Half A Glass

This is the speech I gave at the San Diego Pride Spirit of Stonewall Rally.


Half A Glass

Imagine in my hands I hold a gllass with a capacity of 16 ounces and it is currently holding 8 ounces. Let’s think about this gllass as my blindness.

Some people tell me I’m amazing for taking the bus, baking cookies or living by myself. The most mundane tasks become praiseworthy because a person with a disability did them. These people would say my imaginary glass is half full..

Then there are people who feel sorry for me. They say things like, “It mmust be so hard being blind” or “Your life would be so much better if you could see.” For them, this glass is half empty,

My question is this: Why can’t it just be half a glass? Disability is a fact, but society loads it with a lot of meaning and insists on foisting that meaning off on the person with the disability. Believe it or not, when I tell people it’s not amazing that a blind person can bake, that it’s just a skill, they argue with me. Argue.Heatedly.

Now let’s think of this imaginary glass as my bisexuality. We are going to pretend I’m that mythical creature – someone equally attracted to more than one gender for my entire life. Some would describe me as half straight. Others would describe me as half gay. My question is this: Why can’t I just be a glass of water? A person attracted to more than one gender?

Unfortunately, people tend to think of us in terms of partly gay and partly straight, as if we can divide ourselves into sections. Nowhere is this more obvious than in LGBT-serving organizations, where we can acknowledge our same gender attractions, but must find somewhere else to express our different gender attractions.

Guess how well that is working for bisexual people? We are the largest segment of the LGBT community, but the smallest group served by LGBT organizations. Our isolation and alienation have led to some disturbing trentds. Commpared to lesbian and gay people, we have higher rates of suicide, depression, intimate partner violence, poverty, poor helath… The list goes on.

So, back to this glass of mine, this glass of identity. In the trans community’s fight to use the bathroom in which they feel safest, we are demanding that trans people are allowed to define their own glass– their own identity. We must extend that same courtesy to people with disabilities, who get to decide for themselves if their disability is good, bad, or neutral. We must allow bisexual people to define their sexual orientation however they wish, not insist they express it in terms of heterosexuality and homosexuality. And we must stop forcing our own definitions onto others and when people tell us who they are, we believe them.

Changing Perspectives

I was fortunate to be invited to the recent White House policy briefing for the bisexual community. Even better, I was able to attend thanks to help and support from a variety of people.  (You know who you are and your help is appreciated.)

While in DC, I stayed with Mike and Tina, friends from high school.  We all trooped off to a

weekly lunch that always follows a faith-based gathering – the equivalent of coffee after church. In general, this collection of individuals is progressive and has a sense of social justice.  Over the years, Mike has told me a great deal about this caring and supportive community where he has invested so much of his time, energy and heart.  I was eager to go forth and meet everyone.

It did not quite work out that way.  I was a part of one conversation, introduced briefly to another person and mostly simply absorbed the vibe.  Oh, yeah, and Camille and I displaced people from their seats not because I asked, but because they decided I needed the seat more and went elsewhere.  (I can’t be sure, but I think the table had empty seats, so I felt a little bit like Typhoid Mary.)   In other words, it was my typical social experience.

Later, I learned this is not the way this group tends to treat new people.  Fortunately, the circumstances present a rare opportunity to hear from someone familiar with the group who can comment upon the ways their behavior strayed from their normal patterns.  Mike, who has helped and supported this blog for years, has been drafted to offer up his observations.  I shall yield the floor to him, but I will reclaim it to discuss one factor I think contributes to the quality of my social experiences, which other events during my DC trip highlighted so glaringly that even the blind person noticed.




Whenever the word courage is launched in my direction, I winse. I am not courageous, merely a human being, trying to live my life to the best of my ability. Period.


Courageous people are those who do things like run into rather than away from a burning building. They have made a clear, conscious choice to do something that is optional. A firefighter could earn a living teaching history, but instead she puts her life on the line each and every day. That’s courage.


There are also people who do something courageous once or twice in their lifetime, like many of those on September 11th who helped coworkers and strangers make it to safety. Such individuals could have easily taken care of themselves and left others to struggle alone. That’s courage.


I do not run into burning buildings or help others survive catastrophes. My courageous act seems to be living. In the examples I gave above, the individuals involved had clear choices. No matter how hard I try, I cannot find an alternative option to living my life. If in living and pursuing my own happiness I have to face harder things than most, I consider that a fact of life not courage, for some roads are smooth and others are rutted.


While I object strongly to the label courageous, I do admit to other traits, such as determination, persistence, and strength.


As much as I hate to even admit it, I do display something approaching courage, but it won’t be in the way you might imagine. I have some visible scars clothing could easily cover, yet I choose to not dress in a concealing manner. From my perspective, it is my simple refusal to internalize socially normative behaviors. However, after somebody has negatively reacted to my appearance, the next time I select clothing, it does run through my mind that I could pick something else. Since I am making a choice, I guess it falls under my definition of courage. But, really, it isn’t rescuing people from buildings or carrying somebody with a broken leg down flight after flight of stairs.

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

Mean Authors

I’ve discovered a new genre of books. It’s the “She’s Less Scarred Than She Thinks She Is” category, which is characterized by a female protagonist who has facial scars, typically received in some horrific childhood accident. The tendency is for parents to somehow be involved in what happened, leading our heroine to have complicated family issues intertwined with her issues about being scarred. Unfortunately, rather than these issues being portrayed as separate, the author implies the family issues are an extension of the scarred woman’s baggage related to her “horrific” appearance. If she only got over her scars, then she would also free herself from familial discord.

In these novels, the reader mostly learns about the scars and their horrific nature from the protagonist, who uses words like “disfigured.” We also learn about how people react to these scars largely from her perspective. In other words, the scarred person is telling us about the scars and what it is like to have them. Other characters either don’t mention them or behave as though they are the equivalent of a zit. When the scarred woman directly mentions her disfigurement to other characters, they say things like, “Everyone has scars,” “I bet most people don’t even notice them,” and “Maybe you should care less what other people think.”

Speaking for people with facial disfigurements the world over, I wish to register my complaint that this category of books are not only false reflections of what life is like for someone with scars, they are actively harmful to those of us with scars. It’s irresponsible for a writer to pretend to know about something like this when they have not walked in those shoes. It is one thing to imagine what it would be like to be a thirty-something lawyer who is a mother of three kids and another thing altogether to imagine what life is like for a person with facial scarring. It would take an extremely talented writer with a very high degree of empathy to do such a character justice and most authors are not Lois McMaster Behold.

To debunk the myths these books perpetuate, let me start with the easiest. “You should care less what other people think.” That’s a great idea, but it misses the point. it isn’t what other people think that is so harmful to a disfigured woman. Rather, it is what people do – treat the person differently. Not getting a job because you are scarred is not based on someone else’s thoughts. Being treated with pity is not based on mere thought. Having trouble dating is not a problem caused by thought. Not caring what others think will get you nowhere because it is the actions of others that are at the crux of the problem.

“I bet most people don’t even notice them,” is a statement typically based on an individual’s own perception of the scars. Since they have grown accustomed to their presence, they assume that must be the case for others, even total strangers. It is a conclusion based on the notion that one’s own current experience is identical to everyone’s experience, regardless of differing circumstances. Dr. Jones teaches medical interns to remove gall bladders based on the one time she did it. She does not concern herself with teaching about how lifestyle, age, weight or other aspects of medical history impact the surgery because her experience was a certain thing so everyone’s experience will be that same thing. Personally, I would not have Dr. Jones or any physician trained by her operate on me, but you go ahead.

Now, for my personal favorite of “Everyone has scars.” This fallacy is pervasive in our culture. I hear it about disability and sexual orientation all the time. Oddly enough, I never hear it about race, religion or ethnicity. “We all have some Jewish in us,” is not acceptable. Why, then, is it perfectly fine to invalidate a person’s entire life experience by minimizing it to, “Everyone has it.” I can tell you with complete certainty that I have scars very different from those of your average forty-something woman and we experience life in very different ways.

My biggest problem with novels in this genre is the damage they can do to someone who lives with scars. She isn’t going to be guided to some place of personal fulfilment and emotional health by reading a book that invalidates her experience. Instead, she will feel like she’s failed because, unlike the female protagonist, she has not suddenly realized her beauty and begun living a fairytale existence. Holding out that carrot of happiness is cruel because no amount of personal or emotional growth will change the world we live in. It’s not kind to people with scars on their face. Pretending otherwise, turning that delusion into a novel and letting it go out into the world is irresponsible and mean.

The You Cants

Any person with a disability is entirely too familiar with the phrase, “You can’t do that.” If the Obstinacy Gods smiled down upon you at the time of your birth, you are temperamentally pre-disposed to say, “Says you, not me.” Should the Obstinacy Gods not have been so benevolent, hopefully experience, parents or teachers instilled the same reflexive reaction in your soul.

For me, being explicitly told I couldn’t do something in my mid to late adolescents did cause the reflexive reaction described above and I often steamrolled ahead to prove the person wrong. Unfortunately, the “You Can’t”s are typically not explicit statements you can then disprove. Rather, they are insidious attitudes and lower expectations. Nobody says you can’t do something, they just don’t expect it from you which subtly changes the landscape in fact making it harder to accomplish the goal.

Long before a teenager learns to drive, they are exposed to all sorts of information about driving from simple observation to more tangible experiences like sitting on a parent’s lap behind the wheel. People talk about the person some day driving. “Your Barbie drives a Corvette. Do you want to drive one when you get older?” It is assumed the person will one day drive and, guess what, they typically do.

Now, take a child with significant learning disabilities. Somewhere along the way, the adults in this kid’s life have gotten the idea into their heads that the child will never drive. Suddenly, all that exposure and assumption and planning and passive education vanish. It is often done to protect the child from “unrealistic expectations,” but simultaneously strips away all the advantages everyone else gets simply through the typical course of living. Not only does the child with a disability have to learn how to drive, they also must do it without any support and lacking the tools other kids are given to accomplish the task. That’s….. nuts.

Never Give In?

In the midst of a novel, I stopped dead in my mental tracks when I read, “She had never given in to her disability.” “Given in”? As though disability were a foe or unstoppable force.

To declare that statement foreign to how I relate to my disabilities is a drastic understatement akin to declaring a drop of water the equivalent of the Pacific ocean. (How’s that for dramatic hyperbole? Hold on to your socks because there’s more.)

If the common understanding of disability is a “force” in “opposition” to me, then it makes complete sense that people think I’m amazing for walking out my front door. After all, I have made the Herculean effort to fight against something keeping me in place. No, actually, trying to push me in a different direction.

Our collective consciousness is full of entities in opposition — good versus evil, freedom versus dictatorial constraint, healthy versus infirm and even smile versus frown. No wonder we cannot escape Hollywood’s determination to continue to use disability as a metaphor for evil, a social understanding of disability as life-constraining, the notion that a physical condition is contagious and even that having a disability automatically categorizes you as unhappy. We are in opposition to our condition as good fights back evil, freedom overcomes totalitarian regimes, health is a goal we “achieve” and happy shines forth from sorrow.

What a load of manure. I’m no more fighting against my disabilities than you are struggling to keep your cells all together in the form of your body. You just are and disability just is. Fact, people. Fact.

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?

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’s the Opposite of Pity?

I’ve been reading about race relations in 1962 Atlanta, Georgia, and repeatedly hatred has been the focus.  In fact, when it comes to issues of diversity based on race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity and religion, hatred is one of the dominant emotions.  (When the prejudice manifests itself in an act, we call it a “hate crime.”)  The way bigotry toward these marginalized groups is combated involves fostering states opposite to hatred, such as kindness, compassion and understanding.

On the other hand, hatred is not an emotion I associate with the prejudice I experience as a person with a disability.  Pity is the primary culprit and unlike hatred, it does not have opposites that come to mind which can be promoted within the hearts of people without disabilities.

To make sure we are all on the same page, let’s open a dictionary.  Pity is defined as “sympathetic or kindly sorrow evoked by the suffering, distress, or misfortune of another, often leading one to give relief or aid or to show mercy.”  Among its synonyms are words like compassion and commiseration.  While perhaps not a pleasant emotional state, pity is not, unlike hatred, given the stamp of social sanction.  An act springing from pity is considered an act of mercy, making it very hard to quash.

Looking at the antonyms of pity, we discover three broad categories.  There are the good words, the bad words and the neutral ones.  Opposites to pity with a negative bent are cruelty, harshness, hatred, meanness, mercilessness, disfavor, malevolence, unkindness, and disdain.  Slightly more palatable are disinterest and detachment.  The positives are cheer, happiness, joy, advantage, blessing, and good fortune.

Think about this for a moment: To combat racism and sexism, we encourage states opposite to hatred.  In the case of disablism, to promote the opposite of pity would either involve fostering something like cruelty or hatred, working toward indifference, or trying to somehow convince people that disability is good fortune.  That is a lousy, impossible set of options.

It’s far clearer to say, “Don’t hate someone.  Feel compassion, kindness and love,” than to say, “Don’t pity someone.  Feel…”  What?  Indifference? Cruelty?  I suppose “joy” isn’t a bad idea, except I can’t conceive of how you get a nondisabled person to go from viewing disability as negative to not simply tolerable but joyful?!

Dissecting all these linguistics has given me some new insight into why disablism is so intractable.  In a world where pity is a virtue, how do you eliminate it?  When its opposites range from the good to the bad, what ultimately becomes your goal?  When even the positive states are going to be impossible to sell, in the end what do you have left?

Someone suggested to me that the opposite of pity is confidence.  “I don’t pity you.  I believe in you.”  Faith in my ability as a person with a disability to do what needs to be done is definitely more of a place to start than I had before the suggestion was made.  I’m still not certain, though,  how you get people from the condoned “You poor thing” to the place where they view disability as something other than tragedy.