In Defence Of “Internet” Friendship

“So, where did you meet your friend ___?”

“We used to post to the same blindness forum, and–”

“Oh…so not, like, a friend friend.”

“A friend friend?”

“You know, like a…real friend. Someone you actually know.”

Friendships forged through online interaction have gained considerable legitimacy since I was a young teenager first experiencing the internet, but it’s dismaying how often online friends are casually dismissed by people of all ages. Apparently, there was an authoritative friendship conference several years ago that resulted in an unofficial friendship hierarchy, which influences the way friendship is viewed by everyone ranging from seniors to high schoolers.

According to this mystical hierarchy, you can’t measure a friendship in love, but rather in geography. If you only see your childhood friend once a year for a quick coffee and cursory catchup, that still ranks higher than an “internet” friend whom you haven’t met in person but with whom you communicate daily. Friends who live across the street usually carry more weight with people than a friend who lives across the world, regardless of intimacy, frequency of communication, and overall satisfaction derived from the friendship. (This also applies to romantic relationships, as I learned to my immense chagrin while dating men I’d met online.)

Besides the fact that I find this arbitrary standard inflexible and anachronistic, I also feel it comes down heavily on disabled people, who seem to have an especially large number of online friends. Anyone experiencing loneliness, isolation, and/or a lack of typical social opportunities can benefit from online social networks, and reducing internet interactions to something pale and second-rate targets a population that is already marginalized. While many disabled people can and do seek social opportunities within their geographical sphere, the internet is an enticing place where the playing field feels more equal and the supportive communities are numerous.

My isolated childhood is a living advertisement for the value of online friends. I was an introspective soul who struggled to make friends in traditionally-accepted ways, and internet social circles were far easier for me to embrace. Online, I didn’t have to be the awkward, introverted blind girl. I could talk to people who were older and wiser than me, share resources with fellow blind peers, and enjoy a sense of social freedom that couldn’t be found in my small-town ecosystem. I treasured the offline friends I did make, but they didn’t offer the diversity and understanding I found online.

Now, as my life becomes busier and my chronic pain limits my social activities, I appreciate my supportive online network of disabled and non disabled friends more than ever. The love, encouragement, assistance, and companionship they offer are as real and meaningful as anything provided by my equally-adored offline friends. As my heart breaks with the death of an online friend’s husband, and soars with joy at another online friend’s success at work, I do not doubt the gravity and significance of friendships conducted and sustained via the internet.

My internet friends are indeed “real” friends. When they are troubled or grieving or frightened, I comfort them. When I need a friendly ear in the middle of the night, there is always someone to call. My online friends send the best care packages, letters, and virtual (but no less heartfelt) affection. We pay astronomical amounts to visit each other, and make memories we cherish for years. We assist each other financially, emotionally, and spiritually. My online friends may not be able to drive me to an appointment or hold my hand when I’m ill, but they can provide love, advice, compassion, empathy, and laughter.

Never let anyone disparage your online friendships. The internet is a fickle friend, and you may certainly find dangerous, duplicitous people there–people whom you will befriend and later delete from every social network, wondering why you were ever naive enough to trust them. But more often than not, you’ll find people who are excellent friendship material–people who will fuse your happiness with theirs and do everything in their power to enrich your life. Whatever people say, however much they scoff, appreciate and cherish the friends you make online, and always measure your relationships in love and respect, not geography and popularity.

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A Conversation With Keri: How fibromyalgia Changed Her Perspective On Blindness

During my first year of university, I was afflicted with brutal and frequent migraines. Since I already suffered from chronic tension pain, this new development was a devastating blow. I began to experience stroke-like symptoms; I missed classes and struggled to meet deadlines; I shuddered to think what might be wrong; and I refused to reach out.
While I have been able to detect the source of the migraines and manage them well now, I’ve never forgotten how cripplingly disabled I became while under their power. Blindness had always made life challenging, but I’d never been so completely incapassitated by broken eyes. Invisible disability, which so many people fail to understand, taught me a great deal about myself and others. I learned never to underestimate pain, or assume I knew every battle a person might be facing.
Keri suffers from chronic pain–pain that can be far more disabling than any form of blindness, and she’s graciously agreed to share her story with us.


Q: Can you tell us a bit about your life before chronic pain began to affect you?
A: It was nearing the end of September back in 2014, and my life was pretty typical. I was in my second semester of college, I had a great boyfriend, and life was good. I was happier than I had been in a long time, even though I had lost my sister just two months before. I was hopeful about my college studies, and ready for Christmas break like any other typical college student.

Q: When did you first realize something was terribly wrong?
A: It was a Wednesday night, and I was relaxing on my loveseat, and gaming after a typical day of classes. I was happy to be free for a little while from boring things like Experimental Psychology, and to be doing something I love: gaming. Suddenly the calves of both of my legs started hurting. I have a high pain tolerance, but I was almost in tears. I stood up to get a few alieve, thinking it was just some kind of bone pain or some such, but it was no bone pain I had ever had. As soon as I stood, the pain got twice as bad, and if it wasn’t for the loveseat right there, I’m sure I would have ended up on the floor. It was disabling, and the worse pain I had ever experienced. I only made it through that night quite honestly by the grace of God, and my boyfriend staying on the phone with me for a good while, even though I had woken him up. I made it to school the next day, but barely. I could hardly walk, and I felt as if my legs were being torn apart.

Q: What exactly is fibromyalgia?
A: The most common question I get is what is fibromyalgia? The best way to define it in my opinion comes from Mayo Clinic, and they define it as the following.
“Fibromyalgia is a disorder characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain accompanied by fatigue, sleep, memory and mood issues. Researchers believe that fibromyalgia amplifies painful sensations by affecting the way your brain processes pain signals.”
There is much research that still needs to be done, and many in the medical community or society in general think it is fake, or something they just tell you when you can’t figure it out. This is the most frustrating part.

Q: Do you feel that your condition affects how you see blindness compared to how you viewed it before?
A: I always felt that blindness was a pain in the ass, and I took the fact for granted that it wasn’t as big of a deal. When the pain started, it really sank into me how blindness isn’t as disabling as it seems. Sure I handled it well, and accepted my blindness, and it has its very frustrating parts. It is a piece of cake compared to pain.

Q: Most of us are already acutely aware of how hard it is to find work when blindness is present. Do you know to what extent your pain will limit your employment opportunities?
A: When people first meet me, or if they don’t know me well they always say things like you are so amazing, or I don’t know how you do it. If and when they find out that I suffer in pain constantly I think that perception may shift.

Q: Does being called inspirational bother you, especially when these terms are applied by people who have never dealt with what you experience every day?
A: Yes it does. I don’t feel that I’m inspiring at all. I have been dealt an unfortunate hand in life, but I make the best of it. I’m just a woman doing what it takes to survive, and make it through. I do the things I want or need to do.

Q: Do you have any advice for others going through chronic pain?
A: My best advice is to have a great support network, because you need it. You need those who can deal with the ups and downs. Find good doctors who listen to you, and who can help you find a pain management plan. Try anything you are comfortable trying, because each case is different. If you are in school be honest with your professors, or if at work, your boss. Sometimes these people can also be a great support network, and help with accommodations. The best advice is take me time, because if you don’t you can never re-centre yourself, and sometimes that really helps with the pain, especially if you are stressed.

Q: Finally, if you could say one thing to nondisabled people who don’t understand you, what would it be?
A: Have respect. You never truly know someone’s problems until you have been in their shoes. Try your best to not pretend like you know what they’ve been through when you haven’t. Be as flexible and accommodating as best you can. We are just normal people, with differences, and we should be treated like human beings.

Dear Distracted Driver

I can picture what may have been on your mind. Maybe you’d just spilled scalding hot coffee on your brand new outfit, which was doubly annoying because you were on your way to a job interview—one you’d been preparing for with much nervousness and anticipation. Maybe you were late for said interview, and maybe your son chose that moment to text you: he forgot his lunch again—could you please bring it to him later? Maybe your heart sank. You didn’t have time for this—time for life, really—and the stress was piling on. You came to a rolling stop at the crosswalk, pausing just long enough to alert any dawdling pedestrians of your presence, reasoning that they’d see you and get out of the way. Then, you went ahead and stepped on it.

This particular time, the pedestrian was me.

You missed the white cane, I imagine, focused as you were on your phone, or the spilled coffee, or whatever it is you were distracted by. You missed the fact that I was dressed in a tight skirt and heels, and would never have had time to throw myself out of your way or run ahead of you as you drove toward me. I’m assuming that, for any number of reasons, you missed the fact that I was there at all. It took someone else’s frantic scream—I was standing there like a bewildered deer in headlights–before you lurched to a halt, giving me just enough time to hurry past before you took off again.

I know what you must have been thinking: pedestrians will move out of the way. Pedestrians can see you coming. Pedestrians do have the right of way, yes, but it wouldn’t kill them to wait once in a while, would it?

Most of the time, it wouldn’t, especially not at crosswalks … but one day, it just might.

No, I have no way of really knowing what was going through your head that day. I have no idea whether you were distracted, impatient, or simply negligent. I’ll probably never know. What I do know is that you are not alone. You have joined the ranks of the many other drivers who have run red lights, sped through quiet streets without looking, and inched their way by because I haven’t crossed the street rapidly enough for their liking. Every day, frustrated drivers curse slow, irritating pedestrians as we plod along across the street, often crossing when we’re not supposed to or taking too long to cross at all. Generally, it’s because we’re busy reading texts of our own, or mopping our own spilled coffee, or otherwise failing to pay attention. Drivers take a lot of heat, and pedestrians are frequently at fault, it’s true.

But what if, as in my case, there’s a different reason? What if the reason we didn’t get out of your way was because we simply couldn’t see you coming? Cars are quieter than they’ve ever been, and can be difficult to hear under certain conditions. Crosswalks and residential streets don’t have strict traffic patterns for us to follow; we just wait, listen, and hope. I’ve gotten used to the innate risk of being a blind pedestrian (which is much lower than most people think, by the way), and while some encounters leave me shaky and frightened, I enjoy the right to navigate urban areas independently.

So, I’m just gonna say it, because it clearly hasn’t gotten through so far: slow down. Slow down, and realize that not everyone is dawdling on purpose. Realize that some of us cannot see you coming, can’t dodge or change direction quickly, and can’t compensate for your distracted driving. Realize that some of us have mobility issues that make it impossible for us to walk quickly, or even cross in a totally straight, perfect line. Realize that, while our slowness and inability to see you can inconvenience you, your carelessness could injure or kill us.

Next time you come to a rolling stop at a crosswalk, I beg you to take the extra few seconds required to come to a full stop, look up from your coffee-covered lap, and pay attention. Remember that even the slowest pedestrian can only take seconds from your life and that one careless mistake could take every second they have left. Remember that, no matter how late you’re running, no matter how busy you are, there is always, always time to stop for pedestrians.
Taking your eyes off your phone and taking the time to look out for me won’t kill you. Failing to do so could kill me.

The Problem With Naming And Shaming

It’s hard to escape our culture’s love of the practice of naming and shaming. Social media has provided fertile ground for this urge, tempting many a person to call out specific people for their mistakes. Where once we would have contented ourselves with disgruntled grumblings over a consoling cup of tea, we now take to Facebook and Twitter to denounce what we perceive to be mistreatment, ignorance, offence, and disgraceful behavior.

It’s quite understandable, really, even if it does bring an unsavory part of our culture into stark relief. The steady stream of likes and comments (and maybe even a mention on someone’s blog) are irresistibly gratifying. They create a cozy echo chamber, and any who dare to disagree or at least express empathy for the other side are silenced. It’s considered rude and even foolish to chime in if you disagree, because you’re “asking for it.” This argument is akin to the belief that people deserve death threats when they speak about controversial issues. It should not be the norm to be attacked when contributing thoughtfully and respectfully to a conversation on social media, no matter how strong the opposition.

This practice has dire consequences—consequences few people actually understand or even know about. When you name and shame a specific person, do you consider how this might affect their lives? More than once, a person’s life has been effectively ruined by some careless mistake they made, even when they have explained themselves. Can you imagine how you’d feel if you made an honest mistake and found yourself being torn to pieces for all to see? Serious offences, especially when committed knowingly, might merit this treatment (and it must be done judiciously even then) but sometimes we need to move on, if not forgive. Calling out a business, institution, or politician is one thing, especially when dealing with discrimination; calling out the average Joe for something they did to offend you is another. These people have feelings, and reputations, and a right to dignity. Even if you are deeply hurt and on fire with rage, think before you spew that invective on social media.

Yes, it’s frustrating when someone pets your service dog. Yes, it’s infuriating when someone treats you like a child. Yes, it’s demoralizing when someone grabs you without permission while you walk down the street. Yes, you have every right to be angry and, yes, you have every right to post about it. Goodness knows I do. No matter how upset you are, though, you still need to think carefully about consequences before you call someone out by name.

Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security because your privacy settings limit visibility, either. People get in trouble for shaming coworkers all the time, because all it takes is one person sharing screenshots of your post for your actions to become public knowledge. I think most of us have either done this or at least felt the pull—I know I have—but it’s time we gave this more thought. Sure, some people exhibit irritating and dangerous behaviour, and we should definitely shame that behavior in general, but is eviscerating the person on social media going to accomplish much beyond catharsis?

I do not think we should all remain silent when oppressed or genuinely hurt. I also think it’s reasonable to discuss bad behavior without naming specific perpetrators, as I do on this blog with regularity. However, we’d do well not to get too comfortable in our snug little echo chambers, even though they make us feel vindicated. If you want validation, call a friend you trust. Talk to a counsellor. Vent in safe spaces. Don’t use a public (or potentially public) platform to vent your spleen. In an age where everything we reveal online is preserved indefinitely, for anyone to stumble upon and bring to the fore even decades later, impulse control is more important than ever. If self-preservation isn’t enough for you to think twice, at least consider the impact your emotion-fueled condemnation will have on another human being—a human who wronged you, but who has a right not to be dog-piled by an angry mob.

So, think before you name and shame on social media. You never know what the long-term consequences might be.

It’s All Relative

As I’ve covered over and over, people treat blindness like a life sentence, complete with misery and woe. It’s not an easy life, there’s no doubt, but it’s not a sea of bitter suffering, either. The misconception that my life really is that burdensome, though, tends to dissuade people from sharing their own suffering with me, as though my disability renders their own struggles meaningless by comparison. Even those who are close to me, and know full well that my life is mostly happy, need occasional reminders that they are free to share their problems with me, no matter how minor they might seem next to mine. Just the other day, my sister was about to tell me about something that was troubling her, when she stopped mid-sentence: “I feel so guilty! My life’s so easy. You have it so much harder. What am I doing complaining?” I took that opportunity to reiterate that everyone’s situation is different, and that pain is relative.

We all have unique issues to deal with, and what might be an insufferable load to carry for one person is but a light affliction for others. A problematic work situation might bother me less than someone else because I’m so grateful just to have a job in the first place. Chronic pain, however, is a thorn in my side, while others handle it with grace and pluck.

I, like so many others, had to learn the hard way that those with the hardest lives are the most willing to listen to my own difficulties. They give the best advice, and often provide welcoming ears and broad shoulders. Since I am so well acquainted with trials and tribulations, the last thing I’d do is devalue someone else’s. I’d look with shame and scorn on someone who tried to use blindness—or any disability, really—as a way to dismiss and silence another’s feelings. No amount of personal pain should make light of another’s. It’s worth knowing our limits, and being candid when we cannot be there for someone else right at that moment, but we must keep life in perspective. We are here to support one another, after all, and insisting that my blindness, mental illness, and chronic pain somehow invalidate the complaints of others is not only ludicrous—it’s dangerous and supremely selfish.

So, if you ever find yourself shying away from unburdening yourself on my shoulder, remember that it’s all relative, and that my pain has nothing whatever to do with yours. All it ought to do is create deeper understanding between us, and it demands that I show the same compassion as others have shown to me. Unburden away!

“Why Are You So Angry?”

Almost every person who so much as encourages advocacy will face this question at some point, and while I don’t get it often (my writing style isn’t what you’d call vitriolic), I have been asked this multiple times. “Sure, you deal with a lot,” they say, “but do you really need to be so pissed off about it? Do you really need to write a whole blog whose purpose is to complain, and point out all that’s wrong with the world?” My answer to this is always the same: “Huh?”

I’m not an angry person. I like my life, even when it’s difficult, and I have great faith in the idea that human beings are capable of kindness and enlightenment. I spend most of my time just being Meagan, and the rest is usually spent trying to educate, not lay blame or spew hatred at the world at large. Yes, I do go on about what’s wrong with society. Yes, I do sometimes vent my frustration on a public forum. Yes, I get angry sometimes.

Do I spend my life in a state of perpetual fury? Do I direct hostility toward the sighted population? Do I focus more on being a malcontent than on trying to make the world that little bit better? Nope. I’d much rather bring positivity into this world than anything else, even as I’m being direct and unyielding concerning my rights as a human being.

 

I must confess that I’m shocked at the public’s expectation that we should be virtuous angels, patiently awaiting the day when the world will give a damn about the injustice that is built into society’s very structure. I am amazed that people are surprised when we object to systemic discrimination and harmful stereotyping. I mean, would they shoulder these things with unwavering grace? I don’t think so. That said, do we have the right to reject all efforts to reach out to us? I think not.

 

I did not create my blog with the intention of using it as a source of fatalistic ranting. I set out to maintain a safe space where ideas could be shared, questions could be answered, and advice could be dispensed. I’ve always kept one goal in mind: how can I foster empathy and understanding? How can I describe what my life is like, and how can I use that insight to help others?

I’d like to believe that regular readers realize I’m prone to seeing the good in the world. I hope they have noticed my tendency to right wrongs and offer solutions rather than condemn specific individuals and the mistakes they make. I hope, most of all, that I make my readers feel inspired, not hopeless, and determined, not angry. I resent those disabled people whose sole purpose appears to be making “normal” people miserable. I don’t expect them to maintain a sweet disposition when they’ve been fielding the same ignorant questions and withstanding the same discrimination for years on end. It’s acceptable to indulge anger; it can be a powerful tool if it’s used correctly.

That, of course, is the key: one must use anger judiciously. There’s enough rage-fuel online without worsening the problem. It wastes time and energy we could be devoting to initiatives that improve our lives. Accessibility and inclusiveness benefit us all, whether we’re disabled or not. We can all share in the fruits of disabled people’s labour. We can all read and write blogs like this one. If we get a bit angry sometimes? Well, I’d say that’s human, wouldn’t you?

Satire: 17 Easy Ways To Make A Blind Person’s Day

1. When introducing yourself, use loud, exaggerated speech. Since we’re blind, it’s safe to assume we’re a little dim, too.
2. Don’t speak directly to us. It’s always best to talk over our heads like we’re not there at all, especially if you are offering a service. Example: “What would she like to order?” Be sure to ignore our attempts to answer for ourselves.
3. Grab or otherwise manipulate our bodies whenever and wherever you deem necessary. For example, if you intuitively perceive that we’re going the wrong way (even if you haven’t asked where that is) just snatch the nearest limb and lead on, Macduff!
4. If you aren’t in a position to grab us, you can always shout instructions in the hope that we’ll know what you’re talking about. If we look baffled, just keep repeating the instructions in an increasingly frantic tone. We’ll clue in eventually.
5. Remind us often how grateful we should be that people are willing to provide accommodations for us. While it’s unlikely that we will ever, ever forget this for more than five minutes at a time, it’s a good idea to slam the thought home when we’re not expecting it. It builds character.
6. Stage loud conversations about us while we’re in the room, because we won’t hear. If we hear, it’s okay, because we won’t understand. If we understand, it’s okay, because we won’t care.
7. Keep all conversation firmly focused on blindness. If we try to interject by discussing our education or interests, just redirect us. We get carried away trying to be all normal, so it’s helpful to keep us on track!
8. Be sure to describe all the other blind people you’ve ever met, in extravagant detail. We couldn’t be more fascinated by that blind guy who skied, and that other blind guy who went to school with you, and that blind girl you met on the train once—the one with the cute puppy…
9. Make a habit of asking us why we’re “here”. If we’re on the bus, ask us why we’re out alone. If we’re at work, ask us how we got the job. If we’re in class, ask us why we’re in university. If we seem offended, ignore us: deep down inside, we really enjoy presumptuous interrogation!
10. Dispense advice about how we should live our lives; the less you know us, the more valuable your feedback will be. If you need a good starting point, you can begin by analyzing our mobility tool of choice (cane or dog) and emphatically demanding that we switch. We love that.
11. Involve yourself in our love lives, specifying exactly the type of person we should date and why. If you think we should date a sighted person because they’ll be able to take care of us, we’ll want to hear all about it. If you think we should date a blind person because we should “stick to our own kind” we will be all ears!
12. Give us things—money, coupons, whatever—because you pity us and want to make our day better. Don’t be phased by any apparent expressions of confusion. (“Oh, that’s just my gratitude face!”)
13. Stop us on the street and thank whomever we’re with for helping/taking care of/being so kind to us. It’s not as though we have real friends who genuinely enjoy our company. No: if we’re out with a sighted person, they are fulfilling a purely charitable role. They will appreciate your praise, and we will feel extra extra grateful!
14. Place your hands on us in any public place and pray. If we gently explain that we don’t want to be prayed for, rest assured that it’s just the secular cynicism doing the talking. When our sight is miraculously restored, you’ll be the first to know.
15. Make as many potentially dangerous practical jokes as you can think of. A few good ideas include warning us of imaginary obstacles (“Watch out for that tree-just kidding!”), concealing our possessions, and encouraging us to “find” you while you run gleefully around us in circles. These were a staple of primary school, and I treasure many pleasant memories from that era. Do me a favour, and bring back the nostalgia!
16. Refer to us as “that blind person” even after you know our names. Blindness is so integral to our identities that our names are really just decorative, so there’s no need to remember or use them. If we fail to answer to “Hey, blind girl/guy!” just keep trying. We’ll learn to love it.
17. Assume that our default status is “Help!” If we reassure you that we’re okay, thanks, don’t fall for it. Insisting upon rescuing us every time we cross paths places us into a position of dependence, which is exactly where we belong.