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.

Backhanded Compliments and the Tyranny of “Nice”

Many children learn early on that their smallest accomplishments are cause for cheers, applause and glowing social media posts. When you’re very young, your every milestone and every “first” are worthy of celebration, and with good reason. There’s nothing wrong with praising a child for walking well or pouring drinks with accuracy. For most people, this trend eases and finally stops, and they start earning praise for more impressive stuff like finishing a degree or landing a great new job. It would be pretty weird to keep cooing and cheering over an adult who can navigate their own home without guidance and pour coffee independently, yes? You’d be mortified if someone seemed surprised that you, a fully-grown adult, were capable of essential daily living tasks, right?

Right?

Sadly, an awful lot of  very well-intentioned people appear to have missed that memo—the one that says admiring someone’s basic skills stops being cute when they’re all grown up, and that disability is no exception to this rule. It is no less embarrassing to hear “Wow! You handled those steps so well!” or “You got your own coffee!” when disability is involved. While some of us do work harder than the average person on cultivating everyday skills—some of us very hard, in fact—drawing attention to our prowess can feelmore patronizing than validating. I don’t speak for everyone, which is the caveat I always mention at this point in a post, but I can say with confidence I do speak for a very large number of us.

Look, I get it: you want to say something nice, make someone smile, acknowledge what you consider to be exceptional talent or strength or perseverance. Maybe you feel inspired by the person you’re complimenting, or perhaps you can’t think of a better way to break the ice. It could be that you’re genuinely curious about how they get things done given the barriers they face, or you’re anticipating they’ll need help later and you want to develop rapport in advance. You’re a nice person, just trying to do a good deed for someone else. I truly do understand.

Keep this in mind, though: a great many times, being kind is preferable to being nice. Emotions tend to run very high in these types of situations, because no one likes discovering their attempt to make someone happy might be backfiring. Nevertheless, I do believe most people want to treat disabled people kindly, and kind people don’t make others feel condescended to or humiliated, even with the best of intentions. Kind people consider context, and compliment accordingly. And kind people don’t let “I was just being nice” outweigh any harm they might cause.

You may be shaking your head, feeling down on yourself because you know you’ve messed up this way. I beg you not to take this personally, however. In my experience, just about everybody makes this mistake at least once. It’s not isolated, and it’s not rare. Even if you actually have a disability, you have probably done this to someone without being aware of it. Proximity to disabled people should never be mistaken for immunity, and I’d be hard pressed to think of someone who hasn’t fallen into this trap. I’ve certainly spent some time there myself, and I ought to have known better.

So, here’s a simple test to help you. Next time you plan to praise a disabled person for a specific skill, ask yourself whether you would feel awkward if that compliment were directed at you. Would it make you uncomfortable if someone patted you on the back for, say, picking out your own outfit? Might it be a little off-putting if someone congratulated you for knowing where the staff kitchen was, six months after you started working in the building?

If you determine that the compliment you want to offer would make you feel pretty good about yourself, go ahead, as long as it’s contextually appropriate. Feel free to tell me if you like my writing skills. Tell my designer friends they have excellent creative instincts. I have no doubt my partially sighted partner would love to hear that you enjoy his cooking. These are all respectful compliments, and there’s no backhanded “You do well … for a disabled person”subtext attached. Further, you avoid giving the impression that people whose disabilities mean they do need help with basic tasks are somehow inferior to people who are able to do those tasks independently. After all, an adult who needs assistance with grooming, for example, is no less worthy for needing that help.

On the other hand, if the compliment you’re considering would feel insulting or at least bizarre if directed at you, that is your cue to pause. Think about whether you might be causing more discomfort than goodwill, and be mindful of who is around. Being complimented on my travel skills when I’m crossing the street is one thing. It’s distracting and unnecessary, but I’ll survive. In a professional setting, however, it’s likely to make other people notice me not for my solid work ethic or valuable skills, but for a disability that does not and should not fully define me.

Don’t be shy about telling people what you admire about them. Nothing in this post is suggesting you have to conduct a full-scale cost-benefit analysis every time you make a positive comment around a disabled person. I’ve received quite a few thoughtful compliments in my life, and while I’m not as graceful about taking them as I’d like, they’re always welcome. I do ask that, in future, you run through that simple test in your mind, and practice being more deliberate about how you dish out praise. Many, many of us will thank you, if only inside our heads.

Oh, and if you simply want to know how something gets done, or how a particular barrier is managed? Google your question, or ask. If we’re not crossing an intersection or trying to do our shopping, most of us are quite happy to answer.