Sorry, You’re Not Disabled Enough

Well, I’ve done it: I’ve taken the monumental step of applying for disability benefits while I finish my final year of university and join the ranks of those desperate students looking for gainful employment. After almost a full year, my application has finally been dealt with … and it has been denied.

On my application, I stressed that, while I am fully capable of working, employer attitudes—as well as workplace accommodations—pose a serious challenge. Even if I have all the right skills and knowledge, an employer is likely to skip over me in an effort to avoid hardship. I can’t even blame them, really. No one likes to take a chance on what they perceive to be a wild card. I know, I’ve been there before. (That’s another story for another post.)

Despite my attempt to explain the challenges I face, the person who reviewed my application remained unmoved. I should, she wrote, go out and purchase assistive technology (she did not specify which technology, nor did she specify where I was to get the money for such purchases). She went on to say that, once this technology has been acquired, I should have no problem finding a job. I’m not sure she realizes that setting up just one laptop so that I can use it can cost $1000. A braille display can cost $3000. If I had that kind of money lying around, I wouldn’t be applying for benefits, now would I? She concluded by informing me that I was not disabled enough to qualify for benefits. In closing, she advised me to make use of job searching tools.

Not disabled enough. Now that’s a new one. All my life, people have been assuming I’m more disabled than I actually am, and now that it matters, I’m being told my disability is, in essence, irrelevant when it comes to job searching. What I find interesting is that many blind people in Canada, the US, and the UK have little difficulty obtaining disability benefits based on blindness alone. I have other disabilities which hinder me as well, but even with all of those, I’m told to go out and buy some tech. No mention of how I’m supposed to convince reluctant employers to give me a try. No mention of how I’m supposed to live while I search (as I start repaying my student loans, of course). Most interestingly, no mention of how disabled I would have to be to receive any help at all. I’ve known other people on benefits for bad backs … surely blindness, mental illness, and chronic tension pain are equal to a bad back?

I’m not alone. I have spoken to a handful of blind Albertans who claim they were denied as well, even when they appealed. I’m currently in the process of appealing, but my hopes aren’t high. Even the process itself is frustrating. I can’t seem to get hold of anyone. Everything takes an inordinate amount of time to get done, if it gets done. Some dark part of me thinks they make it arduous on purpose, just so you’ll give up and go away.

I won’t go away.

I need this more than they need to be left in peace. I hate to admit it, but it’s true. I was raised to be self-sufficient. Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, and all. It took me years to admit I might need government help, and to this day I cringe when I think about it. I feel absurdly guilty, even though I know I have the right to a bit of help. Struggling as I have to be approved, I’ve had ample time to doubt. Maybe I’m just grabby? Maybe I’m not trying hard enough to explore alternatives? Maybe employers are more receptive than I think they are? Maybe … maybe …

The facts don’t support my doubts, though. Take a look at this disturbing poll in which employers admit they find hiring blind people frightening; they don’t want to deal with extra expense (sometimes the expense is much lower than they think it will be). Most tellingly, they believe that a disabled person takes more and yields less. A black hole, in other words. Who wants to throw money at a black hole?

Their fears are mostly groundless. There is evidence to suggest that disabled people, once settled with the necessary accommodations, are hard workers and very loyal. We know the value of a job, and for my part, I’d never risk it because I know how precious it is. I’m not naïve enough to search for the perfect job. I don’t need rewarding, not yet. What I need is paying.

So, even with the deck stacked against me in almost every way possible, I’m stuck—at least for now. I will have to hope that, once I graduate, I find employment very quickly. I will need to pay for an apartment, and the living cost in Edmonton is only climbing higher. I will need to begin paying back my student loans. Once my fiance moves here, I may need to support us both for awhile until he can find a job himself. We are both blind, and both qualified to do useful work. We are both, theoretically, in demand. And yet our resumes will find their way into the recycling bins more often than not. Our calls will go unreturned. Hiring managers, initially so excited by our qualifications, will suddenly lose interest without any apparent provocation. They will make feeble excuses, because they can’t legally say, “sorry…you’re blind, so we don’t want to deal with you.”

Eventually, I’ll get lucky. I’ll find a company that is willing to give me a shot. I’ll do well, because I’ve been trained well and because I am grateful for every opportunity. I’ll be okay, eventually. Haven’t I gone on and on about how blind people live full, rich lives?

In the meantime, though, I’ll just have to hope that someone decides I’m disabled enough.

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Go Away, Guide Dog Goop!

I have known a few guide dog teams personally, and have always been struck by the devotion they feel toward each other. The human practically radiates protectiveness and trust, while the dog gives the impression that it would do literally anything for its companion. Even on “bad days”, they seem so endearingly optimistic. Calling it cute would be cheapening it. It’s pretty inspirational, though, and I never throw that word around.

As we should all know by now, I have no interest in getting a dog myself. Much like a woman who does not want children, I have been hassled about this decision for years. And, while I can appreciate the bond between dogs and their handlers, I don’t feel that tug in my chest that says “I want”. I can admire it, but I can’t make myself desire it.

As you can imagine, I find it difficult to relate to guide dog handlers. I give no more thought to my cane than I would to the shoes I use to walk or the jacket that keeps me warn. I’m not used to considering my travel aid an actual companion. When I get home I fold my cane and stick it in a corner. Guide dog handlers are always interacting with their charges in some way, even if it’s peripheral. Like those with children, guide dog handlers are often expecting me to relate to experiences I won’t ever have … and it gets hard after awhile. I do know some very considerate handlers who only give me as much information as I ask for. Some, however, seem to lack that social filter which says, “That’s enough”.

So, like many people who don’t want dogs, I am subject to everyone else’s constant talk (well, mostly posts) about their guide dogs. You know how there are certain parents intent on documenting every single move their children make? It’s like that … only somehow worse. I can’t put my finger on why, but the myriad cutesy posts about the fact that Spot has managed to walk down one whole block successfully drive me insane. I don’t mind the odd congratulatory post—dogs can bring their handlers through some terrifying conditions—but the line needs to be drawn somewhere. I don’t need to know that your dog is currently asleep under your desk. I don’t really care if your dog was behaving particularly well in harness today. I am so sick of reading about how much your doggie loves his or her treats, or ball, or squeaky toy, etc. etc.

I probably sound very grumpy and intolerant, and maybe I am. But here’s the really infuriating bit: there are certain handlers intent upon glorifying their bond with their guides to the point where you’d think they were superheroes just waiting to save the world. These people are the type who mingle their signatures with their guides’ names. They write lengthy blog posts from their dogs’ perspective. They troll forums about “guide dog vs. cane” debates, and interrupt diplomatic discussion by spouting things like “Don’t you dare devalue the bond!” and “Once you have a dog you will experience true independence and fulfillment!” and so on. They are few, but they’re not quite far between enough for my liking.

Go ahead: take photos of your guide dog. Wax poetic about the accomplishments you and your dog have managed today. Painstakingly document every single step of the training process, if you really want to. Just please…don’t be offended if I’m not all that interested. I’m happy for you, I really am; but, like overenthusiastic parents who assume I want to know every detail about their kids, the goop you occasionally ask me to process can be a little hard to slog through at times. Please don’t be offended if I say “I’m really not interested”. It’s honest, not malicious. We all have the right to filter the content we consume, since there is so much of it. Please let me filter mine.

Author’s note: Before you ask, this post is *not* directed at anyone in particular. Please don’t come to me protesting that you don’t do stuff like this; I’m probably not talking about you.

Unfriendly Reminders: On the Dangers of Complacency

While walking home a few nights ago, I got lost. This would have been okay, but I was traveling a route I know intimately; I’d used that route for almost three years without mishap. That might have been okay too, except that it was -25C outside and, since it is supposed to be a two-minute walk, all I had was a pair of woefully inadequate mittens and a winter jacket. I still don’t know exactly where I went wrong. I was navigating the crosswalk, the same as usual, and I must have veered sharply, because I missed the sidewalk entirely and ended up wandering into relatively unfamiliar territory. It was nearly one in the morning, so there was no traffic to act as an auditory guide. It was one in the morning, so I couldn’t even use what little vision I have to help me. It was one in the morning, so I was totally alone.

It was bitterly cold—so cold that even I, a brave little Canadian, had to admit I was getting a little anxious. I took off my mittens to use my phone. My fingers were so cold that the phone didn’t even register my touch. I had to use Siri to call a nearby friend so she could rescue me. Meanwhile, I was trying to find a safe place to stand. I settled for a precarious perch on an ice-encrusted snowbank, reasoning that this, at least, would be traffic-free should any traffic actually show up. Luck smiled on me that night, so my friend said she was coming to get me. I waited. And shivered. And wondered what in hell I’d done to get myself so lost in such a short amount of time. And I worried.

It took my poor friend a while to find me, so I had ample time for reflection. Before long, unwelcome tears were emerging, freezing as quickly as they materialized, naturally. I had grown complacent, I realized. I had failed to bring a backpack containing warmer clothes and some headgear. I had already spent a lot of time that evening walking around outdoors, so was pretty chilly to begin with. I didn’t count on getting lost. I thought I was infallible, with this route at least. Maybe, I thought grudgingly, there was a lesson here.

There are, of course, some obvious lessons: don’t go out in dangerously frigid temperatures without carrying extra clothing. Don’t count on having help so late at night if something happens. Invest in a pair of gloves that can be used with a touch screen, perhaps. The most uncomfortable lesson, though, is don’t ever, ever grow complacent.

Confidence is fine. We all deserve to take a few things for granted, particularly routes we’ve been navigating for years without a single serious misstep. Sighted people don’t have quite the same worries as we do when they get lost, so it’s comforting when we can enjoy that level of assurance, at least in certain locations. Nine times out of ten, everything will go as well as you hope it will.

But be prepared for the times when it doesn’t. Know that, sometimes, anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Know that the climate may not always be kind. Know that people may not be around to assist. Know that you are not perfect, and that you can always make mistakes you never even imagined. Confidence is your friend; complacency, your enemy.

Many of you are likely shaking your heads: “Getting lost is not that bad, Meagan! It’s not a life or death situation!” You’re right, usually it isn’t. Most of the time, if we get lost, we wander around until we find a landmark to get us back on track. We approach someone and ask for help. We use our orientation skills to figure out where we went wrong so we can backtrack. When all that fails, however, (and it will fail), you’re left with unpleasant consequences like frostbite, dangerous neighbourhoods, and unexpected hazards or obstacles. Worst of all, though, you run the risk of becoming even more thoroughly lost. I have wandered through sketchy neighbourhoods after 11:00 p.m. and I don’t recommend it. I think my blood alcohol level rose just from being in the vicinity of some of those people.

By all means, take precautions. I chose not to do so and I paid dearly for my negligence. Next time, I might not have a friend I can call at a moment’s notice. I’ve been hopelessly lost before in nasty weather, and it never gets easier with time, I can promise that. What I’ve come to realize, though, is that more than precautions, an attitude adjustment is sometimes most valuable. Tempting as it may be, autopilot is never really an option—not when you’re blind. It doesn’t matter if you’re walking with a group of sighted friends; they can get lost, too. It doesn’t matter if you have a guide dog; you’re supposed to lead them, not the other way around. It doesn’t even matter if you know this route inside out and backwards. You’re not invincible. None of us is.

For as many years as you are on this earth, you will discover new and interesting ways in which you can screw up. Learn to accept this. It’s an unavoidable part of being human, and unfortunately for disabled people, the consequences are especially dire. But for every bonehead mistake you make, there is a lesson. As they say, life is a harsh teacher, but an effective one.

Safe travels, guys.

Confessions of a Blind Binge-reader: It’s Not Just About the Books

Anyone who knows me even a little is aware that I’m a devoted bookworm. I think nothing of finishing a book in one day—sometimes one sitting, depending on how engrossing it is—and those who follow me on social media are privy to my prolific reviewing habits on Goodreads. I spend much of my time in class, studying, socializing, and reading material not generally considered fun (though I’ve been known to take pleasure in reading my sociology textbook now and then), but I have always found time for leisure reading. I have sometimes been too busy to sleep; too tired to study; too desolate to go out. I don’t think I’ve ever been too anything to read. Reading is by turns a learning experience, an exploration of human nature, and an escape when things get too difficult. In short, I read for all the reasons anyone else reads.

I’ve been teased about the sheer volume of books I get through; I’ve had a friend ask, without a trace of irony, how many books I read “today” (it wasn’t even noon at the time). I know many other people who read at least as much as I do, but I admit that it’s not just about the books. Until I was given unfettered access to the internet at age fifteen, books were a luxury. Braille was hard to come by; most of the books I read in school were lent to me by an Albertan organization dedicated mostly to producing textbooks. However, they did boast an impressive collection of leisure reading, particularly classics. I devoured so many books as a student that by the time I was fourteen, I’d exhausted more or less every book they offered. I then signed up for the CNIB library, which sustained me until I gained better access to Ebooks. Even then, titles took months to arrive after they’d been ordered, and while the library did send me random books suited to my age group, they were often falling apart at the seams, badly squashed, or covered in suspicious substances resembling, at least in one case, strawberry jam.

Even when I did have books to read, they were always limited. I had to choose from a select few, and I had to return them as quickly as possible so that I could receive more. I remember slogging laboriously through books I absolutely hated (If you ask my former EA, she’ll remember how much I complained while reading “Huckleberry Finn”) because I didn’t have much choice. When your selection of literature is scant, you can’t get too picky about what you read.

Forget about buying my own books: braille books were so rare and so costly that when I won my first ever book in a draw, I kept it long after I’d wrung any enjoyment from it. I still have it to this day, and I’m not sure I could just hand it off to someone else. You never forget your first braille book.

It was the same with audio books: while I was growing up, audio books were not nearly as prevalent as they are now. They were expensive, and thus were quite rare. I remember literally shrieking with delight each Christmas when my parents would present me with the newest Harry Potter book, or the next volume of Paolini’s Inheritance Series. Now and then, people would find audio books at garage sales or in bargain bins and I’d be treated to some of the most random selections you can think of. When I was nine, someone gave me “The Green Mile”, obviously not thinking this through. My mom happened to listen in while I was reading one night and just about lost her mind when I asked, with total innocence, what a “faggot” was. As a kid, I was introduced to the autobiography of Mia Farrow (complete with the famous sex scandal involving Woody Allen), Steinbeck’s “Tortilla Flat”, and Grisham’s “The Client” … these were just a few of the completely inappropriate, yet no less enjoyable, reads I was exposed to via audio. I had an interesting time back then, I can tell you.

When my reading world expanded and I suddenly had almost every book in existence at my fingertips, I hardly knew what to do with myself. I began binge reading—grabbing every mildly interesting book I could find and ravenously searching for more. One of my most persistent fears, all throughout my life, was running out of reading material. Gone are the days when I had to read the Old Testament because it was summer vacation and I didn’t have any books to read. Gone are the days when I’d have to struggle through Rudyard Kipling’s “Kim” even though I despised every page. Now, I can read what I want to, without fear of consuming too much material too quickly. Now, I don’t have to ration my books, because there will always be another one waiting for me.

This is the kind of freedom most sighted readers have enjoyed all their lives. The public library stocked nearly every book they’d ever want to read, and they always had access to newspapers and magazines. There was no need to read 400 pages of something they hated just because books were too scarce. The great thing is that blind kids of the future will not have to go through what I and many other blind people did. They will have access to digitized braille (as well as actual books, of course) and plain text ebooks. They will be able to read the “back cover” and decide which books interest them. They will not have to wonder where their next book is coming from. Nearly every bit of reading material—whether on paper or on the web—will be accessible to them.

And, just like sighted people, they won’t have any idea how lucky they are.

You see, it’s not just about the books. It’s not about reading so much that people will take notice and praise (or ridicule) me. It’s about freedom of choice, and equal access, and autonomy. It’s about spending my time the way I want to, without worrying about having to ration my enjoyment.

So, fellow blind binge readers, enjoy your freedom. Enjoy the fact that in this, at least, equal access is yours. And if you think you might read just a little too often sometimes? If you worry that you hoard books? If you think you’re silly for still fearing that you’ll run out sometime, even when you know better? Give yourself a break. Old habits die hard. It’s worth remembering where they came from.