if they’ll accept me. They will, because together we will help them to see beyond the blindness to the strong, confident, woman of substance who loves you. I can promise you that answers to all of these questions will present themselves in time if you allow yourself to search for them. A relationship is a process of discovery, and when we fear discovery, we go through life in ignorance.

Let these questions be some of the many you will ask in your process of discovering the woman you love, along with discovering how I like my eggs cooked or if I think the toilet paper roll should flip up or down. Don’t let the fear of the answers prevent you asking the question. Don’t let the fear of discovery prevent you from welcoming someone into your life and into your heart who is ready to love you unconditionally.

I can’t promise you that life will always be easy, but of course, no one can promise you that. I hope, however, that during our life together, you will learn to see my blindness not as a burden, but as a gift. You will see it when you tell me that everything is okay and I can hear in your voice, without seeing your face or your body language, that you just need me to hold you for a little while; when the power goes out in the middle of the night and I can find the flashlights and batteries more quickly than you can; when you find yourself pausing to notice how a sunset tinges the clouds with pink just so you can describe it to me; when your hand guides me through our new home, painting a picture of the dreams that will fill the rooms with color and light. I hope that you will learn that we both have tools and talents, strengths and weaknesses to bring to the life we build with each other, but until then, I will cultivate my love for others—my love for my family, my friends, and most importantly, for myself, because the fact that you haven’t walked into my life yet doesn’t mean that you won’t or that I’m not worthy of your love. It simply means our paths have yet to cross, and when they’re meant to, we will both be ready.

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Writer and Teacher

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