An Inconvenient Truth

  • Social isolation has been a blight plaguing me for a long time. Ten years ago, when I first began attempting to eradicate it, I acted as if I was the cause. Obviously, I was behaving in a socially abhorrent manner to the point that people actively avoided my company.

Informed by the feedback of others and anything pop psychology had to say, I began rehabilitating my personality and behaviors. “Maybe you talk too much.” “You should have a list of possible topics to discuss.” “Are you showing interest in other people?” “It is your job to put others at ease.” “You need to be understanding of other’s ignorance, educate them and then be patient.” “You need to try harder.” Everything I tried failed and I thought this meant I had failed.

Nobody likes to see themselves as a failure, so I searched for another explanation and began considering how chronic illness limited my outside activities. Without a job and active lifestyle, I was not encountering The Magic Number of People required to find close friends. Armed with this explanation, I got creative about using my energy and became more active in the world beyond my doorstep.

Guess what? Stepping outside did not launch me into a crowd of close friends. Because I kept hearing that doing what you loved would bring people like you into your sphere and be transformative, I modified my approach. Still wasn’t surrounded by a circle of intimates.

I went back to the hypothesis that chronic illness was simply too limiting and added to it. Perhaps blindness’s impact on social interactions, making eye contact, facial expression and nonverbal communication impossible, was severely limiting my ability to connect with others. Concluding the situation was beyond a mere mortal’s control, I gave up.

With nothing better to do, I began working on building my skill set by volunteering and joining a blind group. Now busier than ever, I still cannot find intimate connections, so maybe it isn’t my chronic illness’s limitations? Immersed in a community equally unable to engage in nonverbal communication, I did not suddenly sprout intimate connections, so maybe it isn’t blindness’s fault? Eighteen months of psychotherapy and the only consequence is a therapist who enjoys my company to the point that I had to ask him to enjoy me less and treat me more, so maybe I don’t have a huge personality flaw?

Here is the inconvenient truth that everyone on the planet seems to wish to avoid admitting: Disability makes non-disabled people uncomfortable and there is not a damned thing the person with the disability can do about it. Yes, as a society, we have made great strides in accepting physical difference, but we have not reached the point where having a disability is to simply possess another form of human variation. Eventually, we will arrive at the place I dream about, but not next month or next year. This type of fundamental change moves slower than glaciers and all I can do is my part to keep the process headed in a good direction.

You know what would really help? People not pretending we live in enlightened times where my disability isn’t leading to social isolation. The creative delusions that it is somehow my failing and thus my problem to fix is not only untrue but actively damaging to me and more importantly millions of others. I’m not asking anyone to become my new best friend, but could you at least stop believing this is about me? It’s about all of us.

 

This year I again proudly participate in Blogging Against Disablism Day 2014. For more information, please go to:

fhttp://tinyurl.com/BADday201Blogging Against Disablism Day 2014

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?

What He Said

I could not have put this better myself if I tried for a week.

http://www.planet-of-the-blind.com/2014/03/the-able-bodied-blues.html

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.

WHAT WE MISS

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.

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.