Tag Archives: Blogging Against Disablism Day

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.”

Open Your Eyes: Blogging Against Disablism Day 2012

Those of you who know me or who have been following this blog for any length of time know that in addition to being sexy, intelligent, witty, a decent cook, and modest to a fault, I am blind: or rather, I am a person who happens to be blind. There is a difference between being a blind person and a person who happens to be blind, and it is not a subtle one. Every day, we tell ourselves stories about who we are, and those stories shape the images we create of ourselves and the world in which we live. To call myself a blind person would be true, but it would also be a severe understatement—an oversight of the many ingredients that, mixed together, make up the unique flavor of my personality.

Today is Blogging Against Disablism Day, and as I reflect upon the ways in which society defines me by the disable label, I also find myself thinking about the eye-opening moments I have been privileged enough to share with those who have been willing to look beyond that label.

Last spring, I taught a course in 20th Century British Literature, but I was transparent about my passion for my area of specialization—the Nineteenth Century—and especially my Jane Austen fanaticism. One of my students, who I afterward affectionately termed my “Jane Austen student,” came gushing to me after class one day about her trip to England the previous summer and, in particular, her visit to Chawton House—the residence of Jane Austen.
“I have pictures,” she informed me. “If you’d like, I can bring them next class and show you.” Insert very long, uncomfortable pause punctuated by chirping crickets. Class had been in session for roughly four weeks at this point; either this student was terribly unobservant of the Labrador that sat curled at my feet during every lesson, or she needed to have her own eyes checked out. That said, I have non-confrontational tattooed across my forehead, so rather than point out the obvious and add an even thicker layer of awkwardness to an already awkward situation, I smiled and responded, “I’d love to be able to see them.” ‘Hurrah,’ I thought. ‘I am a paragon of inner poise and diplomacy.’ I said “I’d love to be able to see them,” which was, I thought, the truth. I would, but I could not.

“great!” responded my student. (Did she need a bomb to drop on her?). In this case, it was my dog discretely, or not-so-discretely, treading on her foot with his paw.

When I walked into class the following day, I wondered whether or not Jane Austen student would in fact remember to bring her pictures of Chawton and, if she did, how I would explain to her that I would not, in fact, be able to see them, much as I wished to. ‘Idiot,’ I thought. ‘Golden opportunity for a teachable moment here, and because you’re such a politically-correct chickenshit, you’ve let it slip right past.’ As I suspected, Jane Austen student did in fact bring her pictures and suggested walking to my office with me so she could share them. Now the moment had come; there was no way out, but how could I offend her when she’d gone out of her way to bring the pictures and seemed so enthusiastic about sharing them with me?

We walked across campus together, chatting about the weather, classes, my dog—safe subjects. As we drew nearer my office, I was still wondering how I might be able to salvage what was left of this uncomfortable situation and transform it into a teachable moment. While I rarely if ever call attention to my blindness, I try whenever possible to educate my students about how best they can be of service to someone with a disability when the need arises.

When we arrived at my office, I thought I’d let the student initiate the dreaded picture conversation and see what might happen; I was buying time. At this point, “Lovely, but I can’t see it” was still the only thing I could conceivably think of saying. Subtlety is not a virtue I claim to possess in large quantities–in any quantity actually. To my astonishment, with no prompting from me, Jane Austen student brought out her pictures and, flipping through them, proceeded to describe each and every shot to me in detail. It was as if she were simply sharing her adventure with me, using the pictures as a way to refresh her own memory. She must have spent a good hour with me, describing in detail the landscape surrounding Chawton House and sharing the story behind each picture—like the one of the exit-ramp off the highway where she and her friend had accidentally found themselves when her GPS inexplicably switched from the pedestrian setting to the car setting.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and in this instance, it truly became that, and so much more. In that moment, it was my ignorance, and not my student’s, that had been exposed—my assumption that this girl wouldn’t be able to fathom how to bring the world into view for someone who couldn’t see it.

In honor of Blogging Against Disablism Day, I urge you to check out Gin and Lemonadea wonderfully witty blog by a wonderfully witty woman who, among other things, writes prolifically about living with a disability. She rocks—and (quite literally) rolls.