Who Am I, And Where’s My Dog?

Who am I?

My name is Meagan. By day, I’m a Communications Specialist; by night, a freelance editor. I love cats, dogs, and other cute, fluffy creatures. I’m a bookworm. I love music. I hate waking up early and I hate bugs. I love playing the piano (I’m not very good at it) and correcting other people’s grammar (which they actually pay me to do). I’m a mercurial introvert with a ton of excellent friends who love me anyway, and a wonderful partner who somehow manages to put up with my quirks. I procrastinate like all good writers should; I struggle with insecurities and jealousy and bouts of irrationality; I really, really love chocolate. In other words, I’m pretty normal. … Oh yeah, and I’ve been blind from birth.

You might be thinking, “Wait, what’s that you said about being pretty normal?”

Unless you hang around with blind people a lot, (and if you do, then good for you, we’re a lot of fun), you probably can’t help thinking that there’s a certain otherness that characterizes people with noticeable disabilities like blindness.  In some ways that’s true. We definitely lead altered lives. We walk around with long white sticks (or maddeningly cute doggies you’re not allowed to pet), and we bump into stuff. We also tend to possess a lot of things that talk.

That said, we’re just like you. We have the same fears, hopes, aspirations, and ambitions that “normal” people do. We go to college, and work, and have kids, and play sports, and keep house, and hang out with friends, and do all that “normal” stuff.

So, you may ask, and with good reason, “If you’re exactly the same as everyone else, why write a blog about blindness?” For too many years, I believed I had to play up the “normal” bits of myself to the point where I was practically in denial when it came to my disability. I believed that a “good blind person” had to behave as though the blindness was practically nonexistent. If it did exist, it was no inconvenience at all. No big deal, I can function just like everybody else, maybe better. I am capable blind gal, hear me roar!

While it is very healthy not to centre your life around blindness, it’s equally healthy to acknowledge that blindness is really damn annoying sometimes. It’s inconvenient. It makes life harder. It’s not some divine gift that makes me a better person or whatever it is we tell ourselves these days. Yes, I deal with it, and no, it’s not a constant stumbling block, but yeah…it’s really, really inconvenient sometimes. I routinely deal with questions like “Where’s your dog? You should have a dog!” and “How many fingers am I holding up?” and my personal favourite, “How can you possibly have a life? How can you be happy?”

Sometimes I run into doorways and walls and cabinet doors with frightening force. If you see me with a black eye, it was an inanimate object, not my boyfriend, promise. Sometimes I drop things and then crawl around for a dog’s age trying to find them. Sometimes I miss spots when I clean my house. Sometimes I accidentally throw whites in with my coloured laundry. These are the minor things.

Sometimes, it’s really tough to get hired because nobody believes I can work. Sometimes, people treat me like I’m invisible or inhuman, because they perceive me to be fundamentally different and, by extension, inferior. Sometimes, people talk about me like I’m not there. Sometimes, people complain because I’m “a drain on the system”. Sometimes, I feel desperately lonely and misunderstood. Sometimes, I really, really hate being blind. This ain’t a picnic in the sun…sometimes.

Mostly, though, I’m pretty normal, like I said. I’m writing this blog because if I can make one person understand what my life is like, then I’ve succeeded. If I can make one person realize that we’re not so different, inferior, invisible, then my time hasn’t been wasted. I don’t speak for all blind people, but I do know how they often feel, whether they’ll admit it or not.

If you’re still with me, stick around. Who knows? You might learn something; and if you don’t learn anything, I might at least make you laugh.

But wait–where’s my dog?

I don’t have one, … and that’s okay.

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Breaking: Voting Blind is Still a Mess

I remember the first time I voted in an election—Alberta’s last provincial election, in fact. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I’d been advised to anticipate, well, just about anything. Some blind voters wove enchanting tales of gloriously accessible experiences: knowledgeable volunteers, helpful Braille overlays to make paper ballots accessible, and plenty of dignity for everyone. (Yay!) Other visually impaired voters described confusing polling station layouts, bewildered election officers, and ballots that were impossible to fill out independently. Since I was voting via a mobile polling station on my university’s campus, I had no way of knowing what would be waiting for me.
The experience was about as bad as it could have been, I’m sad to say. If I hadn’t happened to run into a sighted friend on my way to the polling station, I would have been totally demoralized by the disorganized space and baffled volunteers who were supposed to be managing things. I could tell they all meant well, but no one seemed sure of how to handle the situation. Indeed, one of them made a phone call, pleading for help: “What am I supposed to do with a blind person?” (She … she really couldn’t think of another way to put that?)
In the end, after much table-shuffling and whispered conversation, it was decided that my sighted friend should fill out my ballot for me. No one present, besides the friend in question, offered to assist me; I believe they figured I’d intentionally brought her along for that very purpose. There was no formal procedure, no consent form or oath of any kind, and the entire rigmarole took so long I was beginning to sense I was holding up production with my pesky access needs. The experience was so unpleasant it took a lot of courage to vote in the federal election that came soon afterward. As this post points out, Elections Canada didn’t have their act together any more than Elections Alberta had. Voting may have been my sacred right under democracy, but standing among those frazzled volunteers, I felt as though I were asking for the ocean in a cup.
Today, I voted in the 2019 Alberta provincial election, hopeful and eager to give the process another shot. Friends who’d voted in advance polls claimed their experiences had been considerably more encouraging this time around, and I thought I might get lucky. I was also excited to vote in a regular polling station rather than a mobile one, which might have better-trained elections officers. A girl can dream! However, I did bring my partner with me, just in case. That turned out to be a sound decision.
For the most part, things went well this time. The polling station had adequate signage, and seemed well-organized. There were people stationed near the entrance to help voters find their way, and everyone I interacted with seemed competent and self-assured. I got the impression that these people were working together like a well-oiled machine, which I found reassuring. In general, I can’t fault anyone working at this polling station, and I believe the inconsistencies I’m about to recount were down to incomplete training and preparation.
My partner and I approached the voting table, only to be told that the sole work-around for filling out my ballot was to request assistance, either from an officer or from my companion. The officer we dealt with was unfailingly kind, but obviously nervous. He frequently directed questions to my partner instead of me, and I had to work hard to redirect him. He seemed so uncomfortable with the whole procedure that, after listening to his halting explanation of how to complete the special declaration form, I knew I’d not be leaning on this well-meaning but flustered stranger—not when an alternative was available, anyway.
First, my partner read and signed a brief oath swearing to provide assistance to me. Then, the elections officer signed as a witness. I waited, assuming I’d also be asked to sign, seeing as I was giving official permission to let another person cast my vote for me. Surely, something of this gravity would require my explicit consent.
Nope.
Immediately after signing as a witness, the officer waved us behind the table, and my partner filled out ballots for us both. I trust him without reservation, of course, but it all felt a little too easy, too casual, for my liking. Before I knew it, my partner was handing both our ballots back to the officer to check, and I didn’t even get to place my own ballot in the slot. And the lack of a Braille ballot—a low-tech overlay that’s easy to produce and easy to use—was still bugging me as we walked away from the table.
As soon as we left the station, my partner burst out: “I can’t believe they didn’t make you sign anything! It’s your vote! That doesn’t seem right.”
Perhaps it didn’t seem right because, according to this summary of the Election Act, it wasn’t. The summary states that according to the section on voter assistance, both the person providing assistance and the disabled voter must take an oath. For whatever reason, that was either excluded from the declaration we were given, or a separate form wasn’t provided at all.
More interesting still, the act goes on to specify that a visually impaired voter can use a “voter template,” which I assume refers to a Braille and/or large-print overlay, if they don’t’ want to be assisted by anyone else. The language seems clear, but if there was any kind of template designed to help me, no one knew about it. As always, the incredible inconsistency of the process obstructed proper accessibility, even though the language in the Election Act is unambiguous.
All in all, things could definitely have been worse. I had a partially sighted person with me to curb some of the awkwardness. The officers were respectful to a fault. The station was easy to locate and even easier to navigate. I enjoyed the atmosphere and made sure everyone knew I appreciated their service.
But, considering how important it is that elections be fair and accessible to all, our provincial and federal agencies have a long way to go before every disabled person can expect a dignified, consistent voting experience.
I tolerate messy processes in every other area of my life, and I try to do so with grace because life is busy and we’re all doing our best with what we have. When it comes to voting, though, I think I can reasonably expect better.

I Don’t Want You to be Grateful

I don’t want you to be grateful that you don’t have my life. I want you to ask yourself why it’s so hard, why it’s so unfair, and what you can do about it. I want you to see the barriers—the inaccessible environments and the crushing weight of low expectations—and realize that, without these roadblocks, it wouldn’t be quite so hard and unfair. I want you to know that I wasn’t put on this earth to encourage you to appreciate what you have. I want you to understand that, in a more inclusive world, there would be little need to look at a disabled person and think, “Thank God that’s not me.” I want you to know that through the smallest acts, you can help make that happen.

I don’t want to inspire you. I want my ordinary actions to be just that: ordinary. I want to be more than a motivational meme or symbol of struggle. I want you to see me, not just the white cane, the dog, the wheelchair, the diagnosis, the brain or the body that doesn’t work exactly like yours does. I want you to admire my strong points without erasing my weak ones. I want you to stop attaching “for a disabled person” to every compliment you pay me. I want you to see my talents and charms, my flaws and my quirks—the things that make me every bit as human as you.

I don’t want you to tell me you’re my ally. I want you to show me. I want you to model that care with your actions, your values and your votes. I want you to describe your photos and call out that friend who’s always complaining about the “handicaps” on welfare. I want you to ask why that new restaurant doesn’t have an accessible entrance. I want you to recognize that a thousand social media posts can never equal an in-the-moment act of kindness. I want you to accept that how you make me feel is far more impactful than what you tweet.

I don’t want to be in your diversity poster, your diversity working group, your diversity brochure. I want to be consulted for practical solutions, not publicity stunts—because my time is worth more than that, and so is yours. I want you to seek my feedback not because the optics are favourable, but because my perspective is of value and I have something to offer you. I want two-way streets. I want to help move things forward, but I can’t do that while I’m sitting at the token table.

I don’t want to make you a better person. I want to increase your awareness and deepen your understanding. I want to point you toward opportunities for growth and education. I want you to be part of the solution. I want you to stand beside me as my equal and my ally, not because it makes you a good person but because better treatment of disabled people makes good sense for everyone.

I don’t want your charity. I want you to hire me. I want you to rent to me. I want you to let me take your class. I want you to be the patient or the client or the customer who doesn’t flinch when a disabled person walks into the room. I want you to trust that I am suitably qualified and that I will meet your standards. I want you to be comfortable with the concept of working, productive disabled people. I want you to wonder why there aren’t more of us.

I don’t want you to be my voice. I want you to acknowledge that I have my own voice. I want you to amplify it, bring it to the ears of those who wouldn’t otherwise listen. I want you to help the world understand that I am not, and have never been, voiceless. I want you to refuse when you are asked to represent me. I want you to point in my direction when someone asks, “What does she think? What does she need?” I want you to step back, because I am my own best advocate. And when the world asks you to speak for me, I want you to pass the mic, because my story is mine to tell.

The Year of Eating Fire

“The only way to do it is to do it. … There is no trick. You eat fire by eating fire.” ~ Tessa Fontaine, The Electric Woman

An inspired, fresh-start feeling comes to most people in January, filled with promise and hopeful resolution. By late March, many of us realize our goals feel far less attainable when not bathed in the glow of New Year motivation. By the end of the year, only the extraordinarily disciplined remain standing.
In my case, motivation came calling in springtime, in late March of last year. January and February had trudged by in a haze of inertia. My job had hit a dead end. Chances seemed slim for finding another. My lack of disability-related skills was weighing on me more heavily than ever, and my desire to hide from those who might look down on me left me frozen. Time had failed to pull me from my rut, and fear, not to mention despair, was taking over.
And then came CSUNATC—a tech accessibility conference in California that was, by the grace and generosity of a dear friend, within my reach. All I had to do was overcome my fear of mingling with the disability community, muzzle my travel anxiety, and say yes. Pretty simple, or so you’d think.
But saying yes to CSUNATC was, for many reasons, one of the scariest things I’d ever done. Crowds aren’t my thing. Travelling terrifies me, as do fellow disabled people. Just to add to the drama of it all, the friend who agreed to be my guide was someone I’d never met in person. It was as though some sinister committee had conspired to invent circumstances that would encapsulate my personal nightmares. All that was missing was a nest of angry insects.
As many of my readers know, I said yes anyway. Clarity pierced my fortress of quiet desperation, convincing me this would be good for me. Maybe it would open some doors, professional and social. At the very least, it might shake me from my funk, and deprive my anxiety of some of its power.
I attended the conference, faced a multitude of demons, and wrote a recap so emotionally vulnerable that total strangers reached out to thank me for my courage. Perhaps it was the sudden change of pace, the audacious decision to publish my failures, or the landslide of goodwill from a community I’d assumed would judge rather than embrace me, but I understood, all at once, that there are no shortcuts to true forward motion. No “one weird trick” or easy lifehack would help me conquer my fears. There was only the choice to say yes, grit my teeth, and do the scary thing. The only way to eat fire is to eat the damn fire, after all.
Buoyed by this revelation, I began eating fire every chance I got. My springtime resolution wasn’t an easy one to keep, but it stuck where dozens of others had failed. To this day, I don’t have a proper exercise routine, and I am incapable of keeping a regular journal. But touching my tongue to flame has become a valued part of my life, if not second nature.
A few months after returning from CSUNATC, I applied for an internship, even though the competition was fierce and I was certain I’d not measure up. (They hired me).
I tried my hand at speechwriting, which a university course had persuaded me I’d never master. (I’m now a full-time strategic writer, crafting speeches for people more important than I will ever be.)
I practiced being more assertive in everyday life, advocating more consistently and experimenting with “No” rather than letting courtesy outweigh common sense. (I’m now rather good at getting people to let go of me.)
I explored intermittent fasting, regardless of how drastic it seemed. Restricting food made my anxiety spike, but I persisted. (I’ve kept it up for months now, and it has transformed my relationship with food, all but eliminating disordered eating along the way.)
I ask for what I want, not because I am entitled to a thing but because if you don’t ask, you’ll surely never get. (I have taken on several side projects at work that would not have materialized if I hadn’t spoken up.)
The ultimate manifestation of my new resolve was a little like metaphorical flaming-sword-swallowing. I reached out to an orientation and mobility instructor who had recently begun working in my city, and asked her to make me into a respectable blind traveller. In just two lessons, I’ve corrected my cane technique—breaking a decades-long bad habit was no mean feat—and have begun to really understand how cities are put together. (I even let her blindfold me, without the debilitating panic I’ve come to expect from blindfold training.)
It sounds straightforward and unremarkable when I lay it out this way, rather like the automatic revolving door that gave me such grief a year ago. But in my world, these were huge steps forward, a series of daunting obstacles, and there was no shortcut to navigate any of them. There was only my choice to say yes, grit my chattering teeth, and plunge straight into the scary thing. Planning is important, and impulsiveness will never be my custom, but there’s a lot to be said for closing your eyes and swallowing that flame down—because while you’re standing still, waiting for the fear to ebb, time has a way of ticking along at an alarming speed.
The upside of regularly staring terror in the face and carrying on anyway is that if you’ve done it once, you can do it again. It may not go the way you hope, but you’ll always have the knowledge that you’re capable of working through fear, and nothing can take that away. My small but mighty triumphs at CSUNATC, and the subsequent support I continue to receive from many faithful cheerleaders, assure me that while I can’t guarantee good luck, I can be brave when it matters.
Skills are great. Experience is useful. A large network is handy.
Courage? Persistence? These are essential.
It may well be that at least one person reading these words is hesitating, waiting, praying for motivation. That person might be you—or if it isn’t you now, at some point it probably will be. More than likely, you’ll face a task so unpleasant, so uncertain, that you’ll retreat into your very own fortress, hoping motivation will spring from nowhere, or that inertia will outlast the fear.
There is nothing I can say to lessen that fear or quiet that anxiety. But I can tell you that I’ve sequestered myself in that safe space many times. While it has occasionally spared me the trouble of confronting that fire, I can promise you it’s never left me better off.
So go ahead: say yes, grit your teeth, and do the scary thing. Whether it turns out well or leaves you singed and disappointed, you’ll still have the knowledge that you can be brave when it matters.

“I Was Hoping You’d Have a Dog…”

It happened yet again. A complete stranger asked where my dog was, seemed shocked that I don’t have one, and loudly expressed her disappointment, complete with injured sigh.

“Oh! I was really hoping you’d have a dog with you. It would have been nice if you’d brought a dog with you.”

This time, I was luckier than usual. She eventually continued engaging with me, despite my disappointing inability to provide the doggie interaction she so craved. Most people, once they’ve finished voicing their dismay, lose interest altogether. My value lies in my potential to bring a cute dog into their lives, and when I fail to fulfill that potential, I either fade into invisibility, or field intrusive questions about my blindness and how I cope with it. At no point during these interactions am I asked my name, what I do for work, what I studied in university, or any of the other small-talk topics I’d vastly prefer. For these sorts of people, I’m a living educational exhibit, or a possible conduit to what they really want—an adorable puppy dog.

At least this particular stranger went on to chat about other things, like the negligence of city drivers and the unseasonably gorgeous weather. In my world, that’s a win.

As I’m always quick to point out, I understand that people who make these comments are well-intentioned. When they’re expecting a dog and none appears, they aren’t aware of how much their transparent disappointment can hurt. I doubt they’d be so outwardly miffed if they knew they were making an awkward situation even worse. But as good as the intentions might be, they don’t make this behaviour any less irritating for those of us who encounter it regularly. When you’re the hundredth person to interrogate me for not wanting a dog, I must admit your personal motivations stop mattering all that much to me.

My readership knows by now that I have no intention of getting a service dog. I’ve taken pains to outline my reasoning. I’m unwaveringly supportive of service dogs and the handlers who work with them, but haven’t been shy about discussing the downsides of such a partnership. The one thing I feel I haven’t done with sufficient clarity is describe how it feels to be asked time and time again, “Where’s your dog?” and be met with undisguised judgment and displeasure when I say “I don’t have one.” It’s disruptive, sure, but there’s more to it than that.

Imagine how you’d feel if someone—a stranger, or someone you know well–accosted you to ask why you don’t have kids. Is it because you’re selfish? Is it because you’re incapable of taking care of them? Are you lazy? Do you hate children?

Take it a step further: imagine this person then went on to insist that your life would be so much better if you had them. This is even more fun when the person knows nothing whatsoever about you or your circumstances. They ask personal questions and draw incorrect conclusions based on their own biases and assumptions. By the end, you feel called out and frazzled. Meanwhile, the other party has no idea whether sensitive issues underlie your decision.

The kicker? When you complain, when you point out that the interaction made you feel uncomfortable, people tell you to lighten up. They tell you you’re overreacting. They tell you that not everyone knows how to behave around you, and that if anything it’s actually your fault for not educating them.

This cycle continues–about my lack of guide dog and my lack of children, as it happens—and my annoyance is dismissed.

Yes, I have many reasons for choosing a cane over a dog. Yes, I’ve thought them all through carefully. No, I don’t believe my life would be exponentially better if I had one. No, contrary to what you might expect, not all blind people use dogs. And, even if I did have a dog, I would not owe you the right to spend time with them.

People who actually do have dogs face a (much worse) variant of this behaviour all the time. Just last week, a handler friend lamented that while people ask her dog’s name constantly, they rarely ask for hers. Other handlers have mentioned the unpleasant reality that they will forever be upstaged by their dogs. Yet another friend noticed that if she left her dog at home here and there, people altered the way they interacted with her to such a degree that the difference was painful. People always want to touch the dog, talk to the dog, ask about the dog, take a picture with the dog, and compare the dog to their own beloved pets. Amid all their enthusiasm, they probably won’t bother to acknowledge the person attached to the harness. Most devastating of all, when handlers retire their dogs, they can expect to be asked “Where’s your dog?” far more often than “How are you?” Much like new mothers who discover that they are chopped liver next to their new baby, many of the handlers I’ve spoken to claim they feel invisible next to their dogs, and if they go out in the world without them, the public feels cheated.

Overriding the desire to fawn over a dog is hard, and it’s even more challenging to rewire our natural approaches to social situations. I’ve been “where’s your dogged” by people I’ve known for years and people I’ve known for five seconds. These off-putting comments have come from people who were otherwise impeccably polite, and who have since proven they see me as more than an express lane to doggie snuggles. Like so many issues I bring up here on this blog, this is not isolated to one group or location or personality type. This comes from everyone, it comes from everywhere, and many of us are far too courteous to call it out. When we do, we are quickly shouted down, sometimes by each other.

And so it goes on.

This is the paragraph where I usually insert some advice. This is the point where I present a solution, concluding with an inspiring call to action. This is also where I craft my social media quotes to tie it all together. This is, in other words, the useful part.

Except … I’ve got nothin’. All I can do is explain why this is a problem, do my best to contextualize it, and hope.

People are going to do what they do, but maybe the most well-meaning of them will read this and rethink. Dog handlers are so much more than the dogs by their sides. And I am so much more than the dog I don’t have.

Now, if we could please talk about something else, that’d be fabulous.

Stumbling on Belonging: A Closer Look at Inclusive Spaces

When people visualize an inclusive environment, they often picture a forced, excessively deliberate atmosphere. Certain topics are off limits. Certain jokes are avoided. Inclusion, in some people’s minds, is a pious concept, wherein the vast majority lose out to put a tiny minority at ease.

But when I have been fortunate enough to stumble upon an inclusive environment—my current workplace is an ideal example—it’s never been joyless or contrived. A lucky convergence of factors makes me perfectly comfortable, long before I realize it’s happening. By the time I become aware that I have found that rare sense of belonging, it’s too late to pinpoint precisely why it happened that way. All I can do is sit back and enjoy it, hoping I find it again elsewhere, and knowing there’s little I can do to reawaken the magic.

In my experience, thesimple, understated inclusionI crave simply can’t be planned, designed, or regulated. For example, at my current job I have all the technology I need to perform my duties, and a harassment policy to protect me from discrimination. There is, however, no mandate requiring staff to show me kindness or invite me to lunch or treat me with such implicit respect that I forget, for long stretches, that I’m any different from them. (It helps that a handful of coworkers have disabilities of their own. Seeing how well they were treated was critical.) Among my colleagues, I am taken at face value to such a degree that when some small mistake or accessibility barrier reminds me I’m disabled, it’s jarring. I spend all day being so effortlessly included that when I step outside that bubble and field someone’s intrusive questions or unwanted assistance, I’m brought back to earth with a painful jolt.

Oh, right. Visibly disabled. People are weird about this. Almost forgot.

For me, authentic inclusion naturally accompanies the people and places in my life that make me feel part of something much bigger—without singling me out or confining me to the diversity table. Fellow disabled people I’ve spoken to agree: there is no consistent pattern, and you can’t always predict the spaces that will trigger this elusive magic. I have found belonging in the most unexpected places, failing to find it where I expect it to be. I don’t necessarily feel most at home with people I have the most in common with, or people in my age group, or even in groups of disabled people. Indeed, I sometimes feel least comfortable around other disabled people, where you might hypothesize I should be most comfortable of all. No—there is little rhyme or reason, and I’ve come to accept that try as we might, we can’t guarantee everyone will belong. We can ensure we’re not freezing anyone out, and we can remove barriers, but that warm sense of welcome demands the right group of people, in the right place, at the right time.

In my favourite spaces, we go ahead and make the questionable jokes, and I am free to laugh because I know I am not made powerless. We may be drawn to one another by our interests, our career goals, or even our proximity; but ultimately, we are bonded by our mutual understanding that I, like everyone else in the room, am welcome. Not simply “included,” not merely “tolerated,” but valued. I am a contributor, not a liability. I am helpful, not helpless. I am an asset to be appreciated, not a box to be ticked or a funding source to be tapped or a quota to be met.

Maybe it’s all seeming a little mystical, but whether you’re disabled or nondisabled, there are small steps you can take that might make a huge difference to the disabled people around you:

  • Take people at face value. If they say they can do a thing, assume it’s true until they prove otherwise.
  • Match your expectations to what you observe, not what you assume. If they seem secure and competent, they probably are.
  • Accept their help when it’s offered. Don’t act as if the assistance can only flow one way.
  • Seek their feedback when planning for their participation. When someone asked me recently which board games I liked to play, rather than asking what I was “able” to play, my mind was blown. For the first time outside my family and friend groups, someone was less concerned with what was literally possible, and more concerned with what I’d actually find enjoyable.
  • Chill. Seriously, juuuust chill. Nothing kills inclusion faster than fixating on the things that make people stand out, at the expense of what brings them together.

So, no, you can’t force the magic. Strong values and robust policies are important, but they’re not everything. You can build all the ramps and design all the accessible activities and overthink it all to death. From what I can see, though, if you want to attract the magic, you change your thinking, most of all. It is as simple and as complicated as that.

Lightning, Molasses, and the Search for a Happy Medium

It doesn’t take long for new acquaintances to notice that I operate at a quicker pace than most. I eat quickly, talk quickly, walk quickly (when I can safely do so), and get through tasks with a speed that stands out. I’m not sloppy, and I don’t like cutting corners, but there’s no denying my inner rhythm is a little out of whack. Sometimes it’s handy, like when clients praise my impressive turn-around time for assignments. Other times, it’s awkward, because when people ask, “What’s the rush?” I have no satisfactory answer for them. All I know is an austere, unforgiving clock has taken up residence in my head, and I can hardly think for the ticking.

I wasn’t always so frantic about everything. When I was little, I was frequently reprimanded for being the last one—the last to finish my dinner, the last to straggle outside for recess, the last to pack up my backpack. My punctuality wasn’t usually an issue, but I did tend to take more time than average with hands-on tasks where my agile little mind couldn’t save me. Give me an abstract problem to solve and I was a bolt of lightning. Hand me a pile of papers to organize and I was a pool of molasses. If the task required work-arounds to accommodate my blindness, that pool froze solid.

Somewhere along the way, I internalized the idea that I should always be in a tearing hurry. Part of it can be blamed on patchy time management skills that only improved with adulthood, but a lot of it can be traced back to my frenetic childhood environment.

“Hurry hurry,” grownups would chide, as I freed a stuck zipper or hunted an object I’d dropped. Never could I keep up, and even when I managed to accomplish something in a timely fashion, it was likely that I’d messed it up. The faster I moved, the clumsier I became, and my anxiety clamped down with crushing force.

Buffeted by duelling forces that insisted deliberate movements were bad but mistakes were also bad, I surrendered to a passive paralysis that froze me in place, unable to rush through tasks or tackle them at a pace that suited me. When you’re convinced that nothing you do will please those around you, standing in place seems safest, and that’s often what I did. Anxiety was mistaken for stubbornness, and I developed a reputation for being the kind of person who would stand gleefully by until someone else did my work for me. This couldn’t have been more off base, but I had neither the guts nor the eloquence to communicate that, and figured no one would listen if I tried.

Most kids would have dealt with this situation by learning by observation, asking questions, and/or finding trusted adults to fill in the gaps. I responded by nurturing an intense fear of failure, to the point where even minor errors seemed apocalyptic. Of course I cried when I got a mediocre grade or tripped in public; I genuinely believed the world was ending, and that judgment, when it came, would be swift and harsh. The vast majority of people in my life would have been horrified by the intensity of that fear, and would have done their best to set me straight. For whatever reason, I kept silent about it, and moved out on my own with the debilitating philosophy that doing something badly was infinitely worse than failing to do it at all.

For a while, I was able to coast along, with no pressing need to question this shortcoming. Eventually, however, after I realized I couldn’t even get a little turned around on my way to the grocery store without hours of brooding, I understood that if I didn’t learn to embrace my inevitable failings, I’d never get anything done. Learning by trial and error is one of the most powerful tools at a disabled person’s disposal, and it was vital that I teach myself to be comfortable with falling off the horse and clambering right back onto it. If I carried on believing that a job imperfectly done was not worth the effort, I was going to find the world an exceptionally inhospitable place.

Five or so years later and this demon is still with me. Every time I make a mess or move ungracefully, the urge to disappear overtakes me. Getting lost still feels like the worst-case scenario, and I hate to cook a new dish in case it doesn’t turn out. I’m still watching my disabled friends treat failure like an old friend or benign annoyance, wishing I could be so relaxed.

On the sunnier side, I’m making progress. When I learned during my first mobility lesson in years that I had been using my cane incorrectly my whole life, my reaction was a fierce desire to kill a decades-long habit and do whatever it took to improve. I didn’t dwell on all the ways others had failed to teach me the right way, nor did I fixate on all the people who must have noticed and thought less of me. Even one short year ago, I’d have collapsed in shame. I never would have responded with a mulish refusal to let my mobility journey end there. Getting lost is still the horror of horrors for me, but once I master proper cane technique, my next project will be to get good and lost, on purpose, repeatedly. I doubt I’ll ever enjoy the process, or intentionally seek out new routes just to challenge myself, but I can at least rewire enough to see failure as a bend in the road instead of a stop sign.

All this scares me silly. I could pretend it’s invigorating, that it feels like my world is opening up, but that would be disingenuous. Mostly it’s making me want to crawl in a cave where no one can find me. It’s not fun, it’s not an adventure, and it’s likely to be something I’ll struggle with for the foreseeable future.

There’s this, though: growth hurts. Growth is hard work, and it’s frightening, and if you’re entirely comfortable, then you’re probably not progressing. It’s lovely and warm here in my comfort zone, but I’m finally getting tired of the run-freeze-run pattern I’ve created. I’m content and confident enough, at long last, to think less about survival and more about joy. That means facing those demons with courage and—yes—a little stubbornness.

My unsolicited advice to you? Slow down, and let the people in your life do the same. Encourage people to try (and fail) on their own. Give everyone, kids and adults, the space to be independent, even if it’s faster or more efficient for you to jump in. Kids, in particular, may fight you on this, but unless an adult has asked for help, stand your ground. Take it from someone who knows all about it: they will thank you. The gratitude may not come right away, but I promise you it will.

And if you take nothing else away, remember that as rushed as we all are these days, there is almost always time to let someone learn.

Weightless, Wanted, Worthy

While reading Martin Pistorius’s powerful book, Ghost Boy, I was struck by a passage in which Martin, experimenting with a body that does not behave predictably, attempts to make breakfast for his partner, Joanna.

I forced the knife downwards, cleaving it to my will as it hit the side of the toast before skittering across the plate and leaving a glistening red slick on the table. I stared at the battered toast before looking at the floor, which was covered in coffee granules and sugar. The butter looked as if a wild animal had chewed it and jam had erupted like a volcano across the table. Euphoria filled me. I’d made toast, coffee was waiting in the cups, and the water had boiled—Joanna was going to have breakfast. I banged a spoon on the table to let her know I was ready, and a smile spread across her face as she walked in. “How nice to have breakfast made for me!” she said.

Some might interpret Joanna’s enthusiasm as pretense. As you read through the book, you quickly discover that while Joanna is fully aware of the many barriers Martin faces, she supports his efforts to try new things, even when they end in an imperfect, sticky mess. Martin and Joanna’s marriage is founded on genuine respect and validation, with no suggestion that she is giving anything up to be with him. Rarely have I seen such a beautifully balanced framework, where limitations are acknowledged but never allowed to overwhelm the entire structure.
Naturally, reading about Martin and Joanna got me thinking about my own relationship. My partner has a disability of his own, but it is invisible, and comes up so rarely I sometimes forget it exists at all. We live much like a couple in which only one party is disabled, and we both had to adjust to the different things we need from each other to grow and be happy.
In addition to needing all the conventional things, like love and companionship and the space to laugh with someone in the face of life’s trials, I also crave specific validation from my partner—the validation that says, “I acknowledge that you are disabled, but you are no less complete for it.” From day one, even as I walked him through my various barriers and how they might be an issue for him, he treated me like a whole, autonomous person, and nothing less. If I ever feel inadequate or out of place in the context of our life together, it is my own anxiety talking, not his. Again and again over the past few years, I have been caught off guard by the simple, implicit trust this man places in me every day, without thought and without a hint of charity. Strangers on the bus might wonder what I’d do without him, but he frequently asks me what he’d do without me.
What does this look like in practice? Mostly, it’s an intangible thing—more felt than seen, and usually unspoken. I can point to scores of small things that add up to a larger pattern, and that’s how I can best explain the dynamic.
For example, he asks my opinion on things, with the assumption that of course I’ll have one, and of course it’s as valid as anyone else’s. He doesn’t bombard me with questions about how “blind people” feel about X Y or Z. No, he asks about the best way to install a showerhead, or which ingredients would enhance a new recipe, or what political news of the week is most relevant. Far from assuming I mustn’t be knowledgeable about anything outside the realm of my disabilities and personal interests, he assumes that I am likely to know a little about a lot, and if I’m not sure, I’ll be straightforward about that. I don’t always have opinions or suggestions, but it is so novel and so satisfying to be asked as an equal—as someone who knows things and whose judgment can be trusted. It shouldn’t be so remarkable, but I think most disabled adults would agree that unless the topic is disability-related, our voices are often overlooked.
Like Joanna, my partner doesn’t expect perfection from me, but does expect me to experiment, and won’t ever shame me for the results. He would rather I demolish the kitchen cooking breakfast than have me avoid cooking altogether in case something goes wrong. It’s not that he humours me or enjoys watching me struggle. He simply expects me, as his partner, to contribute where I can and shed my irrational insistence on perfection. If I get hopelessly lost while attempting to conquer my travel demons, he’ll still be sincerely proud that I was brave enough to try, without resorting to empty praise or minimizing my mistakes.
As I’ve noted several times on this blog, living well with disability requires a great deal of self-confidence—or plenty of skill at faking it until you make it—because that confidence won’t come easily from outside yourself. If you don’t have faith in your abilities, you may struggle to find someone else who does. The less you feel you have a right to your place in the world, the less welcoming the world seems to be. While I’ve cultivated my own strong sense of self-respect, I’ve discovered it’s far more bracing when my partner reflects it back at me. I am fortunate indeed to make my home with someone whose faith in me exceeds my own, never hesitating to remind me I am whole.
I’ll return to Martin’s words, because he put it so beautifully: “I’ve lived my whole life as a burden. She makes me feel weightless.”
I, too, have lived my whole life worrying that I am too much like unwanted luggage. But he, together with so many others, makes me feel weightless, and wanted, and worthy.
From where I’m standing, there is no greater love than that.