Who Am I, And Where’s My Dog?

Who am I?

My name is Meagan. By day, I’m a communications advisor; by night, a freelance editor, a hobby musician, and devoted devourer of books.

I keep busy 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 husband who somehow manages to put up with my quirks.

I procrastinate like all good writers should. I love all creatures great and small, cute and fluffy. I really, really love chocolate, and I really, really hate bugs.

In other words, I’m a lot like you…

Oh yeah, and I’ve been blind from birth.

You might be thinking, “Wait, what’s that you said about being a lot like me?”

Unless you hang around with blind people a lot, you probably can’t help thinking that there’s a certain otherness that characterizes people with visible disabilities like blindness.  In some ways that’s true. We definitely stand out. We walk around with long white sticks (or maddeningly cute doggies you’re not allowed to pet), and we possess a lot of devices that talk. And blind people like me, who have other, less visible disabilities on board, deal with a lot of little-known issues we simply don’t discuss often enough.

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 disability?”

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 disabilities. I believed that a “good disabled person” had to behave as though her disabilities didn’t exist. If they did exist, they were no inconvenience at all. No big deal, I can function just like everybody else, maybe better. I am capable disabled gal, hear me roar!

What I’ve learned since is that, while it is very healthy not to centre my life around blindness and my other disabilities, it’s equally healthy to acknowledge that they’re really damn annoying sometimes.

They’re inconvenient. They make life harder, mostly because of the way people react to them. They’re not divine gifts that make me a better person. They’re just parts of me, undeniable but not all-consuming. And I want you to know what it’s like to live with them.

I want you to know that I routinely deal with questions like “Where’s your dog? You should have a dog!” and “They let you work here?” and my personal favourite, “How can you possibly have a life? How can you be happy?”

I want you to know that I occasionally 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 husband, 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.

I also want you to know that it’s really tough to get hired because so many believe I can’t 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 resent being disabled. This ain’t a picnic in the sun…sometimes.

Mostly, though, I want you to know I’m pretty “normal” and happy, 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 disabled people, but I do know that my story is very much like many others.

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.

Beautiful Things Are Happening

I remember the first time I worried I might not ever be okay.
I was fourteenish, embroiled in a toxic not-quite-relationship with an older boy who’d discovered the exquisite pleasure of exploiting my insecurities. I had burgeoning confidence in my potential; I could picture a successful, if difficult, road ahead. But secure, relatively intelligent young girls who are quite sure they’re doing all right aren’t any fun to manipulate, so he began to poke holes in my bright future.
“You really need to be more independent,” was the regular refrain, delivered with tender cruelty I was meant to mistake for tough love.
“It’s a hard world out there, dear,” and “you’ll struggle for sure,” and “good thing I’m here to help.”
I got miffed, all the time. I even pushed back some, when courage was close at hand. On some level, I understood these criticisms were as rich as turtle cheesecake coming from a person who had accomplished less in his 18 years than I had in the four years that separated us. I had a lot to learn, in the blindness skills department most of all, but I was competing at music festivals, getting excellent grades, and managing not one but two chronic conditions without much medical support. I was about as on track as any teenager I knew.
He, on the other hand, was perpetually angry, hopelessly off track, with an uncertain future and a penchant for blaming his disabilities for abusive outbursts and bouts of frightening possessiveness. If anything, I should have been the one clucking with concern, but much as I sensed the wrongness of it all, I let his doubt poison my faith. Faith is there when the odds aren’t favourable, and to be disabled in a harsh world is to live with unfavourable odds. And faith, more than skills and talents and support, has always been the engine of my success for that very reason. I’m convinced he knew that.
In my senior year of high school, that engine had all but stalled. I’d broken all contact with that toxic friend long before, and he had since died suddenly. He could no longer mail me packages I didn’t want, or threaten suicide if I didn’t play nicer, or use social media to stalk me, or email sanctimonious lectures about my tragic inability to take care of myself. But the damage was done. He had triggered a landslide of second-guessing that, helped along by myriad forces in my life, had buried me to the point where all I could do was dread everything – dread university, dread my first job, dread new cities and exciting adventures and fresh mistakes to run with. I still had so much to learn, and I was paralyzed, rather than energized, by all of it.
Depressing, amiright?
Fortunately for us all, this is a new-year-new-decade reflection post, and those have to have a happy ending and a hopeful outlook. Them’s the rules.
The past decade has presented a lot of pain and self-doubt, brought on in many cases by the doubt of others. The pressure to make something of myself—to ‘transcend’ blindness, chronic pain, mental illness, limited educational opportunities, the whole bit—sat smugly atop the self-defeating prophecy that I’d never do or be enough. What was the point in trying?
But it has also blessed me with plenty of people who had so much faith that they couldn’t conceive of me being anything other than enough, maybe more than enough. I’d make mistakes, sure, and fall flat on my face a few times given that stubborn streak running through me. Ultimately, though, I’d pick myself up and keep charging ahead, because that’s just who I am.
“Listen,” one friend said bracingly during one of my late-night fall-apart sessions, “you are going to screw things up sometimes, in the blindness department and in the general life department. You’ll put reds in with your whites and burn hell out of your dinner and at some point you’re going to get really lost in a new place, and all of that will suck.”
“Exactly!” I wailed, missing the point spectacularly.
“It’ll suck, but you’ll wake up the next day and realize that life keeps going. And you’ll discover after a while that trying stuff is messy and scary and you can’t be good at everything you touch. I was embarrassingly far into living on my own before I felt comfortable with my life skills. I survived. You’ll survive too, and then you’ll understand that when someone says ‘you’ll never make it,’ that’s not helping you. That’s not motivation. That’s not love.”
This come-to-Jesus moment came on the heels of another friend getting so sick of my constant self-flagellation that he nearly cried with sheer frustration.
“I swore to myself I wouldn’t sit here and watch you do this to yourself anymore. Seeing you beat the shit out of yourself all the time hurts me, and it’s not my idea of a good time. Cut it out.”
(Some of my friends sure knew how to bring the constructive tough love, wowsers.)
As many of you know, I did end up going to university and getting jobs and doing fine on my own. I learned most of the skills I’d need to do well in the world as a disabled person, as a writer, as a professional, as an aunt and mentor and wife. And at one of my lowest moments, total strangers would remind me that I’m not alone in my doubt and my despair, that if you’re running low on faith you can always borrow someone else’s.
This journey hasn’t been romantic, and I’m still learning to have faith in myself and ask for help when I need it. I’m still suppressing the reflex to put myself down, just so I don’t have to deal with fear and failure head on.
But here is the wonderful, indispensable lesson of the decade: now that I’ve allowed people to believe in me, now that I’ve let their faith rekindle mine, brave and beautiful things are happening.
I’m wide open to another ten years of failures, and to many more beautiful things.

Don’t Do it for Me: 5 Great Benefits of Describing Your Photos

As a long-time supporter of inclusive online spaces, I’ve got plenty of practice asking, begging, pleading, wheedling, entreating, imploring: pretty, pretty please, good people, describe the images you post!
I and fellow visually impaired people have shared help links, posted general PSAs, and asked pointedly for descriptions in countless photo threads. We’ve even argued with each other about whether blind people are morally obligated to set an example (we should at least try, don’t @ me). It’s practically a full-time job, and nobody is having fun here.
By this point, most people with any exposure to the visually impaired community know that describing images is the right, kind, inclusive thing to do. But many of us don’t always do the right thing – or if we do, we don’t do so consistently. After doggedly describing dozens of wedding photos with my very patient husband, I discovered that while the process is a ton of work, it’s rewarding in ways I’d never noticed before. I want you to notice them, too.
To that end, please accept this list of incentives to make images more accessible, which doesn’t include ‘because you just should, damn it’ (again, don’t @ me).


1. You Catch the Small Stuff

I’d gone over my wedding photos before posting them, but crafting alt text demanded that my husband and I scrutinize them more closely. In the process, he (and by extension, I) noticed small, gem-like details we’d originally missed, like a silly expression on someone’s face, or an interesting background object that changed the mood of the shot.
If you’re translating a photo into words, you’ll discover more than the literal contents of the image. A shallow description involves listing the objects in the frame and writing out any text that may appear. A deeper and more useful description means asking yourself what the image is trying to convey. What’s the significance? Why are you sharing it? Which details have you missed? Which memories, conversations, emotions does this analysis inspire? If you’re posting a meme rather than a personal photo, what context or added humour does the image lend to the text?
It sounds like a homework assignment, but it’s really quite fun!

2. You Learn Things

This is perhaps less applicable to a fully sighted persons’ experience, but as a blind person working with someone with vision to create my descriptions, I found myself learning things I’d never thought to ask about. They ranged from the mundane—there was a heart cleverly hidden in one of our wedding signs—to the mind-blowing (my dress had an intricate vine pattern I somehow missed). I also learned that you can see raindrops in photographs, and that mirror images look very cool in pictures for some reason.
The revelations aren’t likely to be overwhelming, but in taking the time to really break a photo down, you’ll occasionally stumble upon exciting information you’d never have thought to seek otherwise. You may also gain insight into what makes a compelling photo.

3. You Get to Be Creative

Not everyone relishes playing with words, but describing images is uniquely challenging because it demands that we find alternative ways to express visual elements. Even if you’re posting something as simple as a nature scene, cute kitten photo or promotional poster, dreaming up descriptions encourages you to stretch creatively, especially if you want your visually impaired audience to have roughly the same experience your sighted audience would.
I knew, for example, that sighted people would laugh at goofy photos showing the mingled joy and anxiety on our faces as we ran to the limo through torrential rain. We wanted our blind friends to share in the humour of such formally dressed people looking so silly and yet, so happy that no amount of rain could dampen their joy. To do that, we had to move beyond a utilitarian description like “wedding party runs through rain,” and take the time to describe the interplay of the serious occasion, the comic interruption, and the radiant happiness underpinning it all. Our efforts were so successful that numerous blind friends approached me to thank me for providing such engaging descriptions. Where they’d normally skip right by someone’s wedding photos, a lot of people took the time to slow down and enjoy mine. That may not be enough, in itself, to sway you, but gratitude is a lovely perk, don’t you think?
Besides, writing captivating descriptions is more fun than it sounds.

4. You Make Your Content Easier to Find

Let’s say you’re not posting ravishing shots of my rain-splattered face (easy there, I’m attached). Let’s suppose you’re posting material to your website or your blog or your business Facebook page. You want people to find you, which means you’re doing everything you can to improve search engine optimization. You’re using brief, descriptive page titles and body copy that’s dense with keywords. You’re ensuring your material matches what people are likely to search for, and you’re even buying ad space to make yourself more attractive to search engine algorithms.
Why not take it a step further? Add alt text to your images, and give people yet another way to find you. Alt text descriptions improve SEO, and it won’t cost you a dime. Plus, it helps blind people give you their money and share your content with the world. Who says you can’t be a good citizen and boost your brand at the same time?

5. You Avoid Hassel

When you choose not to describe your photos, you risk people like me sliding into your DMs or plunging into your comment sections with our alt text evangelism. Most of us are nice about it, admirably nice given how often it comes up, but who wants to hammer out slapdash descriptions on the fly because some rando named Meagan keeps bugging you? Not you!
I jest, but I can’t stress this enough: I frequently lack essential info because it was buried in an image, and that means wasting my time (and yours) trying to figure out what I’ve missed. If the description is there to begin with, even a basic one, everyone wins.


Go on. Appreciate your images on a deeper level. Learn new things. Make more money. Gain more followers.
More importantly, feel really good about yourself, because you are helping make the web a better place, one accessible image at a time.
Do the right thing. Describe your photos.

Dreaming of a Quiet Christmas

Last Christmas, I gave you my—

Okay, let’s try that again, sorry.

Last Christmas, my family did something we’d never done before: We skipped the boisterous Christmas Eve crowds and had a quiet evening at home. My nephew had been born just a few days previously, and it didn’t make sense to hit the Christmas party circuit just yet. The six of us lounged around watching movies, playing board games, holding the sleepy baby, and petting the cat.

We could have been making merry with a few dozen relatives, surrounded by noise and general jollity. We could’ve juggled three conversations at once, laughing until we ache, but instead we sat quietly together, doing nothing of particular note.

Readers, it was glorious.

At least, it was for me.

It feels silly to admit it, but I didn’t know Christmas could be like this—cozy and intimate and low-key. Besides a few awkward Christmases among an ex’s scattered family, I’d never experienced holiday festivities that weren’t loud and chaotic. I’d never known a Christmas Eve that didn’t involve confusing buffet meals and houses so crowded we were stacked on each other’s laps like sets of folding chairs. The very essence of the holidays was wrapped in full-volume, full-house, full-throttle enjoyment, with a sprinkling of excitable children in the mix.

It was fun, sure, especially when I was a kid. But I’ll admit this too: It was exhausting.

When you can’t see well enough to navigate crowded environments, can’t handle noise well, and can’t “extrovert” for more than a few hours without depleting your energy, the holidays are anything but vacation-like. Generally, I socialize with more people than I can handle, while surrounded by more noise than I can physically tolerate, all while struggling to guard my Christmas spirit and avoid disappointing people with my failure to bring the cheer.
Attending Christmas drinks with colleagues at an incredibly loud pub hammered the point home: I am simply not wired for traditional expressions of celebration. My idea of a good time is a very small (or at least very well-known) group sitting in a familiar, clutter-free space, preferably engaged in loosely structured activities that accommodate my blindness without aggravating my migraines.
Being in a large, crowded, less-familiar space, immersed in the din of conversation, compromises my ability to do fun party things like:

  • grabbing my own food or drinks,
  • initiating conversations with people other than those directly next to me,
  • moving to other areas to see what people are up to,
  • playing common party games that rely on sight, and
  • making my own way to the washroom when I need it.

“Well, Meagan, this is simple,” you say, “because you can just go home when you’re done, right?”

Going home a bit early Is made difficult when most Christmas parties I attend are in rural settings where Uber isn’t available and walking isn’t an option unless I’m okay with a multi-day hike. Of course, since everyone around me seems to love the party atmosphere, no one else is ever ready to go home when I am.

Ever determined to be my best self, I power through, well past my usual tolerance, and end up dealing with increased pain and fatigue over the remainder of the holidays. The spill-over effect from pushing past my endurance at one party will affect my enjoyment of the others, and I come back to work feeling as though I spent my Christmas vacation writing rush speaking notes while deadlines loomed over my shoulder.

Despite adoring my family and being a huge fan of holiday cheer, I find myself worrying about Christmas celebrations with increasing intensity. I won’t be heading home for the holidays for another week, but I’m already feeling tired just thinking about it.

So I’m dreaming of a quieter Christmas. I’m dreaming of a Christmas where I parcel out my social activities more carefully, where I learn to say no to some things so I can say yes to others, and go easier on myself if I’m just too stressed to muster that full-throttle enjoyment I wish I was feeling.
I’m dreaming of managing all this without hurting a single feeling or disappointing a single soul.

I’m dreaming of a holiday that actually feels like one—peaceful as well as joyful, and relaxing as well as merry.

Maybe, with some planning and boundary development and a little bit of courage, I can have a quieter, calmer Christmas that is kind to my body and easy on my poor beleaguered brain.

You know, since I’m dreaming and all.

Guest Post by Elise Johnston: Guide Dog Gaps and Anxious Hopes

For many blind people, the gap between guide dogs is something to be dreaded. Retiring a dog is a devastating life event, especially if it happened earlier than expected.

For Elise Johnston, the early retirement of her second dog was a little more complicated. In theory, getting on a waiting list for a new dog as quickly as possible made perfect sense: Her mobility was drastically curtailed without a dog by her side, and getting repeatedly lost on the way to work was getting old, fast.

And yet, even with all the logic in the world pointing toward ‘new dog,’ Elise found herself frozen, as much by indecision as harsh Canadian winter.


Winter 2019: To Dog or not to Dog

So it’s February and, because I am an unmitigated genius with an IQ almost as big as my shoe size, I have retired my second guide dog early. For the first time in more than 15 years, I am using a white cane on a daily basis.

People ask me about getting another dog, and my frozen Popsicle brain offers up a gloomy “No.”

On the face of it, ‘no dog’ makes no sense whatsoever. It’s February, as I say—February in Alberta. It’s so cold that pipes in a downtown hotel have frozen and burst, turning the surrounding street into a skating rink. I’ve started a job in a new building and am only slightly familiar with the root, which includes a convoluted street crossing, and requires laser-precise positioning to make it onto the correct sidewalk.

Gobs of white ghost poop are piled in drifts over all the tactile landmarks. The wind is singing an off-key lament passed my toke-covered ears, obliterating any sound cues, like the audible signal that marks the crosswalk. Memories of being knocked down by a car, which then stopped directly on top of my foot, flash through my frosted-over brain.

My first guide probably saved my life, not with expert car blocking skills or anything, but because he made navigating university possible, given the lack of orientation and mobility training available where I live. And having university to escape to after high school was unquestionably life-saving.

My second guide gave me the confidence to move out on my own, live independently, and get to all the appointments one needs to get to when one is gender transitioning. You could say he saved my life too.

I love dogs. I love the flapping of their ears when they shake themselves, the thump of their tails on the wall. I love giving tummy rubs and getting kisses. Dog hair is a condiment I have no objection to.

But now, ice-cubed and tearful, after being lost yet again during the coldest February on record, I have big problems with getting another dog.

Spring 2019: What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Dogs

You go to a job interview and the first five minutes are spent, not discussing your qualifications, but the life history of the dog that accompanies you.

You walk into the kitchen at work and the coworkers gathered there wish your dog, not you, a good morning.

You retire said dog, and when you switch positions the boss in the new position goes, “Oh dear, where’s your dog?”

A dog is novel, and cute, and lots of people like dogs. You, on the other hand, are an icky blind person.

“I have nothing in common with an icky blind person,” says (insert person). “Better just talk to the dog, or about the dog, or tell stories about my own dog.”

You tell yourself: You’re having so much fun without a dog. Sure you wake up at night and listen for the breathing that should be there. Sure you can only pet your sweaters. Sure it’s much harder for you to go places since you don’t have regular access to mobility training. But being upstaged all the time? Having to deal with incessant questions? Giving one of your best friends a hug and listening to her sneeze for hours because of her allergies? Making friendly with people who are besotted with your dog for no good reason other than its “OMG a dog!”

Also, dogs can be inconvenient at sleepovers. They require attention and extra executive function and vacuuming.
And having a dog, loving a dog, means one day you have to say goodbye, and your heart becomes a chew toy that they’re squeaking, squeaking, and suddenly not squeaking because they’re not responding to the antibiotics for their pneumonia and their cortisol levels are sky-high and your family has asked you what you want to do…

Do you want to get another dog? Really?

Fall 2019: Some Mad Hope (and All the Anxiety)

It’s hard to get a handle on why I submitted my application. Probably it was because one of my best friends has a guide and witnessing their bond and the way they work together gave me hope that things could be different. When I did my home visit with the school I am attending for my new dog, we discussed techniques I had never heard of — simple orientation and mobility stuff that would have made a huge difference working with either of my old guides.

There’s regret now when I think about what might have been possible with my previous dogs. Regret, and a new anxiety about how much I still have to learn. This anxiety piles up on top of the existing anxiety when I think about interacting with people on an exclusively dog-related basis.

Why am I doing this again? Do I like being an anxiety sandwich? Have I surrendered to my fate as auxiliary to a much more adorable creature? Am I using Meagan’s blog as an alternative to talk therapy?

But maybe things really could be different. Third time’s the charm?

Spring 2020: Notes From Elise’s Future Dog

You know what’s relentlessly awesome about being a guide dog? It’s having someone who appreciates everything about you—who endures home interviews and goes on waiting lists and rearranges their life so you can be on their team. It’s knowing someone loves you for your brains and not your body. It’s knowing that, while your handler doesn’t love everything about being with you, it’s all worth it in the end.

Sighted people won’t shut up about how beautiful I am. They’re always going, “Oh look at the beautiful dog!” Nobody except Elise goes: “Seriously why don’t you join MENSA?”

I get to go for lots of walks downtown where there’s always interesting stuff going down, like political marches and half marathons and shady drug deals and gay couples walking their cat. Also also,
Elise knows all these totally-good smelling people who are by default my best friends because they’re her best friends.

The other day I got to meet Elise’s retired guide dog, who is kind of an idiot, and he told me that Elise goes on adventures to hospitals and writing conventions and vegan restaurants, which sound like good fun to me! He also warned me sometimes Elise has trouble getting out of bed or off the couch, in which case it’s my job to pretend like I have to go to the washroom really bad, even if I don’t, or to stick my nose underneath her blanket and give her kisses, especially on her bare feet.

I mean, I was going to be a guide dog anyway, and I think I could have done a lot worse. Elise doesn’t drink or smoke or listen to music at obnoxious volumes. She’s done all the boring university already. I feel like she’s finally kind of sort of got her life unstuck and can focus on the cool.

We’re going to go new places and smell new people and chew on new bones and I’ll probably end up saving her life down the road, just saying.

Life is short and that’s why it makes a difference who we spend it with. Am I right? Am I a good dog?


Looking for more? Check out Elise’s previous guest post on gender transitioning as a blind person: “Smart People, Stupid Questions, and Knowing What We Cannot See.”

Forget Sorry: No is the Hardest Word

Saying no is hard. Luckily for those of us who hate to make waves, there are reams of advice out there about saying no on a date, at work, at holiday events, and in tough situations with family and friends.

Creating boundaries is uncomfortable, and enforcing them is worse. Nevertheless, I believe that many of us are getting better at doing both, despite people’s general inability to handle it gracefully.

The one area of my life where I feel that ‘just say no’ is punished more often than rewarded, even by those who profess to respect boundaries, is—you guessed it, clever reader—disability. I know in my heart that it’s better for my health, my safety, and my peace of mind if I say no to all kinds of things: unwanted help, condescending praise, unsolicited charity, events that worsen my chronic pain, exploitive volunteer opportunities, intrusive personal questions, etc. (I could go on for a long time. I’ll spare you.)

And yet in this, the year of our Lord 2019, it is still controversial, inflammatory even, for my disabled friends and me to say no to any of these things. When we do, we have to deal with a whole lot of anger, hurt, wounded pride, and bitterness, plenty of it from people who have power over us, and plenty more of it from fellow disabled people who enjoy sabotaging others’ autonomy almost as much as their own. Because of course.

Let me show you what I mean with a few comparisons. Comparisons are fun!

Saying no to unwanted touch on a rough first date? Scary, but empowering. Saying no to the person physically dragging you along because he thinks you really, really need help walking through that doorway? Ungrateful.

Saying no to the grandparents who want to load your kids with sugar? Awkward, but that’s just responsible parenting. Saying no to the relative who won’t stop feeding your service dog? That’s just a major overreaction.

Saying no to the free sample, the donation box, the religious pamphlet being offered by a stranger on the street corner? Totally your call. Saying no to the gifts, money, prayers, advice, weird coupons and assorted pity offerings from strangers on that same street corner? Totally uncalled for.

Saying no to the private company that wants your free labour in exchange for “exposure?” Gutsy; you deserve to get paid for your hard work. Saying no to the private company that wants your free labour because your identity provides the illusion of “diversity?” A disservice to the disability community; you should be grateful just to be noticed.

It didn’t take long for me to learn, as a multiply-disabled person, that like so many other marginalized groups, ‘no’ is not for disabled people. ‘No’ is not for people who want help in the future. ‘No’ is not for those who need to rely on people who hurt them. ‘No’ is not for the vulnerable. ‘No’ is not for those needing accommodations or assistance or a hand up. There is only ‘yes,’ and ‘thank you,’ and ‘thank you again!’ Anything else risks anger, risks strained relationships, risks exasperating conversations about ‘humouring’ people and ‘making them feel useful’ and not turning boundary violations into a ‘whole big thing.’

Do we routinely take these risks? Most of us do, yep. Is it exhausting, demoralizing and sometimes dangerous? You bet.

I’ve learned to live with almost every ‘no’ being met with questions like, “Why can’t you just keep the peace? Why can’t you just let them help? They’re just curious—why are you being so rude? Why can’t you suck it up? Why can’t you just be nice?”

Because, you know, being nice comes naturally when a stranger has his arm around my waist and is brazenly ignoring my ‘no, my ‘I’ve got this, thanks’, my ‘please let go, my ‘seriously—let go of me immediately.’ Niceness begets niceness, clearly.

So here are my questions, which will look familiar, no doubt:

  • Why can’t the person who is tugging on my arm be nice and keep their hands to themselves?
  • Why is a stranger asking me personal questions about how long I’ve been disabled, and what happened to me, and how on earth I manage? Why can’t they rein in their curiosity and stop being so rude?
  • Why can’t the person whose request for free work I just turned down stop making it into ‘a whole big thing?’
  • Why can’t the person petting, feeding, distracting my friend’s service dog suck it up and follow the rules?
  • Why can’t the person telling me I shouldn’t work, shouldn’t leave the house, shouldn’t participate in public space just keep the peace and leave me alone?
  • Why isn’t no enough?

If you ever find the answers, heaven knows my inbox is open. Until then, I’ll keep saying no, (often politely!), keep setting those boundaries, keep trying to change this toxic double standard we’ve all helped to create by being so doggedly nice, even when someone is harming us – especially when someone is harming us. I hope you’ll do the same.

The Red Robin Effect

Red Robin: a comforting, bustly sort of place where the food and music compete to see who can be the cheesiest. The birthday rituals are silly, the menu puns are cringe-worthy, and the fries require hours of hard work to digest. It’s one of my favourite places, and now that all locations in my area are closing, I think it’s time I wrote about everything it has meant to me.

I moved to the City of Edmonton to attend university at seventeen—a wide-eyed small-town girl with woefully little knowledge of what was about to hit me. Being visibly disabled in a rural setting came with its own challenges, but given enough time and community involvement, virtually everyone felt comfortable with Meagan and her long white stick. I wasn’t always included, but I was, at the very least, known.

Without warning, after seventeen years of solid familiarity, I was in chaos. I didn’t know anyone, and nobody knew me. My blindness fascinated and frightened people. I could no longer walk into a new environment and assume my welcome. Strangers had questions. Acquaintances had more of them. I had never felt so visible and at the same time, invisible. Reduced to a curiosity, I felt unmoored, lonely, and unsure of where I belonged. Everywhere I went, I was an inconvenience, or a safety concern, or another burden busy people didn’t have time for.

Not so with Red Robin.

Given that my residence building was steps from the nearest location, I found myself visiting regularly. At first, it was merely the most logical place to take just about everyone; the food was reasonably tasty and even more reasonably priced. I soon realized I was enjoying far more than the gooey cheese sticks and nostalgic mid-2000’s playlist, however. I was experiencing, for the very first time outside my inner circle, unconditional inclusion I didn’t have to earn.

The staff knew about their own braille menu, (by no means a given), handing it over without batting an eye. Servers nearly always described the location of dishes and drinks when setting them down, as casually as if every single diner needed the same detailed information. Plenty of extra help was offered, but never foisted upon me. When I showed up with visually impaired friends, no one seemed flustered or out of their depth. When paratransit took ages to pick me up, they let me hang out in their comfy seating area without a whisper of annoyance. Not once in seven years of frequent visits did I feel like anything less than a valued customer—a customer worthy of the same professionalism everyone else received as a matter of course.

It doesn’t sound like much, does it? But several of my friends agree that, whether through diligent training or a generally positive culture, Red Robin has cultivated broad, environmental inclusion of their blind customers on a grand scale few other businesses have managed. For me and for many, they have danced delicately along that razor-thin line between help and hindrance; attentiveness and intrusiveness; kindness and condescension. And they have done so in a way that will always set them apart.

My husband and I enjoyed one final dinner at Red Robin, waxing nostalgic and eating far too much. We reminisced not only about our first date there, or the many happy evenings I’d whiled away as a student, but also of the effortless way I’d fit in. Red Robin had taken on an almost mythical greatness in my mind. It had become a safe haven where I could just about guarantee I wouldn’t be spoken to like a child. They’d never have a menu I couldn’t read independently. The servers wouldn’t talk to my tablemates to find out what I’d like to order. No one was about to grab me without asking, tell me a menu item I’d chosen was “too hands-on” for a blind person to manage, or refuse to help me operate the debit machine (the idea that blind people can and do pay for their own meals is too much for some, sadly). In short, I could walk into any Red Robin, any time, and expect to be treated with dignity.

I no longer have a starving student’s appetite, nor am I able to gobble fish and chips the way I once did—at least, not without plenty of protests from a stomach that has been spoiled by a healthy diet. I won’t miss the bottomless fries or the syrupy cocktails. But I will miss the incredible luxury of knowing that I can come through that door with my long white stick, and sit down to a peaceful dinner like everyone else. I’ll forever be grateful to all the folks at Red Robin for giving me the gift of forgetting, if only for half an hour, that life isn’t always this simple.

Thin and in Control

It seems odd to think about it now, given my rocky relationship with food over the past five years, but at one time, I was known for being particularly thin. People told me to eat more—when they weren’t praising my asceticism, of course. Women sighed bitterly whenever I ate anything more nourishing than a celery stick. Everyone around me seemed to vacillate between worrying about my health and telling me I looked amazing. My then-boyfriend ran his hand over my ribs, marvelling (worrying?) that he could count them without effort.
Throughout my time in university, as I grew steadily thinner, I fielded a befuddling mixture of genuine concern and envy-tinged adulation. And time after time, I was asked just how I did it. I wasn’t a faithful gym-goer, nor a diligent meal planner; and, as my family members lamented, my genetics weren’t favourable enough to make thinness a given. How on earth was I pulling this off, with my careless diet and nonexistent fitness regimen?
I met these questions with vague references to “being careful” and “trying to be disciplined.” I went no further, and nobody questioned me because, as research has shown us, thin people are assumed to be more competent and more disciplined than people of size. It didn’t add up, and there was nothing about my life to envy or emulate, but even those who knew me well perceived me as deserving of my slender shape. I didn’t work especially hard to disabuse them of that notion.
Meanwhile, my ‘secret’ to long-lasting slimness was a good deal less glamourous, and far less controlled, than you might imagine. The short version is this: I have chronic illness, severe stress, and disability-related isolation to thank for my thinness, and nothing more. One need not run marathons, nor fast for days, nor down diet pills to get skinny. One need only be too sick to eat, too stressed to care, and too isolated to ask for help.
Not magazine-worthy, I know. Harsh truths rarely are.
As I’m sure you’ll agree, it would have been painfully awkward to divulge the desperation behind the scale’s gratifying announcements that I was 125, 120, 115 pounds. It would have been unspeakably strange if I’d admitted that if you want to follow in my footsteps, it will involve a lot of migraines and exhaustion and terrible orientation and mobility skills that keep you from buying your own groceries. It would have been a real buzzkill if I’d said, point blank, “I stay thin because I throw up a lot from the horrible headaches I get three times a week, and I’m too depressed to eat anyway.” Weird, right? Not appropriate lecture hall chatter, and awfully distressing for the poor soul who just wanted to say something nice.
So, people figured I was very good at health management. I let them go on thinking that, even as I waited too many weeks between grocery runs because my blindness skills were atrocious and I couldn’t find the nearest store; even as the migraines got so bad I started having blackouts; even as I lost so much weight it stopped being sexy and started being worrisome.
The alarming thing is, even those who knew something of what was happening to me didn’t probe much, because thin people are in control. Thin people are healthy. Thin people have got this.
Depression had killed my appetite, and migraines had knocked it even further off balance. But my jeans fit like a glove, so all looked well.
As I write, I can say with confidence that I am the healthiest I’ve ever been, even though I’m carrying several more pounds than I did then. My migraines are much less frequent, and they no longer come bundled with stroke symptoms and paralyzing fear. I’m eating regularly and for the most part, nutritiously—no more living on crackers for a week and a half (yes, that’s literal). My mental health is reasonably well-managed, I’m strong enough to work out regularly, and I’m as functional as I’ve ever been.
These days, more or less, I am in control. I am healthy. I am disciplined. I’m not quite so thin anymore, but I’ve got this.
So next time you’re tempted to ask someone how they do it, spare a thought for what might lurk behind that pleasing body shape. It may be good genetics or solid habits, but it also might be a whole lot of misery they’re not ready to talk about.
And next time you’re tempted to work toward being smaller, taking up less space, ask yourself: Will I be healthier? Happier? Stronger? More in control?
In Sara Groves’ Finite, one of the best songs out there about human insecurity, she encapsulates the treadmill-like futility of fighting to stay “younger, thin and in control.” She wonders “where the peace went?”
From what little I’ve known of the journey toward a healthier life, that peace doesn’t come from your scale or tape measure or your friends’ envious validation.
Take it from someone who has been small, and lived small, too: Whatever your size, it comes from eating well, moving when you can, and never being too afraid to ask for help.
You are finite. You are exhaustible. And there’s a lot of peace in that.