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“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?

Five Things to Remember if You Know Someone Who’s Blind: Blogging Against Disablism Day 2015 (Living Blind Blog post)

This week, in honor of Blogging Against Disablism Day 2015, I’m over at the Living Blind Blog, discussing some of the myths and stereotypes associated with blindness and how we can work to break down these barriers with open conversation. Head over this way to check it out, and as always, thanks for reading!

Just a Little Smile is All it Takes: Happy Birthday Colin Firth

Winter, 2008: the near-end of my first semester as a PhD student. In the midst of end-of-semester insanity, I’d gone home for the Thanksgiving holiday to see my family. While everyone else in the family gathered in the living-room to decorate the Christmas tree, I sat curled on the sofa watching the BBC television adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for a seminar paper due two weeks later. My father, as he so often does when I visit, wandered into the room at intervals to inquire about my progress and whether or not I needed anything (AKA another cup of coffee…or a tranquilizer). What he discovered probably made him suspect I’d require the latter. There I was, feverishly pecking at the keys on my laptop: pausing, rewinding, scribbling, rewatching, and—it goes without saying—occasionally attempting, without much success, to suppress a fangirlish squeal of delight.
“Research?” Dad asked delicately while I manufactured an expression of intense concentration.
“Yes, for my Jane Austen course.”
Dad’s gaze swiveled to the wet-shirted, dripping delight that was Colin firth and then settled back on me. “Well
, I’m glad your graduate studies are being put to good use.”
Just then, my mother joined him, took one look at the television, and declared, “So this is why you declared a specialization in nineteenth-century literature. Suddenly it all makes sense.”

My fascination with Colin Firth has been something of a family joke for as long as I can remember. One long-ago Christmas during my childhood, a distant relative I no longer remember sent me a gift that at the time, he or she had probably only picked out because it was the nearest to hand: a video of Hallmark’s 1987 television adaptation of The Secret Garden.

The day after Christmas, I sat curled on the rug in front of the television, the distant shouts of the neighborhood children trying their new bikes and roller-skates drifting in through the open window. At that moment, it didn’t matter that they never included me in their games—that I couldn’t ride or skate or run as quickly as the rest of them; I was far too engrossed in the story unfolding on the screen in front of me. At the time, I still had enough usable vision that if I sat close enough to the screen, I could still distinguish faces. Suddenly, in the final scene, I found myself scooting as close to the set as I could without actually pressing my face against the glass.
“This wasn’t in the book,” I thought as I watched, intrigued. A grown-up Mary Lennox was standing in her garden with Ben Weatherstaff, and suddenly from behind her came a voice, tender and caressing, and slightly crisp at the edges—a summer breeze with just a hint of fall: “Where you tend a rose, a thistle cannot grow.” I shivered as Mary turned and saw who it was, and as I caught a glimpse of his face, I thought, “That’s the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen.”

Why? Why that man? Why that face? There wasn’t anything immediately remarkable about it; neutral in appearance, passive in expression, but with a hint of something rippling beneath the surface like a lake stirred by a light breeze. That was what intrigued me—that carefully modulated reserve, that passion kept in check. Then I watched him kiss her, and I think my heart spilled into his hand then and there.

That was the first time I saw Colin Firth, though it wasn’t until quite a few years later—after I’d become much more familiar with his work—that I made the connection. Since that moment, I’ve been mesmerized and a bit haunted by that face—a face I’ve never forgotten, though it’s been years (longer than I feel comfortable admitting) since I’ve actually seen it. Over the years, I’ve made (and have been the subject of) plenty of jokes about this…lifelong love affair, for lack of a better term: that Colin Firth is the reason I can’t walk past a fountain or make an omelet without smiling; that (according to my mother) I’ve taught so much of his work in my courses I should probably list him as a guest lecturer; that he’s the reason why I refuse, on principle, to accept a marriage proposal that does not begin with or contain the words, “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” Admittedly, in fairness to Mr. Firth, even though I can no longer reread Pride and Prejudice without hearing his voice, I really think the blame for that last one should be laid at the feet of Jane Austen, since she introduced me to Mr. Darcy long before I became acquainted with Colin.

The truth is, though, that I’ve cherished a long admiration of his work that has deepened as I’ve been given opportunities to study it more closely, both in my own work and with students. He reminds me daily that passion for one’s work is often more rewarding than recognition (though he’s certainly deserving of every accolade he’s received) and I love his obvious appreciation in so much of his work for the value and utility of literature. I cannot reiterate enough that I think the roles he’s had in literary adaptations are some of his best performances. (And before anyone asks, yes, I have had the privilege of listening to his recording of Graham Green’s novel The End of the Affair, and I was entranced).

I don’t know why I feel compelled to share this story; it isn’t a remarkable one by any means, but it’s one that never fails to make me smile. In my mind, I associate Colin firth with some of my last, and clearest visual memories. Over time that image, like so many of the others, has begun to fade, but whenever I hear his voice, if I close my eyes, I can just see that face—can just picture that tantalizing half-smile twitching at the corners of his mouth. Maybe I’m no longer the best judge, but that smile is still one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.

The happiest of birthdays to you, Mr. Firth, and many happy returns!

Here Comes the Bride’s Maid (or, reflections on growing up)

After a typical hither-and-thither Sunday afternoon of church and errand-running, I leaned against my kitchen counter and idly scrolled through my cell phone to check for any missed calls or texts, expecting the usual ‘0’. To my surprise, I had not one, but two missed calls from my oldest and dearest friend: two missed calls, but no voicemail or text. With the mind-reading efficiency that comes only as the result of a friendship spanning two decades, I deduced that my Siamese twin (hereafter referred to as S.T) had something to tell me that she deemed of too great importance to communicate in a voicemail or text.

With best-buddy antennae tingling, I settled on the sofa to return her call, with a very clear suspicion of what I was about to hear. After greetings and small-talk were exchanged, I waited in breathless anticipation for what I knew was coming.
“I’m engaged!” (Ha! Girl Sherlock wins again! Seriously, if I could high-five myself in admiration of my kick-ass deductive reasoning powers, I’d be doing that right now.).
“And I wanted to ask you if you’d be one of my Bride’s maids?” Um, hello? Does Colin Firth look hot in a wet shirt?
“Honey, we only planned this about, what, 20 years ago?”
“I know, but I had to ask. Make it official.”

Congratulations were given, dates were discussed, and the call ended far sooner than either of us would have liked, but adult responsibilities called. Gone were the days of spending hours on the phone inventing elaborate contraptions that did everything from math homework to unenjoyable chores. Speaking of being an adult: holy shit, batman, my best friend is getting married! And I’m not talking about Game-of-Life-add-a-little-blue-plastic-dude-in-a-car getting married. I’m talking about an actual wedding, with an actual bride and groom. This is the same girl who split granola bars with me at lunch; who read my teeny-bopper fanfiction (not that I wrote teeny-bopper fanfiction); who dutifully remembered the secret code name of every single boy I had a crush on; who inadvertently saved the life of a classmate while impersonating the “lice lady” and finding a tick in her hair. If you want to put our friendship in quantifiable terms, between the two of us, we’ve held about 8 million conversations, shed nine thousand buckets of tears, and consumed a rough estimate of 84 million calories in brownies and ice-cream. Most of the sleep debt I accrued before graduate school is probably the collective result of every single Siamese twin slumber party we ever held.

Still cradling my phone in my hand, I sat on the sofa and gazed out the window as a slideshow of memories rolled in my brain, amazed, and feeling supremely blessed, to have kept that solemn oath of friendship made with clasped hands on a school playground long ago: “One for all and all for one…and a partridge in a pear tree!”

Considering the fact that I fell asleep that night and had a very strange dream involving Livia Firth designing me a sustainable bride’s maid dress woven out of something resembling palm-tree branches and a pair of shoes made of recycled Coke cans, this whole experience is going to offer significant amounts of blog fodder.

Question: Have you ever been in a wedding party?

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.