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