The Unconscious Cultivation Of Defensiveness

Disabled people have often been (unjustly) accused of being perpetually offended. We seem to be screaming about some atrocity or other with regularity: words like “discrimination,” “bigotry,” and “injustice” flow freely from our lips. Most of the time, able people’s unwillingness to understand our anger drives me mad. If they spent even a single day in our shoes, they might change their tune. No matter how often we explain why our passion is warranted, there will always be some able people who refuse to listen. But … (I do love buts, don’t I?)

I’m becoming more aware of our unconscious, unintentional cultivation of defensiveness. We mistake simple kindness for condescension, barriers for willful discrimination, and ignorance for deliberate refusal to change. Often, our suspicions are proven accurate—indeed, we are so often proven right that it’s understandable that we’d jump to conclusions. I can’t help but worry, however, that we are jumping the gun.

This issue was brought to my attention when I read a blind person’s rant about a flight attendant who did not want to charge him for a drink. His assumption was that the free drink was offered out of pity, as though the only reason to be kind to us is to express a desire to improve our tragic lives. To my surprise, this assumption did not remain unchallenged. The vast majority of those who responded cautioned him against narrow-mindedness, even advising him to simply accept the gesture and move on. While I can identify with his instinctive defensiveness, and acknowledge that I’m guilty of the same, I think we should all examine our biases very carefully. The free Slurpee I was provided with at a convenience store may have been given out of a genuine wish to make a girl’s day, but the reaction, even from family, demonstrated that disabled people and those close to them always suspect random acts of kindness to be a direct result of blindness. When I announced that I’d been given a free drink, I got the following response.
“Maybe it’s because he was feeling generous tonight.”
“Nah,” said someone else, “it’s because you’re blind, I’m sure.”
Able people’s tendency to attach unnecessary meaning to disability can be shocking. I was insulted when a student, after discovering that a professor often praised my work, remarked that his favour was based solely on blindness. (It may have had something to do with her own poor performance in the class, but I’ll never know for sure).

The thing is, similar acts of kindness are directed at perfectly able people, and they do no more than I have to earn them. If you stand in a crowded pub long enough, some stranger will buy you a drink as often as not. If the Slurpee machines are about to be cleaned and refilled anyway, you’ll probably get a free one. If someone sees you from across a restaurant and is feeling magnanimous, they might send a free dessert over to your table. These actions are not, and should not be, linked with pity or condescension. Sometimes, humans just feel like being nice.

If you receive a free drink, try to take it with grace if you can. If someone pays for your coffee, interpret it as an attempt to make your Monday morning better until you see evidence to the contrary. If you are not chosen for a job, don’t immediately blame blindness—it’s possible you simply were not the most qualified candidate.

Don’t get me wrong: I realize that, in the majority of cases, blaming blindness is justified. I and other disabled people have been through too much, and faced too much blatant mistreatment, to be crucified for viewing disability as the culprit in most cases. That said, it’s worth stepping back and asking ourselves whether we’ve become too accustomed to defensiveness. We may not mean harm, but perhaps we’d be better served by approaching life with a bit more thought and a little less passion.

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4 Sources Of Functional Illiteracy That Technology Can’t Fix (Yet)

Most blind people are perfectly literate. We may need screen readers and/or braille dots to do it, but most of us can read as well as any sighted person. Further, much of the reading material that was once unavailable to us—magazines, newspapers, pamphlets—can be accessed online. It’s much easier to be a bookworm in 2016 than it was in, say, 1995. The world of the written word is, more often than not, accessible now. There will always be exceptions, though, and those unfortunate little exceptions can conspire to create a lot of grumbling, at least in my life. You see, no matter how accessible the world becomes, blind people will remain functionally illiterate when it comes to…

1. Signs

Signs: helpful little things, which do a lot more than indicate street names and business establishments. GPS and a healthy knowledge of the city was not helpful to me when I nearly trailed the delicate sleeve of my favourite blouse in wet paint because I couldn’t read the sign on the railing. I’ve nearly ruined a cherished skirt while trying to sit on a newly-painted bench. I’ve slid on wet floors, only finding (and knocking over) the helpful wet floor sign after the fact. (Those really do lend themselves well to being loudly and conspicuously toppled, don’t they?) I’ve tried to use elevators and toilets that were out of order. I’ve tried to walk through emergency exits when there was no emergency in sight. All the many helpful hints signs can provide are lost on me, and it is only the boundless kindness of strangers that has saved me from many an embarrassing mishap. (Thanks to the odd passers-by, I still own both blouse and skirt!)

2. Subtitles and Captions

So there I am, watching some powerful video or other, when suddenly the actors switch language. The nice video editors have thoughtfully provided subtitles, but I’m left feeling totally lost. If I’m lucky, the video comes with description, so at least the describer can read the subtitles to me, though this is quite distracting and really takes away from the flow of dialogue. Mostly, I’m unlucky, and nearby sighted people are subjected to eyelash-fluttering and relentless entreaty until they agree to read me the subtitles. It’s frustrating, and while it doesn’t come up very often—I’ve memorized the Elvish bits in LOTR, so that at least is no issue—it’s a real thorn when it does.

3. Handwriting

No matter how skilled we become at inventing and using technology that can read printed material from menus, books, and photos, I don’t know if we’ll ever progress to the point where the blind can access handwriting. Everyone’s handwriting is unique, some more readable than others, but even the neatest penmanship is essentially inaccessible to anyone who can’t see it for themselves. I’ve only a rudimentary understanding of printed letters as it is, so when someone leaves handwritten notes, or uses fancy calligraphy on a bottle of perfume, I’m left wondering. Reading about how personal and intimate handwritten letters are does not help with morale, either. Excuse me while I go shed a few tears over the fact that I’ll never receive a handwritten love letter. I’ll never even take a Buzzfeed quiz on what my handwriting says about me.
Okay, I’m done now.

4. Packaging

It’s getting easier to read labels on packaging now that we have image recognition apps. If you’re able to snap a clear photo of the object in question, it’s possible to have your smart phone rattling off the information in seconds. This assumes you, unlike me, are any good at taking good photos on the first or seventh try, of course. No matter how intelligent the technology, no matter how clear the photo, no matter how strong your desire to read the packaging, however, the fact remains that some companies just don’t make it easy for us. The print on some items is so miniscule even fully-sighted people struggle to read the finer points. Try reading an expiration date or ingredients list without a microscope. And, if you can find and read the instructions without five minutes of fiddling, come talk to me. It would take less time to read a five-page forum on how to open that stubborn bottle of toilet cleaner than it would to find the convoluted instructions printed in tiny lettering on the back. Besides, you meet cool new people while trying to open things. If that fails, you can always resort to more eyelash-fluttering, obviously.

I’m glad to report that, as with so many issues, functional illiteracy for blind people is diminishing. We’re able to access so much material online now that the need to read conventionally is lessening every day. I am seldom reminded of my disability when it comes to reading material, and maybe that’s why it’s so jarring when I am. If you become accustomed to accessing something, and are suddenly and definitively unable, it stands out even more sharply for its rarity. Nothing transports me back to childhood faster than having something read to me, and that’s not the type of childhood nostalgia I welcome. My hope is that strangers will stay kind, and friends will stay patient. Just remember, while you’re rereading that piece of paper for the fifth time, I’m just as frustrated as you are.

Disability: The Gift That Keeps On Giving?

I was intrigued when I found out that Pope Francis planned to address disability. Historically, religious institutions have treated disabled people as angelic gifts from God, meant to represent innocence; living examples created to inspire love and compassion; or burdensome, cursed individuals who must be either healed immediately or cast out. Whichever viewpoint I analyze, it’s clear to me that none of these depictions of disability is accurate, and they are all potentially dangerous.

The “Cool Pope” disappointed me, however, when he placed himself firmly in the “gifts from God” camp. There goes progress, I thought. I’m not part of any religious institution anymore, but that has not limited my exposure to this ideology. Plenty of nonreligious people believe our disabilities are gifts—to the world, if not to us—which are meant to inspire goodness in other humans, and to foster special strength when fighting adversity. The idea, it seems, is that while disability is undoubtedly difficult and certainly not ideal, we’re given it for some mystical, predetermined reason, and our purpose in life is to function as a blessing to the world through our unique perspectives and commendable fortitude. People appear to subscribe to this belief whether they believe in a specific God, a nebulous higher power, or nothing at all.

You might think this is a refreshing change from the disability-is-universally-terrible myth, but it’s not much of a respite when you examine it closely enough. Once again, the ideology of disability perpetuated by able-bodied people dehumanizes us, placing us on either a higher or lower plain, depending on your perspective. Some would say higher, because we’re blessed with special powers of endurance, and what’s not flattering about being considered a “gift” to all the world? Some, like me, would consider the plain lower, because I find the viewpoint disturbingly backward. Disability is not written in the stars; or, at the very least, it is not usually inexplicable. People are disabled because of injury, disease, genetic disorders and so on, not because their destiny is to function as a living advertisement for the virtues of compassion. Believing that my disability was given to me for some mysterious purpose I am called to fulfill is a very heavy load to bear. My disability is neither a gift nor a curse; it just is. What I do with it is mine to decide.

I know it’s comforting to think of my blindness as something positive, and it does have its upsides (though I’d argue that I’d face plenty of hard times without it and could learn most of the same skills if I were sighted). This comfort is false and cold, though, especially since I’m not bettering the lives of others by default. Each time my blindness gets in my way—prevents me from finding employment, subjects me to discrimination, hinders me in all the ways it does—I don’t glow with purpose or rest in the knowledge that suffering is part of my destiny. What I do is get on with it.

As I’ve said many, many times now, I don’t spend my life feeling miserable or bitter. Genetics do what they do. That doesn’t give me or anyone else license to pretend that disability isn’t negative, though. I don’t subscribe to the concept of disability being some kind of transcendent experience or perk. It’s something I work around–largely because of the world’s attitudes and not because of my broken eyes themselves–but it’s not something I’m proud of.

So, next time you want to placate a disabled person—or the loved ones of disabled people—by insisting that disability is a divine gift, stop and think about what that might mean. Getting rid of this misconception is just one more way I can be thought of as fully human: flawed, but equal.