What Is Help?

Here is some food for thought. Uncertain what street I am on, I will stop and ask someone. This is categorized as asking for help. Uncertain about what street they are on, a sighted person looks up and reads the street sign. We do not call this help.

A street sign does not magically appear suspended above our heads. It was ordered, made and hung there to aid people navigationally. However, if you can read it with your eyes, the effort behind and purpose for the sign’s presence is stripped away. You are functioning independently by reading information that is just there.


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.

I Quit

I’ve decided to stop being bisexual. I am neither relinquishing my attraction to more than one gender nor am I going to cease mentioning that I am bi when it is relevant. I’m merely done trying to be a member of the bisexual community.

The reason is simple: I won’t be the kind of disabled person necessary for inclusion. I am no longer willing to follow these rules:

A. Do not talk about my disability.

B. Do not discuss my disability-related needs.

C. Smile and be grateful for any bit of attention “lavished” upon me.

D. Embrace or tolerate the “Let me help you, poor thing” attitude that comes with any aid.

E. Allocate my disability-related needs to the realm of wants subject to the “whims” of people’s “kind” hearts.

F. Let prejudice behavior and policies exist without naming them as such.

So, today as the bisexual community comes together to celebrate and raise its visibility, I am taking a giant step away from that community until I can be both disabled and bisexual at the same time.

I have not made this decision lightly or in haste for it is only after years of working as a leader in my local bisexual community that I have come to this crossroad. The last three months, as I’ve taken time from that leadership to focus on health issues, I have watched as any acknowledgment of disability vanishes from the activities of the local bisexual community

Then, too, there is the behavior of the bisexual community on the larger national scene. My comments on accessible practices have been snubbed. Requests that people think about accessible formats are not acted upon. Disability might as well be a planet in another galaxy given the amount of attention it receives.

Finally, there are the individuals that compose the bisexual community. I am the eight-year-old child at an all grownup party that never conceived of a child being present. While this is not substantively different from how I am treated in heterosexual social situations, I would have expected more from a collection of people who routinely experience social isolation and discrimination.

Today, more than nineteen years since I left my closet, I am not exactly returning to that enclosed space. I’m leaving the bisexual building and only going back for brief visits when my bi friends invite me. Maybe the whole “Be polite to guests” principle will apply.

[If you are left thinking, “Wow, she’s angry,” then go read the previous entry for my perspective on anger.]