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!
#Ferguson; #ICan’tBreathe; #BringBackOurGirls; #YesAllWomen; if you’ve frequented social media at all in recent weeks, and in particular within the past year, any or all of the above hashtags will likely have flitted across your Twitter, Facebook, or Tumblr timeline at least once. From the protests surrounding the shootings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, to the kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram, to the world-wide grief and outrage over the Charlie Hebdo attack, Twitter hashtags have, like much of the Internet, created a virtual global space in which people can unite to spread news and information, to encourage, to grieve, and to show solidarity. Yet one hashtag has, not surprisingly given recent international events, received far less attention, though it likely wouldn’t have garnered much even on a slow news day.
Like most of the social media-addicted world, I spent a part of my New Year’s Day 2015 scrolling through the myriad of Internet activism-related hashtags interspersed with tweets about well-intentioned New Year’s resolutions. As I prepared to slam the lid of my laptop shut and abandon Twitter for the pre-Internet delight of reading a book, I paused over a hashtag that I had previously never seen: #StopAbleism2015. Like many of the hashtags that have received media attention within the past year, #StopAbleism2015 has a focused mission to spread awareness about disability discrimination and how to end such discrimination. Tweets sent under this hashtag range from statistics about mental illness to stories of cab drivers refusing to pick up a passenger traveling with a service animal.
In“The Case for Social Media and Hashtag Activism, Sabina Khan-Ibarra writes that “Individuals with certain disabilities, caretakers, and those with young children can be involved with activism and not be limited by their inability to physically mobilize. This gives opportunities to highlight that which was previously unheard and unseen—making the voices we hear more diverse and a more true reflection of reality.” In simplest terms, people tweeting under the hashtag #StopAbleism2015 have used their stories to put an abstract concept into clear, and often heart-wrenchingly concrete language. According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, ableism refers to discrimination against people with disabilities, but how do we identify patterns of ableist behavior in others (or even in our own actions) if we don’t know what it looks like? While I have all too often been on the receiving end of malicious, intentional discrimination because of my disability, I have found that, more often than not, ableism is born less of hatred than of ignorance. The commuter sitting beside me on the bus who notices my guidedog at my feet and asks, “What’s wrong with you?” is expressing, albeit tactlessly, curiosity about my disability and what my service animal does for me. (Side note: many service animal handlers consider it invasively rude to ask what their service animals do, not because they don’t have the desire to educate the public, but because very often disability results from any number of physically and emotionally painful experiences ranging from car accidents to cancer. So before you get too curious, consider how you’d feel discussing with a stranger at the bus stop what it was like to lose your vision because of a brain tumor.)Assuming that my fellow commuter has never before encountered someone with a service animal, in her curiosity about my dog and her uncertainty about how to broach the subject, she unwittingly addresses me with ableist language. To ask what is “wrong” with me implies that I am in some way flawed or defective, which carries greater implications about my ability to be a productive citizen: to perform labor, to live independently, to maintain healthy, fulfilling relationships. Technically and medically speaking, the only thing “wrong” about me is the fact that my sense of sight is limited to the ability to detect light and shadows, but there is nothing inherently wrong about me as a human being.
Many people with disabilities, myself included, can recite a litany of amusing stories about questions they’ve received from curious people, like the person who asked one of my friends if her guidedog helps her cook. Then there are the stories that reveal the harmful and often irreversible damage that ableism inflicts. Here are just a few examples of the stories that #StopAbleism2015 has motivated people to share:
— Misty Dawn (@AuroraNebulosa) January 19, 2015
Stop using the phrase 'Wheelchair bound': no tying down with ropes is involved! 'Wheelchair user' is the way to go! #StopAbleism2015
— TheNuttyNaturalist (@NuttyNaturalist) January 19, 2015
When people learn I have bipolar all of my emotions&reactions become invalid bc they're manifestations of my "craziness" #StopAbleism2015
— Rachel KallemWhitman (@RKallemWhitman) January 10, 2015
#StopAbleism2015 bc 17 years after being told I shouldn't attend mainstream school bc it 'wasn't fair' on other students I'm doing a PhD.
— Katie (mildly moist) (@SciPhiKat) January 8, 2015
— ♿Persephone Jones♿ (@galvezmiro) January 3, 2015
#StopAbleism2015 because some women's shelters won't make accommodations for disabled women and/or children.
— ♿Persephone Jones♿ (@galvezmiro) January 3, 2015
All too often, in conversations about discrimination, disability seems like the music being piped through the speakers at the local coffee shop: just-discernable background noise. #StopAbleism2015 seems an attempt to amplify the voices of people with disabilities. The criticism that the trend has received stems from the notion that, as several people have argued to me, the hashtag isn’t about activism; it’s about raising awareness for basic human rights. Yet raising awareness to call for social or political change is at the heart of any form of activism. The objection is, paradoxically, ableist in its own way; it suggests that we cannot categorize #StopAbleism2015 as the beginning of a movement, because, simply put, the participants aren’t mobilizing; they are simply affirming the prevalence of ableism through statements that express anger, sadness, and frustration about the treatment we receive at the hands of society. Unfortunately, if you peruse the collection of #StopAbleism2015 hashtags, this negativity becomes quite evident. . Helen Keller once famously declared, “Self-pity is our worst enemy, and if we yield to it, we can never do anything wise in this world.” Our collective righteous indignation at the prevalence of ableism in society can only carry us so far, and yet, we must begin somewhere. As Khan-Ibarra points out, hashtag activism allows those who cannot “mobilize” to use their voices as vehicles of change.
As much as I insist that my disability doesn’t entirely define me, it nevertheless makes up an integral part of my being; since I lost my sight due to a genetic condition, it is imprinted on my body, written in my DNA as surely as the color of my hair or the shape of my face. It is a part of the story I tell every day, impacting the ways that I can (and cannot) use my body. Some of the stories that people have taken to Twitter to share under the #StopAbleism2015 hashtag are humorous; some are sad; some make me want to hurl things at the wall in anger and frustration; all are deeply personal, a testament to the fact that we are human, with a basic human right to be treated equally. In a world where people with disabilities encounter various degrees of challenges navigating their environments, the Internet is (increasingly, if not absolutely) a space that we can navigate with relative ease, so it should come as little surprise that the disabled community has embraced Twitter as a medium for raising our voices in this demand for equality.
Set against the backdrop of the hashtag activism that has taken the Web by storm, #StopAbleism2015 seems hardly a movement of any great magnitude, but it takes tremendous courage to share some of the stories that have been told, and those who choose to lend their voices to the conversation should be commended. Will #StopAbleism2015 have the power to raise employment rates of people with disabilities, or erase the Undue Hardship clause from the Americans with Disabilities Act? Maybe; maybe not, but to quote Paul Rogat Loeb in The Impossible Will Take a Little While, “Just pushing the stone in the right direction is cause for celebration.”
Note: for a more comprehensive background of hashtag activism, check out this blog post from The Washington Post
This novel has been calling to me from my shelf for nearly a year, and I finally decided to pluck it from the to-b-read pile.
Synopsis: Nothing can stop Sarah Nickerson: a smart, sophisticated, Harvard Business School-educated Vice President of Human Resources for a Boston Consulting Firm, not to mention a wife and a mother of three. Adept in her climb up the corporate ladder, Sarah is keen to catch and juggle the many curveballs that life throws at her from all directions, until she suffers a traumatic brain injury in a car accident that, quite literally, reshapes her world.
A neurological condition called “Left Neglect” prevents Sarah’s brain from registering sensory information on her left—everything from food on the left-hand side of her plate to the left side of her own body. As Sarah struggles to cope with the day-to-day frustrations of living in a world of which she is only partially aware, she is challenged to see just how short-sighted she has been and that the key to conquering Left Neglect is to focus on the corners of her life that she has filtered from her field of vision. Forced to reach into the black hole of neglect to retrieve her life, Sarah discovers not just herself, but the hands of her children, reaching out to comfort and be comforted, the touch of her loving and supportive husband, and the embrace of a mother who had for so long existed, unseen, in the blind spot of Sarah’s life and heart.
Left Neglected is a novel that powerfully reminds us of how a single moment can change the course of an entire life; of how loss, in its own strange way, offers us gifts we could never otherwise have received. With Tenderness and authenticity, Lisa Genova offers us a story that bears witness to the triumphs that emerge from tragedy and the journeys that we can only take when we recognize that the first step is accepting that we must allow others to walk with us. A novel that is a true testimony to the ways in which health, illness, ability, and disability are inevitably a part of the vocabulary that shapes the stories of our lives, “Left Neglected” also speaks universal human truths about love, loss, friendship, and trust.
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.