Letting Go Of Normal

Don’t talk about disability. Don’t write about your blindness. Don’t mention anything that makes you different. Feel ashamed of your cane. Never disclose. Blend in. Hide.
Not so long ago, I lived by these rules, and most troublingly, they were of my own making. I’d endured my fair share of awkward stares and been asked to conceal my cane in photographs, but on the whole, I was not discouraged when it came to simply being me. I was blessed with a relatively accepting community that understood blindness was a part of me (but not the only part), and never required me to pretend otherwise.
Yet, I felt an overwhelming desire to “be like everyone else.” I suppose most young people seek a sense of belonging, but this ran much more deeply than a youthful herd mentality. I was always a bit of a loner, so wasn’t as influenced by popularity contests as my peers.
Instead, I pursued a much less attainable goal: I wanted total erasure of my disability. Seeming “too blind” was a mark of failure. I’m not entirely sure where it came from, but a persistent sense of shame dogged me everywhere, and while I tried to combat it at different points and never resorted to refusing to use a cane, I fought my essential differentness just as fiercely. It didn’t show much, because on some level I knew it was foolish, but I carried a lot of internalized guilt and unhappiness, and the voices in my head told me to erase any traces of perceived inadequacy, which included blindness.
The way I saw it, disability was nothing but a stumbling block. If I was sighted, my life would be ever so much more fulfilling. (I’ve grown a whole lot in the last five years. It’s really rather astonishing.) I fervently believed that disability stood in the way of everything I lacked: a job, a boyfriend, general acceptance, and the right to be “normal.” Blindness certainly interfered with these goals, but assigning sole blame to my broken eyes was far more disabling than acknowledging there might be other factors at play.
When I was introduced to other disabled people who were content with themselves, the problem worsened. I was resistant at first. Why is everyone yelling about disability? Shouldn’t we be stressing how normal we are? Why aren’t we working harder to blend in?
My refusal to be identified with my disability began to permeate my writing, my self-image, even my relationships. I resented it when I needed help, and avoided writing about disability, even when encouraged to do so. I went on and on about how I wasn’t “like other blind people.” No no, I was much more committed to assimilation, and far more aware of my place in the sighted world. All these people placing disability at the forefront of their lives had it all wrong. The key to a better life for us all is to be more like able people! Why don’t they realize this? Why?!
I eventually had to come face to face with an uncomfortable truth: disability is not the only or most important part of my identity, but it matters, and it deserves to be acknowledged. Further, I was forced to admit that pretending my disability didn’t exist, and only referring to it in a self-deprecating, apologetic way wasn’t helping anyone, least of all fellow disabled people. The path to equality did not lie in erasure, but in acceptance. How could others accept us if we did not accept ourselves? How could others understand us if we didn’t open up? Why did it feel so wrong to express myself in the context of a disability I live with each day?
Of course, I still feel squirmy when my blindness is brought up in unrelated discussions. I dislike talking about it in job interviews, at the doctor’s office, in cabs, on the bus, on a street corner. I grow weary of proving that I’m more than my blindness, and that my disability doesn’t hamper other forms of self-expression.
On the other hand, I now feel at ease with bristling when someone suggests I put my cane out of sight. I make blind jokes with joyful humour rather than with shame disguised as mirth. Asking for help is still difficult, but I take it in stride rather than cringing with embarrassment. I speak up. I stand up. I don’t hide anymore.
No, blindness will never be the chief focus of my life, even though I consider myself a disability advocate. I’ll always frame my identity in a much more complex way than as “blind girl.” I am a blind girl, yes, but I’m also a writer, and a communications specialist, and a friend, and a lover, and a daughter, and a sister, and a musician, and a bookworm, and, as my Twitter bio reveals, a fierce defender of the Oxford comma.
All this being said, I hope I will never again believe that the best way forward involves concealment and shame and the quest to disappear completely. I’ve found that, in my own life at least, asserting my humanity is best accomplished by embracing my differences rather than shunning them. The world is far more diverse than many would think, and I’m merely a part of that glorious tapestry of diversity. I don’t have to be proud of my disability, or view it as a superpower, or “embrace” it. No one has to do anything in particular; isn’t that the whole point of our advocacy, in the end? Aren’t we all just focused on giving everyone equal choice and license to express themselves however they wish?
So, talk about disability, as often and as loudly as you want (or don’t, that’s okay, too). Write about your disability. Mention anything that seems relevant, even and especially if it makes you different. Never feel ashamed of your cane or service dog or wheelchair, or any other symbol of your disability. Disclose, if you think it’s wise. Don’t blend in unless you really want to. Most of all, never hide. Whether you live in the spotlight or in the most ordinary of circumstances, never hide.

No Sex Please: We’re Disabled

When I was about fifteen or so, I was scrolling through some disability-related books, not paying much attention to most of them. I became very alert, however, when I stumbled across a book (whose title escapes me) about society’s puritanical de-sexualization of wheelchair users. The book also delved into the experiences of other physically disabled populations, exploring the myth that we are not and do not want to be sexual creatures. This was a new idea to me, or so I thought. But, as I continued to read, I realized it wasn’t new at all.

I cast my mind back to a family trip to Mexico when I was about thirteen. This is well past the age when girls generally become convinced that kissing someone would be more fun than icky, and I was experiencing a tame awakening of my own around that time. As my sister and I walked down the sidewalks, with our elaborately braided hair and colourful bathing suits, the eyes of nearly everyone slid over me completely, or opened wide in fascination as they noticed the long white cane—that conspicuous symbol of otherness. These wide-eyed stares came from all genders, and I remember several people running back the way they’d come just so they could get a better look! (My sister and I joked that people should forget about taking pictures with monkeys and take pictures with me, for a fee, naturally.) If you’ve got it … flaunt it, I guess?

Now, if I was as stunning as my sister, it may have made a difference in the way people looked at me, but I’m not convinced of that. People tend not to actually see visibly disabled people, unless they’re gawking, that is. Beyond making us feel like monkeys ourselves, it can also seriously stunt our love lives.

I’ve talked about feeling like I wasn’t a real girl, and how I’m only just discovering that I’m satisfactory the way I am. That does not mean, though, that the rest of society has caught up with me. All throughout grade school, only other blind people showed any interest in me at all, and they could only communicate with me via the internet or telephone. (Most of them were as desperately lonely as I was, so I didn’t put much stock in their judgement.) I’m sure many sighted people didn’t flirt or approach me at all because they simply weren’t interested; that’s not a big deal. You can’t be everyone’s cup of tea. I am quite sure, however, that many boys I grew up with simply didn’t consider me based on my broken eyes, even if they did so unconsciously. There were girls, and then there was Meagan: normal enough to be friends with, but too alien to date.

Once I started talking to other disabled people about this, I discovered that they, too, were often rejected outright because of their disabilities, with people only realizing how attractive disabled people can be once they could get past their discomfort (assuming they ever did). If I put my cane out of sight and manage not to bump into walls, I don’t look blind, and I’m told that people actually look at me differently. Suddenly, I’m a human–a young woman who is potentially attractive to at least one soul out there somewhere. As soon as that cane comes out, though, I’m reduced to an asexual, undesirable creature who is off limits to everyone, romantically speaking anyway.

The worst bit is that some people apparently believe we want it this way! They believe that we wouldn’t want to become romantically involved, or that we don’t like or can’t enjoy sex. I can understand the confusion when it comes to severe cases of paralysis, though people need to do their research and be more open-minded even then, but it baffles me that someone whose body is in fine working order would still be de-sexualized. Even those whose bodies aren’t up to statistical standards of normality should not be ruled out; you’ll just have to get creative. Aside from all this, a disability should never rule someone out as a potential romantic partner right off the bat, based solely on the idea that they’re not datable. Judge them by their personalities, general physical traits, outlooks on life, and all the other attributes you’d evaluate in any able-bodied mate. Preferences are fine, but ignorance is not. We’re not children, and we’re definitely not puritans by design.

Next time you see a pretty girl in a wheelchair, go talk to her. Next time you meet an attractive blind guy, go have a chat. Next time you encounter someone with a disability who appeals to you, assume they’re a viable option until you discover otherwise. Finally, never, ever write them off as disinterested by default. How can you know until you try?