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.

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“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.