Through My Eyes

When I meet a TAB (temporarily able-bodied) person, they are not the first, second, or even third member of that community I have encountered. Having grown up in non-disabled society, I am very familiar with what it means to be non-disabled. I know about mortgages and kiddie carpools and working moms and stay-at-home dads and midlife crises and divorce and being elderly. I have been steeped in non-disabled culture to such an extent that it is second nature to understand the lives of the non-disabled people I meet every day. I don’t need to have lived the experience to relate to it because of my massive exposure.

I am quite often the first disabled person a TAB has ever met. That individual has no frame of reference, no vast exposure, no years of observing other disabled people to help them relate.

Instead, TABs rely on other means to understand such as imagining what it would be like if they were blind. Unfortunately, lacking any knowledge of the specialized training I’ve received or years of experience I’ve gained, TABs can create a very skewed impression of what my life must be like. They then call upon this inaccurate perspective to attempt to comprehend, evaluate and judge my life.

These efforts fail miserably resulting in things like: “Wow, you are so amazing. I can’t believe a blind person can…” “I’m so inspired by you.” “It’s such a shame you can’t see.” “You must not be totally blind because you just…” “You can’t see, so let me do that for you.”

People can become very entrenched in their beliefs, assuming thirty seconds of imagining what it would be like to be blind is more accurate than the reality I–a blind person–describe. I’ve had arguments. Lots of them.

TABs thinking they understand what it’s like to have a disability better than someone *with* that disability are not limited to imagining walking in our shoes. Basic beliefs about how the world works can inform reactions. Those who think people are essentially good have trouble comprehending someone being unkind to a person with a disability. Customer-service people tell me to ask my neighbor to read my mail believing they would read the mail of their theoretical blind neighbor. Folks who believe our social-welfare system is adequate and flourishing act like I have help coming out of my ears to accomplish any task I want. How a person sees the world impacts how they see my life.

I’m discovering this phenomenon of “I know better about you than you” is more insidious than the smell of skunk spray. From strangers, it is somewhat excusable for they have little data to use besides their own imaginations, view of the world and some dimly remembered after-school special. Friends, however, should in theory know better because they have evidence gained over time both through observation and direct conversation. And yet, often friends of years fall back on this attitude of knowing better than me what it is like to be me.

This phenomenon is not unique to the disabled versus non-disabled populations. Men think they know what it’s like to be a woman better than women. “Oh, honey, that guy in the hardware store wasn’t being condescending. You’re overreacting.” Those outside a marginalized group often dismiss what a member of that marginalized group conveys about their experiences substituting their uninformed outsider view for that of an expert.

When, exactly, did it become reasonable, let alone smart, to take the opinion of a lay person over that of an expert?

I just lost a friend because of this. He firmly believes that his assessment of how I’m reacting to my current emotional turmoil is somehow more valid than my own. He’s never lived through any of the things I’m struggling with, but he is certain it’s perfectly reasonable and possible to handle them in a better way. I refrained from saying, “How about you try and let me know.”

2 thoughts on “Through My Eyes

  1. Say it, Jen!

    I also encounter this as a visibly-disabled woman. It’s one of the reasons I hesitate to go out in public, since people who don’t know me are more likely to bring their poorly-informed attitudes to any conversation.

    I’m so sorry you had to deal with this in a tighter circle; that’s demoralizing as well as frustrating.

  2. Hey Jesse,

    Fighting that desire to stay home so I can avoid people’s uninformed behavior is sometimes a true battle. I have to talk myself into it. Hell, some times there needs to be a reward system involving chocolate.

    For better or worse, I’m an extrovert, so I need to be around other people. Staying home all the time would make me insane. So, I go out and try not to become too homocidal.

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