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 Road to Discrimination is Paved with Compassion

Lately I have become hyper-aware of situations in which kindness and compassion reign, but the end result is limitation and lack of choice. I tend to notice it happening when a group of people, including a person with a disability, are trying to pick an activity. With kindness and compassion, people will not suggest activities they feell aren’t possible for the person with a disability. That makes sense when it comes to not suggesting a peanut butter-making demonstration when someone has a peanut allergy, but not proposing a hike when a blind person is involved seems less reasonable.


My guess is the person not raising the idea of climbing a mountain is thinking, “Well, they can’t do that and I don’t want them to feel bad because they have to say no.” This sparing someone from having to be the “wet bllanket” is noble. On a deeper level, though, it might have less warm and fuzzy consequences.


Who said the blind person can’t hike? Unless that specific individual has directly mentioned they don’t hike, it is an assumption by a person without a disability about what a person with a disability can do, restricting the person with a disability. In the immediate, it means an entire group of people might miss out on a fun activity that had the potential to also broaden everyone’s understanding of what it is like to be sight impaired. What does a blind person need to hike? How does everyone work together to be certain everyone is enjoying themmselves? An opportunity was lost because someone assumed another’s abilities and tried to be kind.


There are also less obvious consequences. How, after allll, does a blind person learn how to hike if nobody ever takes them hiking? Will that blind individual ever think it is possible if the possibility is never presented? Someone else’s noble gesture mmight be, in fact, taking something away from someone ellse.


My cynnical side has a different possibility it keeps raising. On the part of the person not making the suggestion, how much is alltrusim and how much is self-interest? After all, including a person with a disability might mean everyone needs to walk a littlle bit slower or provide other forms of assistance. I can see space within this compassionate act that is more about just wanting to relax and have fun.


Much of what I write and think about these days boils down into a phrase that I would make the title of this blog, if that were easily achievablle.


Ask Not Assume

PTSD. Again.

In mid November 2013, I stopped writing in this blog. I had another traumatizing experience during a medical procedure and was unable to function normally let alone write anything that touched upon emotions. Coming back to this blog was prompted by a need to learn how to use WordPress on my iPad for the Braille Institute class. Then Braille Institute decided to establish a name badge policy and outrage worked as an awesome motivator.

Now it is time to write about what happened. As you read my recollections, please keep in mind that trauma is often stored in our brains not as narrative memory but as snapshots leading to disjointed recall.

I woke up from a trachea stretch with a tube keeping me from speaking and unable to move properly. There was a lot of chaos around me with people saying thins like, “Jen, squeeze my hand.” Nobody said things like, “Jen, I’m <insert name> and I’m going to do this.” Nobody appeared to be focused on keeping me informed of events or trying to establish a line of communication.

The tube came out quickly. The inability to move properly resolved itself. The damage was already done in the moment when I came to consciousness and couldn’t move, speak or understand what was happening, isolated in a scene of chaos. More trauma came as I learned that the situation might have been avoidable if better choices had been made by some of the clinicians involved.

Upon arriving home, I knew I would have some sort of reaction to my experience, but I wasn’t quite sure what. It took about twenty-four hours before the first signs became obvious. I walked across my kitchen and set the toaster oven tray in the sink. Then I crumpled to the ground in a ball and sobbed. There was literally absolutely no immediate cause for the tears. They just happened.

The uncontrollable sobbing became my life with tears unpredictably surfacing one to three times a day. I could be reading a book or chatting on the phone or sitting in a meeting and tears happened sort of like a sneeze – there are things you know will cause it, ways to possibly delay it, but sooner or later, it bursts forth.

Eventually I learned those delaying tactics, making being out in public somewhat more possible. Sometimes I was even able to identify what caused the tears and what emotions I was feeling. Once in a while it was even related to immediate events and not past trauma.

There is something unique about re-traumatization – having experienced trauma, developed PTSD and been successfully treated only to endure a situation similar enough to be the equivalent. then you are coping with PTSD from the recent trauma along with PTSD from your history of similar trauma. In some ways it is like light reflected between a multitude of mirrors so that the intensity of light is greater than any component part. It’s wildly exponential math. It’s emotion magnified, refracted, blenderized and placed in a pressure cooker with a faulty valve.

My entire life ground to a screeching halt. I gave up any notion of doing anything more than going to therapy, walking the dog and making sure we both ate and slept. I did things requiring use of my hands – sewing, baking, knitting – to fill my mind with something because it left less space for trauma. I didn’t visit my family for the holidays. I only talked to people who didn’t make me more upset. I kept asking for topics of conversation to be dropped before I lost it. Again.

Time passed and I was able to control enough of what was happening to begin tentatively living. Then, I knew another trachea stretch was on the immediate horizon because that’s how my stenosis works.

Part of my PTSD symptomology is that I cave in front of anyone I see as an authority figure or more of an expert in a field. Talking to doctors was harder than… crossing an eight-lane highway without a cane, dog or even audible traffic signals. I did it badly. I somehow got through it.

This time, the procedure went smoothly. With a positive experience the most recent in my memory, my life has settled down. I have been able to resume my regularly scheduled existence, just with way more therapy and a conscious commitment to real down time.

Here’s the interesting part. I’m being put back together in better shape than I was before November 15, 2013. I’m not doing it consciously, but I see things happening inside myself that I know will lead to a stronger me. I’m still having trouble wrapping my head around that.


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.

Service Models

Whether governmental or private, agencies aiming to help people function on the principle of doing the greatest good for the greatest number. Whatever their niche, their goal is to provide services and support to as many as possible. It becomes a formula composed of maximizing benefit while husbanding resources all targeted at the typical person trying to be served. Thus, support that does not attract the target population is discontinued and services not utilized by a significant number of people are viewed as wasteful.

Think about the nature of people with disabilities as a population. Because of lack of access, we often are not engaged in community life. This lack of visibility means our need for access isn’t obvious or immediate. Thus, there continues to be a lack of access and we remain undetectable.

Even when we have full access, our presence is still in the minority, especially when we are subcategorized based on our disability-related needs. Because Deaf people need one thing and blind people might need another, we become separate items on a to do list and different line items on a budget. “Full access to all people with disabilities” becomes meaningless to an agency head when the reality of our differing needs factors into program development, planning and funding.

To meet the needs of our seemingly small population, the expenditures of effort to become educated about how to accomplish it and the money necessary to achieve it are high. In contrast, the payoff in terms of benefiting a few people seems small.

When the typical service model meets the needs of people with disabilities, things do not turn out well. Why would an agency expend significant resources to benefit only a few individuals? How can continuing a program that only serves a few people be justified? How do you overcome the seeming illogic of providing services when there is nobody there to partake of them?

I have been confronting these issues for quite some time as I attempt to convince my local LGBT Community Center to make some changes that meet the needs of blind and visually impaired people. My basic plea, “I know there aren’t a lot of us running around here, but this still matters” has not penetrated. They are an agency engaged in serving a specific population trying to make scarce resources stretch to meet that community’s needs. Why bother with the needs of 4 people that will take away from benefiting thousands? Within the parameters of the service model they utilize, they are entirely right.

In the past year, I have also worked with my local Pride organization. Theoretically functioning within the same service model, they have taken a different approach. “It’s important.” While far from perfect, there is at least a desire to provide the services disabled people need so that they too can fully participate in and enjoy Pride.

The striking disparity of the two experiences has been heavy in the back of my mind. The conclusion that finally emerged is that those ingrained in the service model I’ve described do not suddenly look up one day and see the shortcomings of it. Until they do, there is nothing you can say or do that will convince them that inclusion of one disabled person is important in a way that exists outside of resource marshalling, the greatest good for the greatest number, and the bottom line.

The funny thing is this: service agencies are there to help people. The bottom line is supposed to be the business of corporations and accountants. When did the business of helping become the business of exclusion, dollars and cents?A