Responsibility Teflon

I know we’ve all met that person – the one who can somehow avoid responsibility for *anything.* It is as if they’ve been sheathed in teflon and nothing will adhere to it. Ever.

The most drastic cases involve those who frame their lives in terms of things “done to them” that have resulted in bad outcomes. (Ever notice victim mentality is only present when it comes to bad outcomes?) More insidious cases exist in which individuals effortlessly float through life with nothing ever being their fault. They’re just “following their hearts” or “honoring their feelings” or “not engaging in negative self-doubt” or “practicing self-compassion.” In and of themselves, each isn’t a bad thing when done in moderation. Some, however, have raised their use to an art form. In the process, they acquire Responsibility Teflon.

I believe that perceiving me as amazing allows non-disabled people to don this same Responsibility Teflon. I’ve previously mentioned three ways non-disabled people conclude I am amazing – expecting less of me because of my disability, misunderstanding what it would be like if they walked in my shoes and lauding me for overcoming obstacles. Each is predicated on the idea that the “problem” is contained within me. She doesn’t have functional eyes, so I should expect less. If I didn’t have functional eyes like her, then I couldn’t do that. She doesn’t have functional eyes which would make that activity harder. It’s all about my biological difference.

The interesting part is that by making it all about my difference, non-disabled people have framed the situation in terms of my body, my abilities, my interactions, my defects. When it is all about me, Responsibility Teflon morphs into existence.

A crucial factor, how our society functions, is being left out of the equation. My difference only becomes a problem when my world doesn’t take it into account. Imagine if I lived in a world where my difference was accommodated by all information being conveyed visually, auditorially and tactilely. Would I be so amazing in that environment? Not really. I’d be simply another person going about her business.

I’m certain someone is now thinking, “Yeah, and you would also not be amazing if you could just see.” Following that line of argument, if all people were the same color, racism would disappear. If all people were of the same gender, sexism would vanish — along with our species’ ability to exist. Disability is a fact of human variation. Only when our society places meaning on human variation do we have things like sexism, racism and disability as individual defect.

When a non-disabled person observes me crossing a street, they could think I’m amazing for being able to do that. They could also think that they participate in a world that doesn’t take my need for auditory street signals into account. In the former, while they feel all warm and fuzzy for praising me, they are putting on Responsibility Teflon. In the latter, they are skating perilously close to assuming some accountability for the world they inhabit. You know, the same one I have to function in?

Amazing Revisited. Again.

Don’t roll your eyes, but I’m back to that “amazing” thing. Again. This time with something new. Promise.

I get to a doctor’s office via my dog, my feet and a bus. When the receptionist discovers this, she is in awe of me. Previously I’ve thought about this behavior in two ways. I’m amazing because I have failed to live down to the low expectations another individual has. I also become amazing when a person imagines walking in my shoes and decides I am doing something they could not. Now I think there might be a third possibility related to obstacles.

When people consider me going from point a to point b, they generate a mental list of all the steps that they think involve sight– assessing traffic to cross a street, determining what bus pulled up at the stop, getting on the bus and finding a seat, knowing what stop to disembark at and so on. Each of these tasks becomes tagged as “obstacle for blind person” in their heads. Because I have surmounted these obstacles, I become “amazing.”

This mental process is distinct from the first two, for there are no assumptions made about what I cannot do. The accolade is *earned* by doing things perceived as *challenging*, granting the praise the distinctive flavor of possibility. My amazingness is engendered not by doing the impossible but by accomplishing the unusual.

I have less objection when amazing is about overcoming an obstacle. I’m not performing magic, just doing something that might be hard. I can live with aspects of my life being perceived as hard, calling for skills most haven’t cultivated or even simply requiring above average persistence. It feels far less dismissive of…me.

Many people with disabilities, myself included, have issues with the concept of overcoming. The root lies in the fact that typically what we are seen to overcome is our disability, not the physical and social barriers society has created. To me, blindness is my natural state of being, so deciding that I have overcome it seems absurd. Do people of color overcome their skin color or the societal inequities and prejudice they encounter? Do cis-gendered women overcome their biology? Disability is a form of human variation that is an inherent part of the person possessing the trait. They’re not something you can discuss in terms of overcoming.

So, while being seen as amazing for overcoming obstacles is not totally insulting to me, I do take issue when the obstacle is perceived to be my disability. It’s like seeing me as amazing for overcoming my curly hair or extraordinarily narrow feet. The concept literally makes no sense. Fish, here’s your new bicycle. Ride it.

Magic Words

About a year ago, I hit a wall known as My social Life Sucks. Nothing I tried – and I tried everything short of a personality transplant — seemed to increase my social connections or generate more emotional intimacy in my life.

Enter my fabulous therapist – a fifty-year-old man who somehow gets it. He’s made it clear from day one that he knows nothing about disability, yet I felt more understood in my first session than I have with the majority of my friends. When I tell him I think I get ignored in groups because I’m disabled, he not only believes me but understands why it happens. That’s valuable in a way words cannot express.

We have hit an impasse related to my social interactions with non-disabled people. FabTherapist believes there are a string of words I can say that possess sufficient potency to get people to notice who I am. A carefully crafted handful of sentences have the power to shift perception from “Blind, incapable, weird looking person” to “Smart, funny, intelligent woman.” His argument is that people meet someone like me and suddenly don’t know their role. For a stranger, the situation is full of unknowns, fears and a general sense of uncertainty. Giving them some context and a function in the social dynamic will allow them to feel comfortable with me, freeing them to notice who I am.

I believe words have power. They don’t have that much power. Non-disabled people need time and exposure to move past their initial impression. The problem is that most don’t take that time and in fact, their subconscious writes me off often without consulting the conscious mind. There are no magic words to subjugate this process.

Okay, there is something that has the power to derail things – shock. It’s why some women with disabilities dress provocatively — to shock potential dates out of the “not sexual” mindset.

What would I need to do in order to shock people? Would that be in line with my personality?

“Yes, I’m blind. Be careful. You don’t want that to cause you to underestimate me. That would be a bad idea.” The last sentence would be delivered with a slow smile. Not even sure I’m capable of a slow smile on purpose let alone uttering those words.

If I could conjure up the MagicWords, I still get stuck on the idea that I should have to say them. It’s not my job nor should I take on the task of easing non-disabled people past their prejudice. Disability is not exclusively the responsibility of the disabled. As a society we have created this state of affairs and as a society we should deal with it.

Besides, if I noticeably aid people in coping with their discomfort, I’ve set a precedent. “You made me comfortable, Jen. Now, when it comes to your disability, I expect you to do all the rest of the work too.” Do I want to establish such a pattern?

Yet, inaction will not change anything. Principles are great, but they don’t make you feel loved and valued.

Besides, women have needs. And hormones. and needs that go beyond hormones.