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.

Disruption, Script-Flipping, and the Art of Carrying on

While riding the elevator this morning, a stranger paid me the kind of compliment that normally sets off alarm bells.

“You seem so independent,” he chirped, pushing the elevator button for me as he did so. (The irony, my God the irony.)

“Well, I’m used to being blind, so it’s no big.”

“But you seem like someone who doesn’t blame the world for your problems, you know?”

“I mean … I just sort of get on and do, right? That’s all you can do.”

“Exactly! See, not everyone gets on and does. You’re choosing to do it. I’m telling you, you’re a ray of sunshine.”

I did my usual smile and nod thing, internally preparing myself for the usual inspiration porn doom spiral. The script, well-rehearsed by now, goes something like this:

I’m not inspiring. There’s nothing praiseworthy about living my little life. People think I’m impressive but I’m not. I am reduced to their daily hit of inspiration. They’ll never really see me. I’ll never get past this. Bring me my saddest violin. Life’s but a walking shadow. Et cetera et cetera.

This time, for reasons I don’t yet understand, a different script presented itself: What if he was right?

Not precisely in the way he intended, of course. In the immortal words of so many of my visually impaired friends, ‘blindness is whatever.’ (We’re an eloquent bunch.) But could I, just this once, flip the script? Could I worry less about feeling guilty because I don’t educate every single person I meet? Could I be praiseworthy for “getting on and doing” for reasons other than my most prominent disability?

A mere hour before this interaction, I was talking myself out of bed. My tension pain was flaring up. My recently-healed back injury had left a grumpy ghost behind, always most irritating in the mornings. My depression was pressing down more heavily than usual, insisting that my very happy life was actually not happy at all. I was dealing with a longstanding accessibility issue at work, and I didn’t want to confront it today.

And I ignored all those reasons to stay down. Not such a grandiose achievement, nothing cinematic, but still: I carried on and did what needed done, independently, because that’s what I do.

Maybe my resolve, my tired but determined air, was visible to this kind stranger, even if he attributed it to the wrong struggles.

So, was I allowed to interpret his compliment in a way that made more sense to me? Is flipping the script, disrupting those nasty doom spirals, a legitimate way to deal with those moments where education just doesn’t fit? Do I ask myself way too many questions?

I’m gonna say yes. For the sake of my sanity, my energy, and my need to take a break sometimes: Yes!

Here’s to the noble art of letting the little things go.

Here’s to living as the person you are, not the one you think you ought to be.

Here’s to life being so much more than an endless parade of teachable moments, not all of which you can possibly be expected to seize.

Here’s to chilling out and, every now and then, taking that problematic compliment—because guess what?

You’re tired. I’m tired. You’re doing cool things despite the obstacles, and so am I.

So, by all means flip the script when you can. It’s good for the soul.

I Don’t Want You to be Grateful

I don’t want you to be grateful that you don’t have my life. I want you to ask yourself why it’s so hard, why it’s so unfair, and what you can do about it. I want you to see the barriers—the inaccessible environments and the crushing weight of low expectations—and realize that, without these roadblocks, it wouldn’t be quite so hard and unfair. I want you to know that I wasn’t put on this earth to encourage you to appreciate what you have. I want you to understand that, in a more inclusive world, there would be little need to look at a disabled person and think, “Thank God that’s not me.” I want you to know that through the smallest acts, you can help make that happen.

I don’t want to inspire you. I want my ordinary actions to be just that: ordinary. I want to be more than a motivational meme or symbol of struggle. I want you to see me, not just the white cane, the dog, the wheelchair, the diagnosis, the brain or the body that doesn’t work exactly like yours does. I want you to admire my strong points without erasing my weak ones. I want you to stop attaching “for a disabled person” to every compliment you pay me. I want you to see my talents and charms, my flaws and my quirks—the things that make me every bit as human as you.

I don’t want you to tell me you’re my ally. I want you to show me. I want you to model that care with your actions, your values and your votes. I want you to describe your photos and call out that friend who’s always complaining about the “handicaps” on welfare. I want you to ask why that new restaurant doesn’t have an accessible entrance. I want you to recognize that a thousand social media posts can never equal an in-the-moment act of kindness. I want you to accept that how you make me feel is far more impactful than what you tweet.

I don’t want to be in your diversity poster, your diversity working group, your diversity brochure. I want to be consulted for practical solutions, not publicity stunts—because my time is worth more than that, and so is yours. I want you to seek my feedback not because the optics are favourable, but because my perspective is of value and I have something to offer you. I want two-way streets. I want to help move things forward, but I can’t do that while I’m sitting at the token table.

I don’t want to make you a better person. I want to increase your awareness and deepen your understanding. I want to point you toward opportunities for growth and education. I want you to be part of the solution. I want you to stand beside me as my equal and my ally, not because it makes you a good person but because better treatment of disabled people makes good sense for everyone.

I don’t want your charity. I want you to hire me. I want you to rent to me. I want you to let me take your class. I want you to be the patient or the client or the customer who doesn’t flinch when a disabled person walks into the room. I want you to trust that I am suitably qualified and that I will meet your standards. I want you to be comfortable with the concept of working, productive disabled people. I want you to wonder why there aren’t more of us.

I don’t want you to be my voice. I want you to acknowledge that I have my own voice. I want you to amplify it, bring it to the ears of those who wouldn’t otherwise listen. I want you to help the world understand that I am not, and have never been, voiceless. I want you to refuse when you are asked to represent me. I want you to point in my direction when someone asks, “What does she think? What does she need?” I want you to step back, because I am my own best advocate. And when the world asks you to speak for me, I want you to pass the mic, because my story is mine to tell.

The World is a China Shop (but I am not a Bull)

One of my earliest memories is of committing, as many people call them, a random act of blindness. I was navigating one of those stores not designed for most humans. You know the ones: narrow aisles, delicate displays, teetering piles of items just begging to be toppled. My cane bumped something made of glass, which promptly shattered with what I felt was an unnecessary amount of drama. Immediately, my parents began apologizing as a staff member swooped down on us, sweeping up the pieces and saying very little. Maybe it was my parents’ reflexive need to apologize for my blindness, rather than focusing on the actual damage done, or the woman’s tight-lipped refusal to reassure, but the shame was instant and pervasive. Even as a very young child, I knew enough to realize I’d done a terrible thing, well beyond the realm of typical childlike troublemaking. I had drawn attention to myself and my fundamental differences. I had not been careless, though I’d certainly broken things for that reason before. I was not touching objects I shouldn’t, nor was I being especially rowdy. In fact, I was doing my best not to brush up against anything at all, aware that we were in a sacred-seeming place where impeccable behaviour was paramount. This had happened because I couldn’t see; because I was different; because I couldn’t control my impact on the world as rigidly as other kids could.

As I grew, I witnessed enough nondisabled people knocking things over and making messes to learn that what I’d done in that cluttered store was very human and very normal. All around me, people spill food and knock over their drinks. When they cook, food splatters. When they go into a badly designed store, they displace items just by walking past them. How many times have I stepped carefully around messes while out and about? It happens. People make mistakes. The world is an unpredictable place that is rarely designed for the maximum comfort of its population. Clear paths and barrier-free environments don’t seem very common, even though everyone would benefit from them. We are all living in a china shop, and we are all of us bulls at some point.

And yet, concerned strangers continue to treat me with fear–not only for my safety, but for theirs.

“Watch what you’re doing with that cane.”

“Are you gonna hit me with that thing?”

“Hold on, hold on, I’ll get out of your way!”

If you want to make someone feel like a cross between a fragile doll and a rampaging rhinoceros, say things like that. Bonus points if there’s a child involved.

The shame persists. I knocked over a plant at work this morning, which was perched on a window ledge. A casual sweep of my hand wasn’t enough to locate the obstacle, and when I set my backpack on the ledge, as I do at least once a week, the plant fell to the floor, pieces of its wooden stand skittering noisily into a corner. The whole affair was loud and humiliating, , and when I told a fellow blind friend about it, she shared my disproportionate shame.

“So I knocked over a plant this morning. I committed plantslaughter!”

“Noooo! Not plantslaughter! I think I would have died of embarrassment.”

“Had death been an option I might have considered it at that moment.”

Of course making messes and destroying someone else’s belongings is embarrassing. I think most people would find it so. Few would walk away from such an incident without feeling a twinge of guilt.

But as I poured myself a coffee, reassured that the plant would survive, that old familiar shame returned. I was a bad, careless blind person. My colleagues would think I couldn’t be trusted. I should have double and triple-checked that window ledge. How would I ever be taken seriously if I carried on this way?

Clumsy.

Awkward.

Unprofessional.

At some point, my more rational side piped up: wasn’t I being a wee bit hard on myself here? Was all this self-flagellation appropriate? I knocked over a plant, which wasn’t supposed to be there anyway. I didn’t harm anyone, or murder a puppy. I knocked over a precariously positioned object, I apologized, and I got the mess taken care of right away. I apologized some more. How was this situation different from when nondisabled people knock something over?

It wasn’t. Perhaps a sighted person would have seen the plant and been more careful, but perhaps they would have missed it in the dimly lit room, or been too distracted to notice. The absence of disability is no perfect shield against mistakes, and sighted people are not inherently graceful. If anything, I am slightly more cautious than the average person because I know that any error I do make may be misinterpreted. White canes and service dogs are sometimes identified as health and safety issues, which functionally means that the person using them is also a health and safety issue. Someone to be feared. Someone to be planned for. Someone to be managed.

I will never be comfortable with making a mess—social anxiety will make sure of that. I don’t enjoy disrupting my environment and I’ll always connect such disruptions, at least tangentially, with my disability. I will probably always apologize a little too profusely.

Next time it happens, though—and it will happen—I’ll think back to this moment, where I realized that I was making afar larger fuss than anyone around me. My unwarranted reaction, far from doing damage control, made it more likely that someone would alter their view of my professionalism and competence. Better to simply apologize, take care of the mess, and give myself the same grace I so easily give to everyone else.

I hope you will think back to this, too, and I hope you will give yourself a little grace.

We, the Persons

It happens more often than you’d think. I’m scrolling through a piece of writing relating to policy or human rights, and I see it: “persons with disabilities.” It’s not something I find in much mainstream writing, but in the non-profit and government worlds, it’s ubiquitous. Though I’ve come to expect it, it always stands out to me in the most distracting way. It conjures other phrases, like “persons unknown” or “persons of interest.” It’s clinical and cold. It feels archaic and, especially outside the context of law, dehumanizing.

It seems like everyone else gets to hang out at what passes for the cool table, under the “people” umbrella. (Boy, that bar is high.) We don’t typically talk about persons of colour, or LGBTQ+ persons, or persons with low incomes. Governments don’t commit to supporting “working persons.” Politicians don’t address the “persons of this great country.” Democracy is not “by the persons, for the persons.” That would sound odd, if not incorrect. At best, it would be out of place, and give people pause.

I’m not usually a splitter of hairs when it comes to small linguistic details, unless I’m wearing my editor’s hat. I tend to think that while language has immense power, the sky isn’t likely to fall if someone refers to me as, say, “visually disabled” versus “visually impaired.” I may have a preference, but it’s a personal one, unlikely to inspire whole blog posts. You say tomato, I say “Who cares?”

There is something about “persons with disabilities” that continues to annoy, no matter how many times I come across it. Unearthing the phrase buried in legislation is one thing, but when I see it in a recent piece of writing, I can’t help but shake my head. Why haven’t we joined everyone else? Why have we yet to gain full “people” status? Why are we still being referenced, in a surprising number of documents, using a term that is jarring and isolating for no good reason? Are we destined always to remain in a medicalized category of our own, somewhere just to the south of “people?”

It really is a very minor detail, I know. Most people will look at “persons with disabilities” and not even notice the strangeness of it. Others will notice, and not care. I’m sure many people with disabilities (see what I did there?) will read this and shrug. There are bigger fish to fry, certainly–more important quibbles to discuss, definitely.

But my favourite thing about minor details is that they are so simple to fix. The complex issues are hard to solve, and I’m in no position to do much about any of them. What I can do is make sure “persons with disabilities” never creeps into my own writing. I can encourage my clients and coworkers to start thinking of us, and representing us, as a group of people much like every other. I can point out how bizarre it is to cling to such an outdated term, and hope that it will one day become a rare one.

If you’d like to see “persons” with disabilities become a relic of a society that really did view disabled people as less-than, instead of a phrase we cling to with bewildering obstinacy, you might consider joining me in this modest quest. I’d be more than happy to hear about your progress, pushback and all.

The Blind Girl Who Sings

In her memoir, Hourglass, Dani Shapiro writes about a “third thing” that all married couples should have in order to live happily together long-term. The first thing is you, the second thing is your spouse, and the third thing is the external glue that unites you. It could be a common taste in music, or the process of raising your children, or a mutual love of the outdoors. Whatever it might be, you need a third thing to give your relationship shape. And, as I read about this concept, I realized that music is the “third thing” in my relationship with myself. There’s me (first thing), disability (second thing), and music (that essential third thing).

I’m a complete nobody, but while I was growing up, I had a modest musical reputation. Rural surroundings made it easier to stand out, and my family’s love of music was all the encouragement I needed. One of my earliest memories is picking out “Mary had a Little Lamb” on my grandmother’s piano, refusing offers of help with growing stubbornness. At five, I was singing publicly. By the time I left home for university at seventeen, I had sung competitively for eleven years, and was a common figure at local fundraisers, funerals, weddings, and other community events. I’d never be Idol material, perhaps, but I was dependable and versatile, occasionally bringing crowds to their feet. Sometimes, I’d even win competitions. It was enough.

Once I began studying communications and preparing for a career centred more on writing than music, I let much of my talent go dormant. I still sang to myself constantly—to the dismay of my roommates, I’m sure—and found the time to sing with friends and perform at the occasional family funeral or wedding. I had shifted gears dramatically, releasing my careful posture and letting my exceptional lung capacity deteriorate. Music seemed to have no fixed place in my new reality, and city living meant that if I’d wanted to claw my way back up to where I’d been, I’d have to fight for it. Stressed as I was by academic pressure, chronic pain, and mental health struggles, I didn’t have that fight in me. I focused on writing, sang exclusively for fun, and made noises about joining a choir someday. Two years have passed since my graduation, and serious musical pursuits are still at the bottom of my to-do list.

Though I’m occupied with other things, I miss being a singer every day. I miss it for the obvious reasons: the rush of performing for an enthusiastic crowd; the joy of learning new and challenging pieces; the grind of endless rehearsals that somehow turn into effortless beauty when you’re looking the other way. I miss dressing up and connecting with strangers and congratulating fellow musicians. It could be gruelling, but I miss it dearly.

There’s another dimension to my longing: music was my conduit to a life less defined by disability. People often thought of me as “that blind girl who sings,” it’s true, and many of them waffled on about my vocal gift being divine compensation for my undesirable eyes. Even so, while I was singing, I wasn’t thinking about cane technique or traffic patterns. When people flocked to me after a performance to tell me my voice had meant something to them, no one was dwelling excessively on my broken eyes. If someone reached out to touch me as I passed, it was out of a desire to express something more positive than “You’re going the wrong way! I must save you!” Adjudicators were mostly impartial, occasionally referencing my lack of eye contact with audiences but otherwise more interested in what I sounded like than what I looked like on stage. With a few exceptions, I was judged for my talent, hard work, and emotional expression. Nobody who watched me earn a standing ovation with “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” was likely to label me incompetent, graceless, or pitiable. Music, especially in the minor leagues, was as close to meritocracy as I was ever going to experience, and I had no idea how valuable it was until I had to live without it.

The musically-talented blind person is a narrative with which society is comfortable and familiar. Few people questioned my right to inhabit that world. My “We’re not in Kansas anymore!” moment came in a rhetoric class, a couple of years in to my communications degree. I was unpacking my laptop, lost in thought, when a student I’d never spoken to before approached me.

“Why are you here?”

The question came with no bark on it. It wasn’t hostile, but there was a straightforwardness to it that made it shocking. Immediately, other students began to gather around, wondering how this would unfold.

“I’m in this course, so…”

“Right,” he continued, “but why are you here? In university?”

“I’m taking the Bachelor of Communication Studies program, and this class is one of the option courses.”

“I know, but blind people can’t be writers.”

It dawned on me that I didn’t have to participate in this bizarre conversation. I was being baited, or insulted, or something. Being a dedicated glutton for punishment, I responded.

“Of course we can be writers.”

“But how?”

By now, he was starting to sound genuinely curious. Receptive, even?

“Well, I use a computer, like everyone else…”

A few other students pressed closer, making disapproving noises. The student continued, sounding defensive.

“Well, I’m not up on all the technology…”

Clearly not.

Class began at that moment, interrupting one of the most unsettling conversations I’d ever had. As the instructor introduced the course outline, I realized, all at once, that I was back at square one, back to proving myself, back to basics in the worst way. Blind communications professionals made less sense to people than blind musicians, it seemed, and I had never felt more disabled. The student and I eventually became friendly, and I’ve since learned that the blunt approach I found so off-putting is simply part of his communication style, but he reminded me, whether intentionally or not, that I must always be ready, at a moment’s notice, to explain my place in the world.

The oft-repeated observation about minorities needing to work harder, shine brighter, climb higher than everyone else just to be regarded half as talented still holds true. Being disabled is a little less demoralizing when you have some talent or skill that helps you stand out for something other than your disability. If your reputation as a singer or designer or writer or chef becomes more powerful than your reputation as the weird girl with the stick, or the weird guy with the wheelchair, you’re winning. The trick is to train people to see your brilliance before they see your supposed deficiencies. Distract them with your finer points, and maybe they’ll forget about all the ways you don’t fit in.

There’s plenty of bitterness buried in this truth, but I’ve found a way to put a more encouraging spin on it. Instead of looking upon music as the only part of my life that made much sense, I choose to view it as a valuable skillset that set me up for greater success in other facets of my life. All those public performances have cured me of paralyzing stage fright. Public speaking doesn’t scare me, and thriving under pressure comes more naturally than working in slow-paced, gentle environments. Musicianship expanded my social circle, increased my confidence, and helped me shape my identity outside of the box marked “blind.” I may have been the “blind girl who sang” to most of my community, but that’s still better than simply being “the blind girl.” Now, I can be “the blind girl who writes,” or “the blind girl who edits,” or, you know, “another disabled human trying to live her life.” I’m happy enough in all of those boxes.

I hope every disabled child has the opportunity to find their third thing. Maybe, like me, they’ll discover fourth and fifth and sixth things, just to keep life interesting. These days, writing and editing have become almost as essential to my identity as music.

Discover that third thing. Give your relationship with yourself shape and definition. Allow others to see past the cane, or dog, or walker, or their own perceptions. Do it for yourself, primarily, and watch as other people begin to notice you in ways far more pleasant than “Hey! There’s that disabled person I always see at the bus stop!” Perhaps you’ll master that third thing to the point of renown, or perhaps you’ll choose to embrace it quietly. You do you.

Wherever your journey takes you, find your third thing, and be seen.