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.

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If a Picture’s Worth More Than a Thousand Words…You’re Using the Wrong Words

“Eye contact is way more intimate than words will ever be.” – Faraaz Kazi

Eye contact carries staggering weight with just about everyone. You can say “I love you,” “I hate you,” and “I’m so bored—let’s get out of here!” with a simple look. Indeed, if you don’t make eye contact with the person you’re talking to, it’s not only abnormal—it’s rude, in some cultures anyway.

Upon meeting a good friend for the first time, I was, of course, unable to make eye contact with her. The best I could do was turn my face toward her, and look as alert and interested as I could without using my eyes. I don’t have any control whatsoever over my eye movements; my eyes are always looking everywhere and nowhere all at once. During this particular meeting, I was seated with my folded cane beside me. It wasn’t in full view, so my friend had no idea I was blind. She later confided that she had thought I must have been very shy. “I was so frustrated,” she said, “because you wouldn’t look at me. I was like, ‘Hey, look over here, damn it!’ and wondering what you were thinking. It was really bugging me.”

I’d always known that eye contact was important, but I’d never had it put to me quite that way. It was vaguely disconcerting, as though I’d committed some grievous social faux pas without knowing it. I started to wonder how many others had assumed I was shy, evasive, or impolite. How many times would my meaning have been better conveyed through a simple look? How often were my words, even when carefully chosen, insufficient?

I’ve learned to live with the fact that I’ll never achieve eye contact, but it still irks me, especially since I’m so cognizant of how it could improve my communication skills. I am a professional communicator, after all. And, as always, it’s the little things that get to me. Let’s say a stranger comes into the elevator with me, and I’m too shy to make small talk. It would be nice to simply make eye contact and smile. I use the same facial expressions as everyone else, of course, but I don’t have as much control over them as I’d like. To this day, I’ve never really mastered the fake smile; I just end up looking as though I’m about to commit unspeakable evil. That, or I look painfully awkward. I’ve even been told I suffer from resting bitch face, even though I’m a relatively cheerful person. How nice it would be to show friendliness without having to chatter pointlessly about the weather! (Then again, weather in Alberta is often a legitimate conversation piece.)

I won’t pretend the big things don’t matter, though, even if they don’t nag at me quite as often. I have been judged harshly in numerous musical competitions because I didn’t make eye contact with the audience. Apparently, this is the only meaningful way to connect emotionally with the crowd. The jury’s out on that one. I even had one judge approach me after I’d won second place, saying, “If you’d just looked at us or something, you’d have won.” Gee, thanks. Even when adjudicators are fully aware of my eye condition, they’ll still mark me down, partly because they aren’t conscious of how biased they are in favour of people who can make eye contact when necessary. This would happen even during classical competitions, where visual expressiveness should be less significant than in, say, musical theatre. Oddly enough, I’m far better at theatre than I ever was at classical performance, but I digress.

There’s more to it, of course. My loved ones all know how I feel about them, and I know how they feel about me, too. Nevertheless, I’ve always felt a twinge when someone says “You should see how he was looking at you!” or “I don’t think she appreciated what you were saying to her. She was giving you ‘the look’.” I am told that I have very expressive eyes, so I’m sure I give myself away a lot. But, more than control over my own eyes, I want knowledge of what others are saying with theirs. People don’t always bother to verbalize how they’re feeling. There have been times when someone was giving me a furious glare, an encouraging smile, or a warning glance…and of course it all went whooshing over my head. It’s true that people should probably remember to tell me what they’re thinking rather than staring at me, but it’s so engrained that most people forget.

I take issue with the idea that a look is far, far more expressive than a word, though. I have heard exceptional tenderness and pure venom in words, and I can hardly imagine something more intimate and expressive than that. I recognize that I don’t know what I’m missing, to some extent, so my understanding is very limited. However, people frequently underestimate the power of words and auditory cues because they simply don’t value them as highly. It’s much easier to look at someone than it is to search for the words that will express the same feeling. So, people naturally opt for the easier, quicker route. I would like to think that the words I say matter at least as much as the look you’re giving me. I don’t think I could tolerate a reality where my words don’t matter because I can’t look at you while I’m saying them.
Is it possible that looks are only more effective than words because they are convenient? A look, after all, is free of language barriers. It means the same to most anyone in the world. (Of course, there are exceptions: direct eye contact in Japan means something different than direct eye contact in America.) It is also much harder to mess up a look than a word. It’s easier to say the wrong thing than smile in the wrong way.

Perhaps it is not the fault of the words at all. Perhaps words are inadequate for the simple reason that the average person isn’t used to using them. Perhaps—dare I say it—people have chosen to value looks over words. If I’m right, and it is a choice, then maybe it would be possible to turn things around? Would it be possible to convince people that words are powerful tools—at least as powerful as eye contact? Maybe, maybe not. At this point, I just don’t know. But it’s an intriguing thought, isn’t it?

Maybe a picture is worth more than a thousand words … because you’re using the wrong words.

The Word Is Blind

“So, you’re blind—I’m sorry! I mean…visually impaired—I mean…uh…I’m not sure of the…terminology…”

I’ve been called a lot of things in my life (and, yes, most of them were nice). Many of the labels people have placed on me because of my eyes are diplomatic but straightforward: visually impaired, low-vision, visually handicapped, physically handicapped, disabled, etc. These are all accurate, so I have no objection to them (though low-vision perpetuates the misconception that I see far better than I actually can). Of course, I’ve also been called—and heard others being called—more “politically sensitive” terms: differently abled (really?), differently seeing (uh, no…), special (gag me with a spoon, please), and handicapable (I wish I was kidding).

We are currently surrounded by an environment that demands political correctness and unbiased language. Normally, I’m one of the most enthusiastic supporters of bias-free language, because I understand the power of the words we use. Even when we aren’t conscious of it, the words we choose to use carry plenty of potential impact. Language really does matter. In that light, I understand and support society’s efforts to attach meaningful, accurate labels to minorities, particularly labels free of derogatory associations. If I were conducting a business meeting and someone referred to me as a “blink”, I’d be rather offended: that’s not how you treat someone, especially in a professional setting, unless you know them well and have an intimate knowledge of their personal preferences. I would no more call a disabled stranger by a derogatory name—lighthearted as I may feel at the time—than I’d call my lesbian best friend a dyke. Personally, I don’t consider it a polite (or even wise) endeavor, no matter how good my intentions are.

But, as always, there’s another side to this coin. There is such a thing as tiptoeing to such a degree as to invite ridicule, and it is my opinion that some of the terms listed above are just begging to be mocked. I mean, come on—“handicapable”? That sounds like a bad joke, not a “politically sensitive” label to use in official settings. It sounds, in fact, like someone’s terrible idea of a catchy hashtag. Please, leave that condescending nonsense on Twitter where it belongs. Other terms, while being less deserving of derision, commit the grave sin of being totally inaccurate and misleading. Take “differently seeing”, for example: I don’t “see” differently than other human beings. True, I tend to use my other senses more often than sighted people, but as I’ve previously explained, those senses are exactly the same as yours. They’re not heightened or supercharged in any way; I simply know how to use them, and have little choice but to rely on them. Seeing differently would necessitate extra organs (or perhaps extra brain function) and I can assure you that I definitely don’t have any mutated eyes or visual cortices lurking around. I’d tell you if I did—imagine the money I could make from the media buzz alone! (And, no, I am not giving you permission to come and investigate for yourself.) It’s also worth mentioning that I despise platitudes like “you can see with your heart”. I understand the kindness behind such pronouncements, I really do, but we all know it’s gooey, sentimental rhetoric, right?

In general, I believe in calling a spade a spade. Dancing around the simple facts with labels meant to encourage respect and sensitivity does more to annoy me than set me at ease. It’s impossible to keep up with the terminology that is en vogue on any given week. For the longest time, it was my impression that “visually impaired” was considered the acceptable term for official documents and workplace discourse, as determined by the CNIB. When I was working for them a couple of years ago, however, I quickly discovered that I was doing it wrong: the new term was “partially sighted”. Visually impaired, it seemed, was sooo last year. Who knew? I certainly didn’t…

I’m not sure what it is about blindness in particular that makes people so timid, but I’d love to relieve them all of that heavy burden. It’s okay to admit that someone is disabled—yes, disabled, not “differently abled”. Some people have stuff wrong with them, and that’s not a horrible thing. It’s not a sin to openly admit that someone else isn’t a perfect specimen of efficiency. Flaws don’t have to be scary, and disability doesn’t have to be taboo. Set aside your worries about sensitivity and correctness for a moment, and listen: my eyes don’t work. I cannot see. Therefore, the logical conclusion is that I am blind. Not “differently abled”, or “differently seeing”…just “blind”. If you want to get really technical, you can use “visually impaired” for people who have enough vision to read large print and use screen magnification. Otherwise, “blind” is perfectly acceptable, at least to me and the majority of blind people I know. If “blind” scares you, go with “visually impaired”; you’re very unlikely to upset anyone that way. I have met a very few people who were especially sensitive about semantics, but even they were all just fine with “visually impaired”.

It really irks me when people treat “blind” like a curse word—as though the last thing anyone would ever want to admit to being is blind. Believe it or not, I’m rather okay with the fact that my eyes don’t work, and thus I am okay with being called blind. It’s what I am. I’m no more uncomfortable with being referred to as “blind” than I am with being referred to as “female”, or “brunette”, or “human”. These are all natural parts of my being and while I’m not necessarily proud of my disability, I’m at peace with the fact that it exists and that there’s a word for it. So, rather than wasting your valuable time stumbling over the “correct” terminology, just call me “blind”, because that’s what I am. It’s not insulting, or insensitive, or ablest; it’s honest.

Of course, my favourite thing to be called is “Meagan”. I have a name, so please use it. If you know my name, there is no reason whatsoever to refer to me as “the blind girl”, or “the disabled girl”, or anything similar. Names are given for a reason; please do me the courtesy of using mine. After all, more than “blind”, I self-identify as “human”, just like you.

Author’s note: If you are reading this from somewhere other than Earth and do not, therefore, self-identify as human, please forgive the generalization. I wouldn’t want to use improper labeling!