Pride with a Side of Alienation

Last July, I attended a Pride rally which flooded me with a wonderful sense of community, while simultaneously left me feeling alienated. When it comes to things like rallies, I often experience this same mix. Attending to enjoy the sense of community and common purpose, I tried to soak up the vibe only to ingest a nice dose of “But You Don’t Count” along the way.

I know the event was a rally about LGBT pride, focusing on issues that impact the non-heterosexual population and meant to highlight our bonds of community and common purpose. If everyone had stuck to LGBT issues exclusively, I might have not felt like “other.” However, from issues of racial equality to immigration, border security to employment rights, many speakers addressed other “liberal” causes. Lists of marginalized groups who we should stand with in their fight for equality were mentioned. Not once did disability pass the lips of any speaker. Not once.

As I sat in the “ASL” seats – because apparently only Deaf people need accessible seating – I listened to one man talk about LGBT youth. He rattled off one statistic about how many LGBT young people report hearing negative messages about their identity from the mouths of public officials. Suddenly, it dawned upon me. We think of negative messages as damaging. How harmful, though, is that which is left out entirely?

When George Takei asked us all to stand, face the flag and recite The Pledge of Allegiance with him, I had no idea where to look. As Norma Chavez-Peterson of the American Civil Liberties Union asked for us to join in the fight to help all oppressed people, those with disabilities were left off her list. A universal message of love and social justice permeated each speech I heard, yet not one person managed to identify people with disabilities as one class of individuals needing support in their fight for equality.

What message does that absence send? To me, it says that I am not thought of when issues of social justice are considered. My marginalized group is not one deserving of the same help and solidarity. I don’t matter enough to be included.

The ways people with disabilities are divergent from other marginalized groups is often the reason given for why we are not included in the list of social justice causes. We need special things that cost money, we are unable to do stuff and you can point to some substantive difference engendering more negativity than skin color or gender preference. Our difference is not viewed as diversity, making us separate from other social justice causes. And, as we all know from school integration, separate is inherently unequal.

So, as I tried to connect with my LGBT community, I had to stop thinking about my identity as a person with a disability. I could either be a member of the group being celebrated or a member of a group not thought worthy of mentioning. Very healthy for my self-esteem.

At least there is an honesty in all this. Should someone have thought to include people with disabilities, it probably would have been in word but not deed. So, for the lack of hypocrisy, I am grateful.

Blinded By Jealousy

Even when I was partially sighted, I never used the term “visually impaired” to describe myself because it was too avoid-the-reality-by-using-a-warm-and-fuzzy-word for my tastes. Instead, I simply used blind.

Life has recently caused me to re-examine my feelings about this. A friend who is partially sighted and I shop at the same grocery store. We’ve noticed that employees who have worked with one of us first then assume the other one is exactly the same in terms of abilities and needs. The initial blind individual a TAB meets seemingly becomes their working definition of what it means to be blind, shaping assumptions that inform their expectations, perception of needs and predictions of ability. When the same word is used to describe markedly different individual circumstances, TABs cannot manage to grasp the difference.

These TAB behaviors shaped by the assumptions formed from observation of two people self-described as blind but with differing vision are at the core of the tension between those who are totally blind and people with usable vision. The totally blind are annoyed with those partially sighted for creating unachievable expectations in the minds of TABs. Those with usable vision are irritated when totally blind individuals describe themselves as visually impaired for the lower expectations engendered in TAB minds.

Guess what the common thread is here? Expectations of TABs. Aren’t they the ones to hold responsible for their tendency to assume one blind person is representative of all blind people? Yet, within the blindness community, much energy is expended arguing about blind versus partially sighted instead of viewing TAB attitudes and actions as the source of the friction.

Unfortunately, all that neat and clean logic hasn’t helped me. Spending time with people who can see some and identify themselves as blind, I have increasingly become frustrated. Their usable sight puts tools in their toolbox I do not have in my own. With these tools, they are able to do things not possible for me. For example, follow another person without needing verbal cues, identify landmarks even if they are just a blob and perceive grass from dirt by color. While they may seem small, they add up to something meaningful.

There is a flavor of privilege in those who are partially blind that irritates me. By using the same term, the benefits of usable sight are dismissed as unimportant. Think about it. I can’t make eye contact and that has major social disadvantages. Someone partially blind may be able to simulate or achieve eye contact and reap social benefits. How is that not privilege?

I’m really struggling with all this. I think using the word “blind” to label yourself is completely understandable and reasonable regardless of the amount of usable vision one might possess. I just equally find it frustrating that the privilege bestowed upon those with some vision goes unacknowledged by them. I want such individuals to call themselves whatever they want, understand they have privilege kind of like African Americans who can pass as white have privilege and not pretend we are exactly the same. Privilege is about socially sanctioned benefits based on social perception of the individual. If I could pass as a white, able bodied, heterosexual man, then even if I were a black, disabled, female lesbian, I would still receive privilege. How unfair would it be to pretend otherwise?

The Cost of Safety?

I signed up for a free class at my local Braille Institute (BI) and received a letter informing me of a new policy.  I will be required to wear a print name badge with colored lanyard – green for student, blue for staff and red for volunteer.  I loath and typically refuse to use name tags in any form because they grant sighted people a social advantage.  I was indignant that an organization serving blind and visually impaired individuals would require me to do this detestable thing.  Of course I marched into an administrative office and expressed my discontent which began what I hope is a dialogue leading to policy change.

BI has reasonable concerns about security heightened by the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  They want a means to identify who is allowed on campus versus who might be unauthorized in order to prevent tragedy.  Additionally, there are concerns about identifying people in a disaster situation.  By displaying name and status, they can know who should be present which will keep everyone safe.

Another reason given involved promoting social interaction by allowing names to be known.  In fact, some students have been asking for name tags.  (An excellent example of how people with the same disability can have drastically different preferences.)

Indeed, name tags are a great social lubricant.  Aside from the pragmatic benefits to name recall, people can also address each other by name, granting an essence of friendliness and familiarity to conversations.  Not being able to read name tags denies someone all this social ease.

Blind people are already at a social disadvantage because of society’s eye contact and body language heavy communication patterns.  Heaping more disadvantage onto that is suboptimal and unnecessary.  Though we might not be able to make our culture suddenly cease utilizing visual communication, we can at least not bless sighted people with more social advantage while compounding the amount of social disadvantage blind people shoulder.

Furthermore, because a blind person is forced to repeatedly ask for names, their difference is emphasized in a way that highlights an inability.  It becomes yet one more thing I cannot do that I must broadcast each time I ask for a name. Even in a blind and visually impaired population, a division will still be demarcated between those who can see enough to read the name tags and those of us who cannot.  Advantage for some, disadvantage for others.

Some argue that even if I cannot read other’s name tags, their ability to read mine allows them to overcome communication barriers by giving them a name by which to gain my attention.  Unfortunately, when I have capitulated to the demand of labeling myself, I have noticed no increased social engagement.  And I use the word “label” specifically because putting on that piece of paper doesn’t just give my name, it makes my disability larger than it already looms.

This leads to my second objection – color coding people into the categories of staff, volunteer and student.  In and of itself, color coding can be highly useful as evidence by sports teams, hospital I.D. bracelets and summer camps the world over.  We do not, however, put all the kids in need of special reading help in red shirts, require anyone over age 55 to wear a silver armband or demand people with a specific disability wear a sign.

It is an unavoidable truth that in this situation denoting student status inevitably and accurately indicates disability status.  Because people with disabilities are a protected class known to experience discrimination and violence solely based upon that status, we should not be literally marked as such.

Furthermore, in terms of safety, anyone labeled blind by color or the word student becomes that much more vulnerable.  Who better to victimize than a person you know will have trouble seeing you?  Thus, marking me as a student clearly identifies me as the ideal target.

I understand and support the idea of having a means to know who should and should not be on BI’s premises.  I also recognize the unfortunate necessity for people to carry some sort of I.D. in case of medical emergency or body identification.  I believe there are means to address these concerns without utilizing problematic tools.  Insisting all students carry identification is a place to start.  Having badges with our pictures allows face and photo to be matched which is far less able to be forged than a  simple name.  An I.D. number would help in case of emergency.  A print name could be included if the student requests it.

As for color coding and other means of indicating student status?  There is no methodology that would allow for it because student equals person with a visual impairment.  Besides, what security goals are met by sorting people into the three groups?

Others have voiced additional concerns related to this policy.  Campus vulnerabilities exist that will not be addressed, including no means to detect dangerous items on someone’s person, lack of techniques to minimize congregation of students as they are loading and unloading busses and any means for a blind student to know who should and should not be on campus.  Even lanyards represent a safety risk because they can be caught or grabbed tightening around someone’s neck.

Before turning to safety procedures that create social barriers, highlight difference in a negative way and clearly mark a protected class of individuals, I urge BI’s decision makers to look outside the typical security toolbox to solutions that meet the needs of the unique population they serve.  I appreciate being kept safe, but please don’t force me to pay these avoidable costs for that security.

Eye Contact

You walk into a coffee shop planning to be a total hermit behind your book while you enjoy a beverage. You see a blind friend hanging out with someone else. In such circumstances with a sighted person, you would probably make eye contact, smile and move on. However, that’s not possible in this situation. What do you do?

I can tell you what to NOT do under any circumstances. Say nothing at the time and then later tell the blind person you saw them. It’s creepy. And somehow demeaning. Oh, yeah, and it seemingly feels worse when you are female.

The better move is this: Walk past the table – not over, but past – and say, “Hey, it’s <name>. I’m just passing through.” Done. The reason, by the way, for the “walking past” part is that it provides the element of casual eye contact as opposed to a desire to engage in extensive social interaction.

People seem hesitant to offer a verbal greeting for fear that they will get sucked into a conversation. While that risk does exist along with the possibility of awkwardness, those should not be obstacles to doing the right thing. By approach, you can minimize the risk.

And, did I mention, it is otherwise creepy and somehow demeaning?

……because

It all began when a person in a wheelchair boarded my bus and the driver made the person with the cart move to a seat where the cart would obstruct the aisle. I was not asked to move, but after the bus got underway again, I turned to the cart’s owner and suggested I relocate so she could have a seat where the cart would fit. In the process, I bumped my head.

……because I tried to help.

Next stop my psychiatrist’s office. Typically, his patients flip a switch to indicate their arrival. I cannot do this since there are no accessible labels and I cannot seem to retain the switch location in my head. It has never been an issue in the two years I’ve been seeing him — he’s always come out into the waiting room to retrieve me. This time around, when I had waited ten minutes past my allotted time and could hear him speaking back in his office, I called leaving a message on his voicemail indicating my presence. Another patient eventually arrived, flipped the switch and my doctor materialized, seeming surprised at my presence.

When I said, “Um, I don’t know which switch to flip and this has never been a problem before,” his reply blew my mind. “I just thought you weren’t coming. I never thought about the switch.”

……because I’m so unreliable.

Next was the man by the elevator. He clearly wanted to be helpful, did not know how and used hovering as a means to deal with his internal conflict. He kept telling me things I already knew or was working on figuring out and then continued WATCHING me.

He did alert me to the goo stuck to Camille’s leg, becoming flustered when his phone rang while he was trying to pull it off. I waved him away, determined removal by pulling wasn’t going to work and took off. While waiting for the bus, I used the handy scissors on my pocket knife to remove the goo-matted fur from Camille’s leg.

……because boy scouts have nothing on me.

Once again on the bus, I was sharing a three-person seat with a man, who moved when an elderly woman joined us. The woman made loud, critical declarations about his behavior and I think I offered something like, “Maybe he thought three people and a dog was too much on one seat and decided to give us some space.”

Then the woman began to tell me about her blind neighbor. This *never* turns out well. Ever. Her neighbor was “so amazing” for doing everything on her own, even shopping. She could cook, too. It was all just so amazing that she thought the woman couldn’t possibly be blind and had an argument with another neighbor about it. I suggested maybe she could change her definition of what a blind person could do.

I was then told about how this blind woman assembled her nephew’s birthday present on her own, using screwdrivers and everything. “Amazing” was repeated a few more times. I said I liked to assemble furniture.

The topic shifted to her evening’s attendance at a baseball game. She has back trouble and the stairs are really steep. I commented that it sucked that ball parks weren’t accessible to everyone.

She thought it was just wonderful that strangers would reach out and offer their arm so she could descend the stairs. I repeated my comment about lack of accessibility. She repeated that people were just so wonderful.

……because “wonderful” and “amazing” hadn’t been said enough.

Off the bus and walking home, I was crossing a street when not one, not two, not three but FOUR skateboarders whizzed past me while I was in the middle of the street, startling Cam so much she actually moved sideways and stopped in her tracks..

……because the joy of boarding trumps the safety of others.

Upon arriving home, I yelled “ARGH!” at the top of my lungs and then did it a few more times. Camille went and had a drink of water. About when I stopped the yelling, she walked over and vomited up… everything at my feet.

……because a comedic author is clearly crafting the story of my life.

Grated Cheese

No, I’m not going to make some esoteric comparison between grated cheese and some aspect of disability. This is simply a story about grated cheese.

To demonstrate that my stressed-out state heads more in the direction of depression than anxiety, I told my psychiatrist (not FabTherapist) about the following event:

Getting ready to make an omelet, I went to the refrigerator to fetch the sautéed vegetables I had, the already grated cheddar and other useful ingredients. The Ziploc bag of cheese was not where I’d left it. It wasn’t next to where I had left it. It wasn’t anywhere that I looked.

So, I sat down on the floor before the open fridge and sobbed. Inconsolably.

My psychiatrist said, “Well, that’s about your disability…”

Um, until that very moment, I hadn’t thought about it in those terms. I was just a person who couldn’t find something and had a very intense, dramatic response. Blindness had nothing to do with it. The thought, “If I could see, I could find the stupid cheese,” never crossed my mind.

The psychiatrist, though, went there immediately. I find that fascinating.

Public Property

Pregnant women often speak about total strangers asking to touch their bellies.  The social mores that keep people from requesting contact with the body of someone they do not know suddenly vanish in the face of that rounded mound of baby.  Even worse, a significant number of people don’t even request permission before giving a rub.  I cannot come up with another situation, except maybe when it comes to “directing” a blind person, in which respect for bodily personal boundaries is ignored.  Even when an individual in a crowd simply brushes up against a stranger accidentally, they apologize.

This behavioral anomally around pregnant women has been framed in terms of the woman’s belly becoming public property – as if everyone has the right to touch it the way they would a soft blanket on display at a department store.  Attempting to explain a specific behavioral tendency that currently has me annoyed, I reached for an example my therapist might understand and came up with that of pregnant women’s bellies.  Aspects of my life are being treated as public property.

Approaching a bus stop where I was to wait for a friend, I was asked by a man if he could pet my dog.  I said no explaining that while wearing the harness, she was working.  Apparently, he didn’t like my answer because a tirade ensued.

 

He started with the point that one little pet wasn’t going to be a problem.  I disagreed.  He then said I was being cruel and was I afraid my dog would hurt him?  I tried giving the complicated explanation about distractions and my safety.  He said if my dog was that badly behaved, she wasn’t trained well.  Was I just not training my dog properly?

 

I admit snapping at that point and saying something about having a dog previously that was highly distractible leading to me getting my nose broken.  That did not penetrate his skull.

 

About then, my friend’s “Just walk away.  He’s nuts>” penetrated and I tried leaving.  Really, I tried.

 

I had to turn back when he told me I should “Just stay home.”  Excuse me?  I don’t think so.

 

Let’s just say it went south from there and he was really insulting.

 

My point?  This man treated me, my dog and my life as though he had a right to comment upon them.  Everything about me had suddenly become public property.  I was the politician whose life is open to public scrutiny.  I was the actor living in the public eye.  I was just lacking any of the compensatory perks either of those roles supposedly bestows.

 

The worst part?  People stood there watching and did nothing.  Nobody said, “Hey, man, it’s her dog.  Leave her alone.”  In their silence, they were condoning his behavior.

 

To paraphrase a mother-to-be’s comment, “It’s my dog.  Keep your hands off!”  And, I would add, your opinions to yourself.

 

 

Jen’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Thing One

 

The first incident wasn’t all that bad – almost routine in fact. I was at a meetup type gathering and most of the attendees were strangers. About forty-five minutes into the conversation, I suddenly realized a segment of the group didn’t realize I’m blind. (My guide dog, Camille, was out of harness at my feet.) “Um, you know I’m blind, right?”

“Oh, no we had no idea.” I could have scripted the next part. “You don’t seem blind.” There I go again not living down to low expectations of my behavior.

 

Thing Two

 

The next was far more ominous. On a “no destination” walk with my dog, I crossed a street and a man asked where I was going. I knew the street dead-ended somewhere, so I asked if I could keep going or not. His answer was not, so I asked if the street we were on met up with another street. “No, you have to go back a couple of blocks.” Great.

I got my foot caught up in a plastic bag that was in the gutter and had some trouble untangling myself, then I took off. About a block along my route, the man calls from behind me, “Turn there.” or something. He had *followed* me. Followed.

 

Thing Three

 

I next ventured to the Transgender Day of Empowerment ceremony at the local LGBT center because a friend was receiving an award. Upon arriving in a very crowded auditorium, I was trying to convince my guide dog to find a seat, but she was as overwhelmed as I. A woman approached, introduced herself as Tracy and offered help, which I accepted.

She took my arm in the hold you are taught for drunk people so they can’t escape. I was dragged to a chair, but I let it go. Later I realized there was someone’s jacket on the chair, meaning I’d taken someone’s seat. I let that go too.

The woman who had helped me was the M.C and immediately prior to concluding the ceremony, she said something like, “There’s this young woman who I see in Hillcrest all the time.” She kept going and it finally dawned on me that she was referring to me. I put my head down and began shaking it no rather emphatically. It didn’t help.

“I’m coming toward you, dear. What’s your name?”

I answered.

“Now I want someone to volunteer to help this nice young woman get some cake.” She didn’t stop until someone volunteered.

 

Thing Four

 

I fled the room, hid out in the bathroom and then took my dog outside to relieve herself. I was headed back inside, reaching for the right door handle, when someone came out the left door. Fast. I was hit in the head. Camille let out two yelps.

Commotion ensued with ice bags and emergency room nurses coming to check us out and people and more people and orders not to take the bus home and….. I handled part of it badly. Eventually, someone I knew gave me a ride home. Camille wound up at the vet, needed X-rays and was restricted to light duty until the bruise she sustained healed.

 

Thing Five

 

By this point in my week, I needed some fun. With enthusiasm, I went to my first in-the-theatre described movie. We got my headset from Guest Services — my specific request for “the one for blind people.” It didn’t provide descriptions and my companion finally left the movie and went back to Guest Services where she acquired the proper headset. (I’d been given the one for Hard of Hearing folks.)

 

Thing Six

 

Finally, and most amusingly, dinner. I ordered a salad with peaches and caramelized onions. About two thirds of the way through my meal, I asked my friend, “Where are the peaches?”

“There aren’t any,” she said, baffled.

“Maybe these shriveled up things?”

“Those are cranberries.”

I tasted one. They were.

We asked our server and he came back saying I’d gotten the right salad just without peaches and he brought me a bowl of them.

I said to him, “This is one of those things that happens to blind people. I just assumed the peaches were somewhere on the plate but I hadn’t found them yet.”

I thought that was funny, and my friend was certainly amused. The server -– poor man –didn’t get it.

Acquiring Objectness

I and other disabled people have a unique talent. We can transform ourselves into objects. Here are some examples of people instantaneously morphing into things.

When flying, I need help transferring from one gate to another. This is not true for all blind people, but it is what I do. The airport provides someone to do this and they are the people who also push passengers in wheelchairs.

To avail myself of this help, I must wait until someone shows up and usually until the plane is largely empty. If I were waiting along with a man who uses a wheelchair and an older woman needing special help, likely as not you will hear one flight attendant call to another, “How many wheelchairs do we have?”

Now, to be clear, they aren’t asking how many wheelchairs are waiting outside the plane. They are looking for the number of people who need assistance. I get that they are using some sort of short hand, but really? They could ask how many escorts they need or even assists. There are ways to talk about me without me having to become a thing.

Sitting on a bus, I listened as the driver tells everyone waiting to board, “I have to unload a wheelchair.”

Apparently I took snarky pills because I said, “Um, person?” He didn’t reply.

Finally, this happened to a friend who ordered a coffee at a local Starbucks. She did tell the barista her name, so I can’t think why they then wrote on her cup “wheelchair.” Seriously. It said, “Wheelchair.” Was she supposed to pour it on as some kind of new lubricant? Clearly the chair didn’t pay for the coffee…

Don’t Watch!

 

There are times when I stand on the sidewalk, Camille Guide Dog Extraordinaire at my side, trying to figure out some navigational complication. Often I’m simply trying to “hear” what’s going on. Passers by may stop and ask or offer assistance — an appreciated gesture that I sometimes accept gratefully. Unfortunately, a response from me of “No thanks. I’m good,” can result in problems.

People step back and *watch*.

I know this because when I get past the challenge, they might comment, my ears may pick up a slight sound or I can feel the weight of their eyes upon me.

So, there I am, trying to sort out a mobility issue, while somebody hovers. It’s creepy. It’s annoying. It’s rude. And, if I were sighted, it wouldn’t be happening.

Most significantly, it shows a profound disrespect for my own judgment for if I’ve said I can take care of it, standing to watch implies at least a suspicion I am wrong. Well, either that or some over-the-top fascination with how I function as if I’m an exhibit at the zoo. (I am not an animal in the monkey house. Promise.)

There is one crucial fact that might escape the average non-disabled person. Taking time to listen to my surroundings allows me to deal with situations as I study them with my ears. I may be working through a set of circumstances that challenge my skills and if people always save my butt, I will never learn how. Saying “No thanks,” can be me granting myself a learning opportunity. Those are good for me, right?

I suspect people’s motivation to stand and observe usually comes from a good place. They don’t want me to get hurt. While I value the goal of keeping me in one piece, I still cannot stomach it when someone lingers. It’s yucky. And did I mention creepy?

So, I am declaring anyone who walks away when I say, “No thanks,” off the hook if I turn out to be wrong and break a body part. Absolution is yours.

But I know this won’t be enough. Here’s a way to handle it that helps the non-disabled person feel good about leaving whilst demonstrating respect for me.

Tell me your concern while acknowledging your ignorance and taking responsibility for the discomfort you feel with moving on. “I don’t know much about how blind people navigate. I don’t know how you would handle x situation which is making me unreasonably concerned.”

Make it your fault – because it basically is – and see what happens. Since nobody has ever done this to me, I can’t guarantee the response. I can say that it would feel better than the hovering. Much better.

I encourage you to go forth and try it, then come back and leave a comment. I need data.