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.


In “Flowers for AlgernON,” Charlie Gordon, a man with a cognitive disability, undergoes a procedure that triples his I.Q., only for the experiment to ultimately fail, resulting in a return to his initial level of cognitive functioning. I am reading a novel in which a character with Aspberger’s Syndrome declares Charlie “stupid” for doing it in the first place because “now he knows what he’s missing.”

People born with a disability never experience life without the physiological limitations of their condition and common wisdom is that they never know what has been lost. While I agree they never know what they lack in terms of being sighted or neurotypical or hearing or possessing all limbs or whatever, I would argue that there is a vast amount being missed that such individuals are clearly, concretely and excruciatingly aware is not present – the social perks of normalcy.

Think about this for a moment. People with invisible disabilities – ones not known to others unless they are specifically told — struggle over whether or not to reveal their condition. Why? It cannot be because of the limits of their condition for those are present no matter what. Rather, it is about how others will respond to the new information. It’s about social consequences of possessing the trait of disability.

Anyone with a disability at some point watches those without a disability as they move through life. It’s on our televisions, in our books, on the bus and even in our own families. Non-disabled people are granted an ease in living from social interactions to dating to becoming a parent to joining a group, all because they do not possess a specific trait. They have done nothing to “deserve” this effortlessness nor do they usually realize its presence. It’s expected, counted upon and presumed to never be different.

Meanwhile, people with disabilities tend to live a different sort of life. All that ease and freedom and smooth sailing is denied them not because of the functional limitations of their condition but because of the existence of the condition.

And we know what we are missing. Though we might eventually reach the same destination, the journey will not be the same.

And we will watch people no better or worse than ourselves enjoy social lubrication we can never experience.

And it will be because we possess a trait. It will not be because of the consequences of the trait. It will be the mere presence of it.

Forever, we will be on the outside looking in. Forever, we will know what we are missing.

What I cannot enjoy because of the limits of my visual abilities is an insignificant fraction of what I know I am missing. If I could secretly see everything without anyone ever knowing it – if I acted blind though I could see – I would not feel like I suddenly gained some lost thing. What I will forever miss has nothing to do with not seeing and everything to do with what I do not receive because of blindness’s simple presence.

Here’s the best way I can explain it to non-disabled people:
It is the bar of amazing chocolate on a shelf high above your head that you are unable to reach. Meanwhile, many other people come by, take down the bar of awesomeness, have a piece they devour before you with obvious enjoyment and then replace the bar again beyond your ability to grasp. Over and over again. Your entire life. Maybe with a tiny nibble just often enough so you can never possibly forget the delicious flavor.