“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.

Advertisements

“Go Play With Your Friends!”

“Meagan, what are you doing over here by yourself?”
The daycare worker stood over three-year-old me as I crouched by a wall, well away from the groups of laughing children. I remember holding a toy giraffe (which I was pretending was a pony), and babbling happily to myself, weaving some far-fetched tale or other to while the hours away. I raised my head reluctantly but obediently; I was loath to interrupt my highly-enjoyable game, but I was a relatively respectful child.
She waited.
“Well? What are you doing?”
“Playing.”
“Put that down and go play with your friends.”
It’s astounding, really, the level of clarity this memory still holds for me. My head is full of fuzzy childhood memories, but this one stands out. If I concentrate, I can still feel the cynical amusement her comment had provoked—an amusement that was distinctly unlike what a child ought to feel.
“I don’t have any friends.”
How could she not know this? Was she not paying attention when kids turned their backs as I approached? Did she miss the very public incident when a toy crate was placed directly in my path in the hopes that I’d trip?
“Yes you do.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Well, go make some then.”
As she walked away, my child self felt absolutely nothing but relief: I could get back to my giraffe—ahem, pony—without further annoyances.
What I find remarkable about this memory is not the underlying theme of social isolation and bullying. Bullying had tapered off almost to nothing when I went to grade school, I was extraordinarily lucky, but daycare was somewhat different. I faced relatively little direct confrontation—I was certainly never abused or put in real danger—but social exclusion was at its height. No, what I always dwell upon is how very unaffected I was by all of it. Kids are all supposed to crave a peer group, but for whatever reason my rejected social overtures didn’t faze me. I didn’t try very hard, and once I realized it was basically futile, I retreated to the safety and endless entertainment that could be found inside my own head. I was aware on some level that this made me different, but I simply don’t remember being bothered in any way by it.
I was not a socially starved child, generally speaking. I was forever pestering my elder sister to play with me, enjoyed the company of adults immensely, and had a huge, welcoming extended family to keep me company during gatherings. If I had the opportunity to play one-on-one with accepting kids my own age, I took it quite contentedly.
Despite this, my introversion seemed to be a source of ongoing anxiety for the adults in my life. Daycare workers, teachers, consultants, and all manner of others concerned themselves with my social development, no doubt worried that a disabled child left to her own devices would morph into a stunted mess. Their fears weren’t entirely unfounded, and my isolation did facilitate certain quirks it took me a bit too long to eliminate, but my intelligence, contentment, and overall growth didn’t feel impeded by my apparently-tragic lack of friends. At least, that’s how I tend to view it.
Frequently labeled antisocial and stubborn, I noticed that my personal preferences were considered partially or wholly irrelevant. This is true for many children, I think, especially when they grow up surrounded by people who fear they’ll turn out wrong, somehow. I don’t know that any adult stopped to consider that maybe, just maybe, Meagan was at peace with not having many friends, and that she’d make them when she was ready. I’m not sure anyone recognized that introversion and antisocial behaviour are worlds apart.
As I grew older, I did begin to amass a very small, very selective group of friends. I didn’t always choose adults’ perceptions of ideal candidates—that is, I did not necessarily gravitate toward popular kids. In fact, I tended to avoid them, and they likewise avoided me unless they thought I’d give them the answers to the homework that had just been assigned. (My studiousness was attractive to just about everyone in my classes over the years, meaning everyone wanted to sit next to me inside but scattered at recess time.) The steady friends I did have were a bit like me: introverted, slightly eccentric, and entirely content with being both. Throughout my childhood, all the way up to middle school, the refrain continued: play with your friends. Be more social. Don’t just stand by that wall all the time. Go play with these girls and those guys and that group over there.
Sometimes, the concern, which I know to be benign and not entirely misguided, got a little out of hand. Fellow students were ordered to play with me (please never do this to any child), and didn’t always hide their resentment over it. Others would allow me into their group briefly, but were just as happy as I was to see me go. Probably, if I’d tried harder, been chattier, been more charming, I’d have made progress, but it all came down to the inescapable facts: they didn’t really want me around, and I was in no mood to waste energy trying to persuade them otherwise.
Don’t get me wrong: I nursed my moments of loneliness, especially as a teenager. Sometimes it seemed as though having more friends would be an express line to a better life, within the confines of school, anyway. When I became a bit more popular in middle school and my social group got larger, I welcomed opportunities to experience new people and activities. When I got to university and was totally alone again, I felt hollow and far more desolate than I’d ever felt as an excluded child.
On the whole, however, I don’t believe my personal growth was much improved by the constant commands to be more outgoing. The social butterfly wings don’t suit me, and they never really have. I applaud the efforts of those who cared for me; I know they were aware of the risks inherent in an isolated, sheltered child, and I see the effects of this isolation in other blind people. Some of them can’t shake a pronounced awkwardness, even as an adult, and I’m grateful to have navigated that particular minefield fairly successfully. I owe much of that to the efforts of the adults closest to me, who were just trying to make me into the best person I could be.
These things aside, I believe my intense introversion, so often judged and found wanting, shielded me from so much of the drama and misery that are youth’s trademark. Other kids were worrying endlessly about who was out and who was in, but I was busy reading yet another book. Other children at daycare were fighting over toys while I sat safely in a corner, knowing my giraffe-pony was mine, all mine. My ambivalence toward my peers wasn’t always an asset, and it definitely got me into trouble a time or two, but it also insulated me from a lot of pain and self-doubt I really didn’t need. Childhood and teenage years are difficult for anyone, but I had separate challenges that meant I would have had precious little time to waste on being lonely anyway. I was way too concerned with a mental illness I did not understand and a disability I didn’t always know how to deal with to cry my eyes out over whether the girls on the tarmac would let me skip rope with them.
Today, I’m still an unapologetic introvert, though with far more friends and a much richer social life. I’m no longer content with total exclusion, and I spend way too much time these days agonizing over things I would have thought silly and worthless as a child. I like my life, and I like who I’ve become.
Still, once in awhile I appeal to that three-year-old I once was. I ask her to lend me her shamelessness and her practicality. I ask her to remind me that I can be my own best friend when the need arises, and that what other people think, well, it doesn’t always have to matter.
Don’t worry, introverts. You’re okay.

Life Ain’t Easy (For a Disabled Person’s Sibling)

If you’ve been fortunate enough to grow up with siblings, you know how much they matter. Whether we are plotting their imminent deaths or singing their praises, they’re always present in our lives and, if you’re lucky like me, poised to pick up the pieces when life shatters us.
People overlook the fact that, while having a disability makes for a tough life, being a disabled person’s sibling comes with its own challenges. Inspired by my own sister, I give you just a few of the many reasons we should all thank our siblings

They often take the back seat: Parents and families tend to lavish a lot of attention on us, whether we appreciate it or not. It’s usually because we need more assistance and support. My parents didn’t have to fight for my sighted sister’s right to an equal education. Still, siblings are so often shunted to the side, even when they could use a little support of their own. The admirable bit is that they rarely complain. It’s just the way it is, and they understand that.

They are irrevocably connected to us: Anyone who knew me back home immediately connected me with my disability, at least initially, and my sister couldn’t escape the association, either. Being the older sibling helped her establish her own identity outside of mine, but she was often asked whether she was “Meagan’s sister,” and quizzed about what it was like to have a blind person in the family. The situation is even worse for siblings of those with more severe disabilities, who rarely evade the harsh light of other people’s scrutiny. We mustn’t forget that they’re people, too, with individual roles beyond “sibling of disabled person.”

They become secondary parents: Blind people can sometimes avoid this, because we tend to be reasonably independent souls. Even so, siblings often take on part of our care, especially when are parents aren’t around. My sister drove me to countless engagements, helped me coordinate outfits, and ensured that I was getting along okay, just generally. She was asked to shoulder more responsibility than any sibling should, and she usually did so without complaint.

They are asked to work harder: while some families are more egalitarian than others, it often happened that my sister ended up with the bulk of the “difficult” chores. While I did the dishes, she went out and picked rocks, or mowed the lawn, or changed the oil on a vehicle. My family’s subtle aversion to tasking me with anything too hard prevented me from learning some concrete skills, and it also meant my sister often got the shaft where household responsibility was concerned. Mostly, she dealt with that dynamic gracefully, only occasionally giving into a (justified) rant or two.

They become fierce defenders: My sister is a nonconfrontational person, but mess with me and you’d better hope you’re not within glaring distance. As we strolled through the mall, being gawked at by strangers, my sister dispensed cheery waves and bright, toothy smiles with relentless determination. She’s shamed more than a few people into looking away guiltily, and she can’t bear to watch me being mistreated. I learned not to tell her about any bullying that went on in my life, lest it enrage her. I don’t need protecting, but it’s still comforting to know that someone will be angry on my behalf when I’ve been treated unfairly.

They grow up too fast: siblings of disabled people learn about sacrifice, hardship, injustice, and inequality very early on. My sister was presented with living proof that life is not often fair; that people sometimes get rare and incurable genetic diseases; and that the world is not kind to anyone with a disability. My sister also had to learn self-sacrifice early and often, sometimes missing out on something she wanted because I needed something else more. She had to settle for less time and attention. She even had to forego certain visual experiences because I’d be left out. These are things she’s forgiven me for, and they are things I still feel guilty about.


If this sounds like your sibling, send them a text, give them a call, or link them to this article. Seriously. Do it. Right now. I’ll wait.