The Privilege of Showing Up

Every time I look at my phone these days, the Zoom hate is everywhere. People can’t wait to get back to “real” life, where almost everything of consequence happens in person. My postsecondary student friends are daydreaming about returning to campus in the fall, all of my colleagues seem more than ready to have meetings around the boardroom table again, and my family is already planning crowded social events once everyone is vaccinated.

As for me, I miss the energy of in-person gatherings, a little, but I can’t deny that this “fake” life people can’t abandon quickly enough has been pretty kind to me, accustomed as I am to a world where showing up in person is perceived as essential. Demonstrating competence, commitment and success demands your physical presence, whether or not said presence is logistically required. That hasn’t worked out so well for me.

You see, I am not known for my in-person attendance record outside of work contexts. Chronic pain sufferers often struggle with uneven energy reserves and mobility, and my subpar travel skills as a blind person don’t help. I was the kid who missed a staggering amount of school, forever behind and fighting to catch up. In university, when my pain levels were at their highest, I once missed two thirds of my classes in a single semester. Rarely did I commit myself to non-essential in-person events of any kind, because I hated the shame of last-minute cancellations. Just because people were mostly gracious didn’t mean they weren’t quietly categorizing me as flaky.

In the past year, my schedule has looked quite different. Social events every other week. Book clubs. Committee meetings. Resource group chats. Live readings and author interviews. I’m signing up to everything, planning potential presentations, even doing a little on-the-fly consulting work. I hardly recognize myself.

The difference, of course, is that everything is virtual now. I can attend a book club in Minnesota, watch a live performance in New York City, participate in a Q & A in Colorado. Signing up to serve on committees and resource groups, in and outside work, requires no more of me than an internet connection and my willingness to be useful. No taxis, no transit, no anxiety about finding the venue or locating a seat. No getting lost or looking foolish. Just logging in like everyone else.

If I’m in horrible pain and can’t travel? No problem. I medicate as needed, grit my teeth, and get through the meeting as well as I can. No one needs to know I’m attending from my bed. If my camera stays off, they don’t even need to know I’m blind, necessarily. (The way I am treated before versus after people find out is a story for a whole other post, by the way.)

Until the world opened up for me in terms of accessibility, I assumed I was especially disengaged. I figured I was just not a group person. Not a committee person. Not a ‘show up to everything’ person. A home body, you might say, who didn’t gain energy from interacting with others outside of small, intimate groups.

Sure, I’m still an introvert who is choosy about what she signs up for. I only have so many spoons, and I want to use them wisely. But now I have a better sense of what I’m capable of as a professional and social contributor, because so many of the barriers are temporarily removed. It turns out that I like showing up and getting things done as much as the next person; there was just a great deal in my way. The same might be true for someone who finds in-person activities easy but who doesn’t have a stable internet connection, or gets fatigued by screens, etc.

This is not an original take, I know, but consider this post my plea for a thoughtful, accessible approach to returning to “real” life. It’s past time we adjusted our ideas about what constitutes competence, commitment and success, because not everyone can or should show up in the same ways, and it’s ableist as hell to assume a physically present person is more invested and more worthy than someone who can’t attend.

Lots of people have hated every second of this lockdown lifestyle. Some of us have never felt less locked down. Let’s think seriously about why that is, and what we can do about it.

Perhaps we should start a committee? I’ll send out some Zoom invitations. I do that now.

“A” is for Advocacy

I’m not a parent, but the internet has exposed me to the struggles, joys, and everyday dilemmas of parenting in this ever-connected, ever-judgmental world. I read discussions about how to teach kids to interact more gracefully on the playground; how to remove bread from a hot toaster; how to play traditionally-inaccessible board games; how to shave sensitive areas of the developing body. Each time I see one of these, my heart soars. My parents had to raise me with sporadic, impersonal support, while parents who knew nothing of disability looked on with varying degrees of disapproval. They made it work, but there are many gaps in my basic skillset that might have been filled by an online community of disabled people who were willing to share their wisdom. If Disability Wisdom or VI Talk had been around when I was growing up, I might not be so wary of toasters.

The one skill that seems underrated, particularly in rural settings, is advocacy. Several of my teachers, visual consultants, and special education coordinators were adamant that I master an array of miscellaneous skills, like cutting paper with scissors, drawing the human form (with what little vision I had), and writing a legible signature. My childhood involved hours spent cutting a piece of blank paper into a series of meaningless rectangles that were destined for the recycle bin. I practiced my signature each day in a special book, trying vainly to copy the raised signature on the front cover, and wondering why sighted people were allowed to have illegible scrawls while I had to achieve perfection. (These days, my signature is defiantly unreadable.) I connected dots on graph paper. I completed strange worksheets with tactile circles, using a different colour for each one. These exercises ensured that I’d always be comfortable with scissors, and have a rudimentary idea of how to draw a human face, but they didn’t teach me how to stand up for myself, or ask for accommodations, or interpret my rights as a disabled person. Every now and then, someone would mention that I must always be my own advocate, but the concept was never expanded upon, and far more attention was paid to how I held a pencil—a pencil I’d seldom use, since I couldn’t handwrite—than how well I understood what being a disabled adult might be like.

Steeped as I was in traditional Catholic culture, I was an obedient student rather than a respectful one. Fear and anxiety were far more influential than respect or interest, and while I enjoyed school and hungered for knowledge, my primary and secondary education rarely encouraged me to grow into anything more than an unquestioning rule-follower. I’d occasionally be chastised for seeming too passive, or criticized for failing to take initiative, but years of conditioning kept me from voicing disagreement or making my own decisions in almost all cases. After all, what did I know that grownups did not? Who was I to request accommodations that made sense to me when someone who earned a lot of money and used plenty of high-level language felt differently? How could I ever provide insight about my own learning style when someone with decades of experience knew best? I carried on in this way for far too long, wanting to take the wheel but convinced I’d cause a wreck. Systematic rejection of my ideas and insights bolstered the illusion. By the time I left grade school to start my postsecondary adventure, I had very little idea that my rights would constantly be challenged, or that I had disability-specific rights at all.

In university, I soon figured out that even though I had no foundation to build on, I’d have to learn how to be my own advocate, and learn it quickly. My life and education were in my own hands, and those hands were more capable than many had let me believe. With ample coaching and encouragement from newly-discovered disabled friends, I engaged in the controversial art of speaking up. I practised saying “no,” or “yes, but not that way,” or “please Don’t grab me,” or “I want to try this instead.” When roadblocks were put in my path, I didn’t docilely accept them as immovable parts of my reality. Sometimes, I was even a little bit firm. I worked to let go of “I’m sorry, that’s probably silly” and “What do I know?” In place of those familiar crutches, I paid attention to what worked for me, and asked for it. When charm failed, which wasn’t often, I used blunt logic, and usually won. It was a novel and exhilarating way to live, though it came at a cost. Since acquiring advocacy skills, my life has never been as calm and peaceful as it once was. Taking control of your own life is exhausting business.

Living in a more tolerant and accessible world doesn’t mean everyone can sit back, relax, and forget how to take ownership of their lives. If anything, widespread complacency about our supposedly-civilized society means parents need to be even more diligent about instilling advocacy skills in all children, not just disabled ones, early and often. I’m not suggesting that children should be taught to despise authority or behave disruptively for the sake of it, but they should be as prepared as possible for the ignorance, bigotry, and exclusion they will inevitably face. Adults are not always right, and it’s neither healthy nor safe to teach kids otherwise.

Whether you’re a parent of a disabled child or a newly-disabled adult, don’t ignore the limitations of a life without solid advocacy—a life far more limiting than a disability could ever be. Be mindful that third-party advocacy will never match the advocacy you can do for yourself. Value the insight and experiences of experts, but be open to customized solutions. Seek advice from the disability community, but remember that conventional wisdom is not without merit. Recognize that not every problem is a disability problem; some of them are just ordinary problems that can be solved in ordinary ways. Emphasize the powers of courtesy and respect, but never underestimate well-harnessed anger. Acknowledge social hierarchy, but be aware that hierarchy is commonly abused.

Parents may resist teaching advocacy skills, and I have the greatest sympathy with them. Advocacy is frightening, and frequently disappointing. It is delicate, thankless, much-maligned work, especially when it’s done by young people. It will not always produce the hoped-for results, and it’s rarely much fun. Understand that advocacy is tough to cultivate, and likely to inspire nasty pushback from people your child loves and trusts. Be ready to deal with the possibility that your child’s advocacy will sometimes be directed at you, and that you won’t like how it feels. Know that you will need to respect their advocacy, even if it hurts or upsets you. Accept that you are not exempt. Shudder at these harsh truths, and teach it anyway.

Advocacy skills have guaranteed that my education was useful and comprehensive. They prevented me from being barred from services I required. They help me be productive and successful. Advocacy is the cornerstone of every fruitful thing I have ever done for my schooling, my career, and my relationships. It keeps me on my feet when the wind is doing its best to knock me over, even and especially when that wind is coming from an unexpected direction.

Before you worry too much about signatures and scissors and the exact method of removing bread from a toaster, remember that A is for advocacy. Start there, and everything else should follow.