The Myth Of Ambassadorship

After about ten years of interacting with the “blind community”, I’ve discovered that, like most other minority groups, people expect us to represent each other. You know what I’m talking about—“Excuse me, but what do blind people think of…how do blind people manage…what is the blind community’s opinion on…” and so on—and I’ve found that this leads to a disturbing conclusion: people think we’re all the same. We’re always lumping marginalized groups into categories; “women do X” and “black kids do Y” and “deaf people think Z”. So, yes, there are certainly some areas of commonality within these groups. I don’t deny that. The danger is when we (and I’m not exempt here, not by a long shot) expect one member of a group to represent everyone in that group. No woman alive is able to speak authoritatively about “all women”, and no blind person alive is able to speak authoritatively on “all blind people”.

 

This has led to ideas like “you need to be an ambassador for the blind”; in other words, you need to be the best blind person you can be at all times, in all circumstances, so that people will get the right idea about blind people in general. This means that I, personally, am responsible for people’s opinions on every blind person out there. That, my friends, is a mighty tall order—especially when you consider that no one can agree on what a “good blind person” might be. That said, Chris Swank has taken a satirical crack at it here.

 

You might be thinking. “So, uh, why should I care?”

The reason you should care is the reason I’m writing this blog: people need to understand that blindness, while being common, is a different experience for all who deal with it. No two blind people will have the exact same coping skills, or management techniques, or observations. Certainly the blind friends I have gotten to know over the years can identify with me on many levels, but not one of them is exactly like me. Not one of them has experienced every single thing I have. Not one of them has the authority to speak for me, and I have no more authority to speak for them. If I’m a clumsy cane traveler, this does not mean every blind person is a clumsy cane traveler. If I can’t cook to save my life, this does not mean no blind person can cook. (In fact, I know quite a few who are brilliant at it. I’m looking at you, CrazyMusician.) If I’m a little rude to someone one morning because they’re offering help I don’t want, or asking intrusive questions, or otherwise getting on my nerves, I might be perceived as ungrateful; this does not mean, however, that all blind people are ungrateful and rude.

 

This can be a problem for sighted and blind alike; sighted people expect us to be able to answer questions on behalf of all blind people, and the blind expect other blind people to represent them fairly. I am no exception: while reading this fascinating article about a blind mother’s struggles to adapt to her failing vision, my first reaction was irritation, because she didn’t “represent” me accurately. I remember thinking, “She’s giving us a bad name. Not all of us avoid glassware because we’ll break it; not all of us bash into furniture in our own homes; Not all of us need to use adhesive dots on every appliance we own!”. Then, right after I thought these things, I realized how foolish and destructive this line of reasoning was. Why on Earth should she represent me? She isn’t me. She doesn’t even know me. All she knows is what works for her, what she has experienced, and what she needs to feel secure in her environment. Why do I, who know full well that “ambassadors for the blind” should not and do not exist, expect a stranger to accurately portray my personal experiences?

 

My good friend CrazyMusician points out that asking blind people to be ambassadors is a very heavy burden—one which she, personally, is unwilling to bear. “Perhaps I am more visible because of my cute black guide dog, and am therefore expected to be an ambassador,” she says. “Calling me an ambassador gives me more power than I actually have; I am no more an ambassador for the blind than I am of humankind.”. And, as Chris Swank very aptly points out, “People need to understand that blind people are individuals. It’s not up to each one of us to make sure every sighted person we meet has an accurate idea of what we’re all like.”. I understand that we live in a world where stereotyping and generalization run rampant. None of us are exempt from the habit of assuming everyone in a minority group is exactly the same. Sometimes, it’s tough to see past the cane (or the dog), and recognize that we’re all very different in crucial ways.

 

So, my sighted friends: the next time you have the urge to ask a blind person to speak for all blind people, stop, and instead ask them how they cope with things as an individual. As for my blind friends, don’t make my mistake: next time you feel the urge to accuse another blind person of “giving us a bad name”, stop, and realize that only you can give yourself a bad name. The myth of ambassadorship needs to disappear, and it needs to do so for all of us.

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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.