Selective Discrimination: Why Service Dog handlers Should Denounce Mississippi’s Religious Freedom Bill

Service dog users get a lot of grief. They are barred from restaurants, ejected from cabs, rejected by ridesharing services like Uber, and kicked out of public businesses. Each time this happens, (assuming the handler goes public with the news), there is as much scorn as support. Other blind people tend to rally around these victims of discrimination. Newspapers get involved. The businesses or individuals in question are reminded of relevant laws requiring them to allow service dogs anywhere their handlers go, and in the best-case scenario compensation, or at least an apology, is provided. The best-case scenario doesn’t always happen, though, and if you were to take a stroll through a few comment sections pertaining to any of these stories, you’d find shocking bigotry, hatred, and ignorance.

It is unreasonable to support discrimination against service dog handlers. Besides, anyone with experience knows that most service dogs are well-trained and astoundingly well-behaved. I know a guide dog so focused that she can keep calm while someone literally screams with hysterical fear as she walks by. She’s so quiet that I often forget she’s there (when she’s in harness that is—the rest of the time she is an energizer bunny). I know full well how absurd service dog discrimination is, whether it’s based on fear of dogs, a belief that dogs are destructive and untrustworthy, or a religious objection. The law is the law, after all.

Christians everywhere are celebrating the brand new bill passed in Mississippi. This bill essentially removes all discrimination protection from the LGBTQ community. Under this new bill, it is legal to refuse service to any member of the LGBTQ community as long as you have “sincerely-held religious beliefs.” So, A Christian who objects to gay or trans people could bar them from restaurants, eject them from cabs, reject them while working for a ridesharing service, and kick them out of public businesses. Sound familiar?

So, I ask every service dog handler this: why is it reprehensible for a Muslim, whose religious beliefs are probably sincerely-held, to kick you out of their car or refuse entry to their restaurant, but perfectly reasonable for a Christian to do the same to a gay or trans person? What makes a service dog handler worthy of discrimination protection above a gay or trans person? Why are a Muslim’s sincere religious beliefs met with scorn and censure while a Christian’s are met with support? Why is it acceptable for someone to object to the “choice” to be gay (assuming you still follow that line of reasoning) but unacceptable to disapprove of the choice to own a service dog? Except in a very few and very special cases, having a service dog is a choice, not a necessity. And why, oh why, aren’t you speaking out against this bill?

You face a huge volume of scrutiny and criticism just for wanting your dog to accompany you wherever you go. There are projects in the works to secure identification for all dogs, so that you could be badgered for an ID card at every turn. The vitriolic comments on social media should tell you just how precarious your position is.

A bill like this is so easily passed…and next time, it could be targeting you.

Advertisements

You Should Date A Sighted Person, Because…

Anyone with a love life knows full well how much people enjoy meddling in it. Everyone has an opinion about the ideal mate, and by God, they want you to hear about it. These opinions are sometimes sound enough, but they’re still just opinions, and not necessarily reflective of your needs, preferences, and values.

I, like many blind people, have heard all kinds of opinions about how I ought to manage every aspect of my life, down to which mobility aid I should use and how passionately I should desire a cure. When I began dating my previous partner, who happened to be blind, people were quick to loudly and emphatically express the opinion that I should choose a sighted mate, because…

“A sighted person can take better care of you.”

We begin with the pervasive assumption that blind people can’t take care of ourselves. Some simply mean that we struggle more with everyday tasks (which is often true). They point to the driving issue: wouldn’t it be so nice, they suggest, if your partner could drive you everywhere? They could come pick you up when you get lost, or help you shop so you wouldn’t need to bother the customer service people, or find your keys when you drop them, or walk with you so you don’t get hit by cars.
While some of these arguments might have merit, I don’t particularly need taking care of, at least not to the extent to which I’d need a live-in caretaker. Besides this, I don’t think most sighted people would appreciate a mate who selects them in whole or in part because they could act as caregivers. Even if a sighted person got off on that idea, I’m not interested in being someone’s source of validation. No thanks.

“A sighted person makes more money.”

Okay, so there’s no denying that many, many blind people find ourselves chronically unemployed. The job market is more limited and less welcoming. Despite diversity quotas and affirmative action, it’s still difficult for us to land and keep jobs, even when the economy is booming. So, technically, choosing a sighted mate would mean that at least one of us would have an easier time finding gainful employment. But…
Blind people can still work. We still establish and maintain high-paying, fulfilling careers. We attain the same level of education as sighted counterparts, and are still more than capable of making a living independently.
We’re supposedly past the stage where we believe women ought to have a man so they can be supported financially, so my argument is that, if I can live independently as a single, educated woman, then I can live with a blind guy, whether he is or is not rolling in it. Again, who would want a disabled mate who chose them because of their employment prospects? Seems a little shallow, no?

“A sighted person will keep you normal.”

Blind people, like many other disabled populations, are usually perceived to be alien. Sometimes, we are socially awkward, hesitant, and even a little sheltered. Some of us never outgrow common blindisms, like rocking, eye-pressing, or hand-waving. These are techniques we use to self-stimulate as children, and while some of us left these things far behind as we entered the adult world, others have more difficulty eliminating these habits. Beyond these very specific issues though, blind people are about as normal as any others, but sighted people don’t always believe this. They think of us as having our own little tribe, and encourage us to mix with sighted people to dilute the blindy weirdness as much as possible.
So, the logic follows that, if we date sighted people, we’ll be forced to stay as normal as possible to retain our attractiveness. There will be no room for letting things slide, or sinking to a lower standard of behaviour. Blind people, after all, encourage each other to act strangely, and don’t value normal human interaction, right?
All I’ll say to this is, there are a hell of a lot of strange sighted people in this world, and most of my blind friends are as normal as can be. Besides, I’m capable of befriending someone without adopting their exact lifestyle and mannerisms. So, even if I dated the wackiest blind guy alive, I’d probably be the same, normal-ish Meagan. (Hey, why are you laughing? Stop that. I can be normal! Seriously!)

“A sighted person is more of a catch.”

So, so many people are under the impression that I was settling by choosing a blind mate. I chose him because he was attractive and compatible with me; I did not settle for less by dating him. Sighted people are not better mates by default, even if they do have an easier time getting a job and are able to drive me to an unfamiliar place. My current partner, who is closer to being fully sighted than he isn’t, is also attractive and compatible with me. I selected him for the same reasons as my blind ex, and benefit far more from his sweet disposition and kind personality than from the various perks his vision can offer me. My relationship with a blind mate failed for reasons independent of disability, and my current relationship thrives for reasons unrelated to my mate’s sight.


If you liked this post, drop by next week for its companion piece, in which I discuss the reasons we should only date fellow blind people (and why they’re totally ridiculous).

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?

#AbleistScript: Pointless Venting, Or A Sign Of Hope?

For the uninitiated…

If you’ve been hanging out on Twitter lately, you’re likely to come across the #AbelistScript hashtag. The hashtag is meant to gather tweets from all kinds of people, detailing all the ways the able-bodied have said hurtful, offensive, and discriminatory things. It sounds sort of pointless and bitter, doesn’t it? It’s a bit of an outrage fest, no? Well…

The tweets are incredibly disturbing

This hashtag has revealed far more than the typical “Hey, Helen Keller, where’s your dog?” nonsense. It has revealed deeply unsettling stories—stories most of us would rather ignore. Some “ableist” people are innocent, but misguided.

Some people are shockingly presumptuous and uninformed.

Some lack tact and respect, even when dealing with loved ones.

Some, of course, are downright offensive.

Scary, isn’t it?

It’s more than mere outrage fuel

It’s viral, and for good reason: it is a medium through which we can come together and express the things that make our blood boil. It’s an opportunity for us to release some of the tension, helplessness, and frustration many of us have been bottling. Some of us have kept quiet out of courtesy, or the fear of burdening people. Others are afraid to be perceived as whiny or high-maintenance. Still others feel ashamed of their anger. Do they have any right to be upset? Are they being unjust? Is their suffering legitimate? Are they just “easily offended,” “thin-skinned,” or “obsessed with political correctness?” I’ve no doubt that some people are, but there are too many of us to dismiss our feelings entirely.

I’d like to think our suffering really is legitimate. Life can be very lonely, especially if your disability is particularly rare. That feeling of isolated desolation is emotionally crippling.

We are bombarded by unwanted opinions. Stop taking those medications and deal with your problems. Use the power of positive thinking. The only disability is a bad attitude. Suck it up, buttercup; it can always be worse. Be grateful that you have as much as you do. What you have is more than many can enjoy, so keep your chin up.

This is so much more than a hashtag

You may well ask what we could accomplish with all this public, viral venting. Besides the undeniably cathartic benefits, there are more concrete, long-term goals we can achieve if we reach enough able-bodied people. Much of the “ableist script” can be altered or eliminated. We can clear up misconceptions and debunk myths. We can explain why certain ideas are genuinely harmful. We can foster empathy. We can educate. The internet does a lot of harm, but in this case, it’s a remarkably useful tool. Viral attention can be an asset, and I think we need to pounce on this opportunity.

Some are already feeling hopeful, which is a very welcome sign.

We need more than an echo chamber. We must do more than blow off steam. We should strive to advocate for ourselves, but we should not do so at the expense of clarity. We can’t allow our anger to distort our messages or alienate the very people we are trying to persuade. We are capable of intersectional solidarity, and we can put it to good use. Don’t dismiss this purely because it’s a hashtag. In this case at least, it has enormous potential. We mustn’t waste it.

5 Reasons Hogwarts Would Be A Terrible Idea (If you’re Blind)

Ah, Hogwarts. Harry potter fans worldwide would secretly love to receive an acceptance letter—and that includes grownups. A Hogwarts education would make my communications degree seem pretty dry in comparison. Who needs PR skills when you can modify someone’s memory after the latest publicity scandal? Who needs powers of persuasion when you can slip someone a love potion? (I’m known for my ethics. Ask anyone.)

Since we enjoy overthinking, Gregg and I put together a post that explores what it would be like to be a blind student at Hogwarts as we know it. As with most areas of life, blind people have to face the music: Hogwarts, as described in Rowling’s books, anyway, would be a nightmare. We’d soon be begging to go home to screen readers and staircases that don’t lead somewhere different every day. Speaking of which …

1. Accessibility would be a distant dream.

These days, blind people in developed countries take certain things for granted much of the time. In Hogwarts, though, most of those coping mechanisms would be quite out of reach, owing to the school’s negative effect on electricity and technology in general. Computers, the internet, cell phones, embossers and scanners would all be useless at Hogwarts, forcing blind students and their professors to find inventive ways around these limitations. We would likely be limited to braille, and would need an educational assistant who could transcribe our work and assignments for us. While sighted students could take a trip to the library in order to do research, we would have to get a considerable amount of help to find not only the books we wanted, but the materials within them.
(Can you imagine asking Madam Pinse to help you search through an entire shelf of books? I wouldn’t dare, personally.)

Classes themselves might also be tricky. Potions and Transfiguration often rely on colour as an indicator when a spell or potion has been done right. (Good luck asking Snape to help you with anything ever. Unless your last name is Malfoy, forget it.)
Divination relies very heavily on sight, since most of it seems to involve studying tea leaves and crystal balls. Astronomy might be a little easier, but stargazing without working eyes is out of the question. At higher levels, nonverbal spells which give some sort of visual signal when cast would be much harder to dodge if you weren’t able to see them coming. Courses like Ancient Runes and Arithmancy might present unique challenges, since braille signs would have to be invented for specific symbols. Overall, being a blind witch or wizard would pose significant accessibility problems which, without proper preparation, would certainly make the lives of students and staff much more complicated.
(Uh, Professor? Where is my accommodation letter?)

2. Life would be a game of dodgeball

Hogwarts offers many forms of potential misery for a blind student. Objects always seem to be dropping or flying through the air, and not all of them are as soft as a copy of the Daily Prophet. Charms class is notorious for this, as students are often asked to transport objects from one point to another. The high number of inexperienced witches and wizards around us increases the already high chance of being hit by errant and unintended projectiles. And then there are the owls. Imagine sitting peacefully at breakfast, toast in hand, only to hear a thundering mass of birds descending from on high, most of them bearing objects that they are all too willing to bomb you with as they get close. Speaking for myself, this is not my idea of a good start to the day.
(Oh, look! There’s an owl in my milk jug again!”)

Take orientation and mobility, for instance. Can you imagine how difficult it would be to try and map routes to your classes when hallways and staircases aren’t always in the same place? And speaking of staircases, how about vanishing steps? Every ascent or descent would be an exercise in both patience and luck, as we hoped and prayed that we didn’t find ourselves trapped when a solid stair suddenly disappeared beneath one foot. Many of these trials might be alleviated by helpful students and professors, of course…but what of the portraits? The halls of Hogwarts are full of paintings all too willing to lend their voices to the chaos, and it would be easy to end up in even worse trouble by following one well-meant bit of advice or another.
(Um, thanks, Sir Cadogan…but I think I’ll just follow my heart.)

3. Get ready for the practical jokes.

We all know how much students enjoy messing with each other via hexes, jinxes, and bewitched sweets that make you turn into a canary. Imagine making yourself even more of a target simply by revealing that you’re blind. The slytherins would have a field day and, let’s be honest, Fred and George might, too. We’d like to think the twins have a sense of morality, but who really knows?

We can’t see spells coming or react to them very quickly. Even if we are expecting them, we’d have to remain in a state of constant vigilance (see what I did there?) at all times. School is stressful enough without having to hide in the common room under a pile of books we can’t even read. Madam Pomfrey would get to know us in a real hurry.

Who says all the interference would come from students? We wouldn’t put it past Snape to slip something in our drinks if he suspected we’d been stealing his bezoars again. At Hogwarts, nothing is sacred.

4. Say hello to mass marginalization.

Blind people are marginalized enough in our own world, and we don’t imagine the wizarding world would be any kinder to us. Forget (mostly) harmless practical jokes: we might be facing total exclusion from significant portions of Hogwarts culture. Picture it: the Great Hall is buzzing with excitement. A quidditch match—the most important of the season—is about to begin. We go outside to the pitch, and try to follow the game using the patchy commentary Rowling’s characters tend to provide. We’d have access to tiny snatches of what’s actually happening, but pick up most of our cues from crowd reaction. This is not unlike other sports, but with other sports you have professional commentators. Oh yeah, and forget actually playing quiditch. Even if we could devise a way to play, I don’t think anyone would be willing to let us try.
(Oh, well, we would…but the paperwork, you know…)

I can’t even guarantee that Dumbledore would step in. He’s not exactly known for being on the ball. He’s a great man, we know, we know…but pensive and constantly-absorbed would be putting it mildly.

Then, there’s the darker side of the coin. The wizarding world is as filled with bigotry and hatred as our own, and since the community is so insular, it’s even worse. We already know how shabbily “half breeds” are treated; even gorgeous, powerful centaurs aren’t immune to ministry prejudice and control. Imagine, then, how blind people might be treated? At best, we’ll be “taken care of”, and at worst, we’ll be the recipients of unspeakable hatred. I don’t think Voldemort and his band of merry Death Eaters would object to polishing us off for the fun of it.
(Where am I? Where am I? C’mon, guess! How many fingers am I holding up? Crucio!)
This brings us to our next point…

5. We would always be a liability.

Time and time again, we’re told how, in the heat of battle, it is difficult to dodge all the deadly curses flying about. As we’ve already mentioned, being endangered by flying things would be one of the most significant issues exacerbated by blindness. As Rowling has already shown us, Hogwarts is not a perfect stronghold. During the multiple battles that have taken place there, we would not have stood a chance. Even if we were capable of avoiding stray spells long enough to duel with someone, I doubt many wizards would allow things to get that far. Dumbledore would hide us behind reanimated statues, and the rest would banish us to dark corners where we won’t be hurt. Of course, what this translates to is “You can’t hold your own, and you’re a liability. I don’t want to have to worry about you while I’m fighting the good fight.”

The general assumption that blind people can’t defend ourselves is completely bogus, though there are some undeniable disadvantages that make us prime targets. However, all the self-defence skills in the world won’t save you from a ricocheting killing curse.
(On your left! Your left! Sorry—my le–Oops…)

It’s pretty depressing to be “in the way” all the time, and that would only get worse at Hogwarts, where people are in a lot more peril than any “normal” kid would ever be.

But wait—it’s not all bad!

With all the things that might go badly for a blind Hogwarts student, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention a few potential perks. Whether or not they act as suitable compensation for all the headache, though, is up for debate.

You might be immune to the basilisk’s stare. I say “might” because we frankly don’t know enough about how exactly that petrification spell works. And nothing stops the beast from biting you just because you can’t see it, so this is a mixed blessing.

Invisibility cloaks aren’t quite what they’re cracked up to be. In the novels, when Harry and friends don the cloak, it’s as if they disappear completely. People rarely hear, smell or sense them as they pass. Being blind means that we’re likely to be more aware of what our other senses are telling us; as such, it would be harder to slip past us while wearing an invisibility cloak.

The Mirror of Erised would be powerless against us. This device is supposed to show you your greatest desire when you look into it, but without the ability to see, the mirror would be nothing more than a sheet of glass in a peculiar frame.

So, friends all, don’t despair if you don’t receive your Hogwarts letter. You can probably put your time to better use anyway. For example, you could go out into the community and be a general inspiration! Wouldn’t that be nice? Who needs witchcraft and wizardry, anyway? Not us!

No, I Don’t See With My Heart

I’ve come across a persistent myth concerning blind people and their near-angelic status. The sighted world is so shallow. The sighted world is so intolerant of diversity. The sighted world is so afraid of difference; so obsessed with outward appearance; so incapable of appreciating the “inside”. Blind people, on the other hand, “see” with our hearts. We possess heightened compassion and tolerance. Further, because we don’t have access to vision, we could not possibly criticize others for being shallow. After all, what do we know? We have never seen. How can we condemn what we don’t understand?

This perspective is so persuasive that at least one study has been conducted to find out whether blind people are capable of being, say, racist, reasoning that our inability to see colour must make us immune to racial prejudice. Yes, of course we are capable of prejudice. This is not news, or at least it shouldn’t be.

Think about it: race is so much more than pigmentation. It’s a socially constructed system in which we choose to group people into racial categories, then attach specific traits to those groups. This is how society decides that “Mexicans are lazy” and “black people are thugs” and “white people are respectable”. These labels transcend colour. People are not offended by or prejudicial towards a black person because they don’t like their skin. Racism is so embedded in our culture that nobody, not even a blind person, could escape it. I suppose you could argue that we may not judge as readily if we don’t yet know a stranger’s race, but all I have to do is hear a particular accent to commence judging immediately. I try not to, of course, but even I know it’s a mistake to pretend I don’t.

It is also somewhat unreasonable to assume there are few, if any, blind people who are shallower than cookie sheets. So much of society is busy branding the underweight as skeletal; the overweight as lazy; the attractive, desirable; the unattractive, undesirable. Blind people must be incapable of and therefore unable to appreciate or reject someone for their outward appearance, right? Nuh uh.

The thing is, fat (or lack of it) is not a purely visual concept. All it takes is a hug for me to know a fair bit about what you look like. I could take a guess at your weight, and judge the clothing you are wearing (to a certain extent anyway) and assess the attractiveness or unattractiveness of your general shape. Don’t be fooled into thinking blind people don’t fat shame. We understand what fat is, and we are almost as susceptible to instinctive judgements as anyone else. I recall reading a story about Tommy Sullivan, a blind pianist, who pretended to drop something so he could scrabble around on the floor for it. He very conveniently managed to grab the nearest woman’s leg in the process. I believe it was Ray Charles who, upon gripping a woman’s arm, allegedly grimaced with disgust when he realized how plump she was. Anecdotes like these, whether true or false, suggest that blind people can be just as shallow as the average sighted person. If a blind person tries to claim they are above reproach and incapable of shallow discrimination, please do set them straight.

Consider voices: no two voices are identical (mostly because accents and various linguistic quirks make them more distinct) and while most of them are neutral to me, I find some very attractive and some…well, not. Try as I might, I can’t escape the tendency to judge based on vocal qualities. A grating voice might put me off. If a person uses an excess of vocal fry, says “like” a little too often, or has an otherwise unusual or irritating voice, I’m going to have a harder time interacting with them until I get to know them a bit better. It’s equally easy to be drawn to a lovely voice, as well. Some people become distracted when they see a gorgeous person. If you have a gorgeous voice, I’m going to get distracted, too. (If I ever meet Morgan Freeman, I’ll be in trouble.) It’s a perfectly natural aspect of human life and, while sighted people focus less on this because their vision is more demanding, blind people are especially vulnerable to this bias.

Scent and touch matter, too: perfume and cashmere aren’t marketed exclusively to blind people, after all. I think sighted people frequently underestimate qualities outside of visual beauty. There are probably a lot of traits you find attractive in others, but you’re not conscious of them because you’re busy appreciating what they look like. If you concentrate, you might discover a few new attributes.

Then, we come to the idea of automatic compassion: it’s true that, in my personal case, blindness has allowed me to step outside myself and consider the difficulties of others. This sensitivity may just be a component of my personality, and not a direct result of my blindness, though. I certainly think it helps–empathy goes a long way–but after years of interacting with the rest of the community, I know just how intolerant, bigoted, and “shortsighted” we can be. I’ve scrolled through numerous discussion forums, watching scores of blind people displaying alarming amounts of homophobia, racism, sexism, and even ableism towards other disabilities. Hell, I’ve even seen them turn on each other, accusing people of handling their blindness badly, or giving us a bad name, or simply doing life wrong. Where is all this inherent compassion we’re supposed to be born with? Where is this innate avoidance of judgment? I’ve witnessed just as much judgment and intolerance in the blind community as anywhere else, maybe more.

Sure, there are many of us who try to see past the surface, understand multiple perspectives, and acknowledge that since we have never known sight, there may be a lot of things we’re missing altogether. But to tell me I don’t “get it” because I’ve never seen someone? To tell me I will never understand fat shaming or racism or ableism because I can’t see? To tell me I can’t criticize it because I don’t know what it’s like? That’s a very dangerous (and condescending) viewpoint. This assumes that being unable to see makes me into an angel of compassion. I’m nice enough (I hope), but not angelic. So please: don’t deceive yourself by imagining that we are too busy seeing with our charitable little hearts to find fault. Our humanity is neither diminished nor enhanced by disability, remember that.

Don’t Be Fooled: Love Hasn’t Won…Yet

On June 26, 2015, the US Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples now have the right to marry in all US states. Many took to Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks to celebrate that the US had finally achieved marriage equality. Not everyone was ready to celebrate just yet, though. Alicia, who is blind, is intimately acquainted with the marriage inequality plaguing less visible minorities in the United States. While everyone is rejoicing that love has won, Alicia finds herself unable to keep quiet. While she and her fiancé (also blind) do not receive the hatred and scorn that same-sex couples do, they still suffer discrimination which, while much quieter, is just as meaningful. According to Alicia, we have a long way to go before #LoveWins. This is her story, so I’ll let her tell it.


When Meagan asked me to guest-post on her blog, I was honored. This issue is near and dear to my heart, but I hope to write out my thoughts without turning this post into a rant.
While my friends on social media were celebrating, I found myself furious. Marriage equality is not yet a reality. I know this because I cannot marry the man I love … and I don’t foresee a day when that will change.
The United States has marriage penalty laws that will affect anyone who is receiving government benefits. These include SSI (Supplemental Security Income), SSDAC (Social Security Disabled Adult Child), and, perhaps most importantly, Medicaid. These programs are income-based and, once a couple marries, that income is considered “joint”. Therefore, if you and/or your partner are receiving any of these benefits, marriage may put you over the ridiculously low income limit. This assumes that married couples have a higher joint income than they would if they were single but, as is the case with many disabled couples, this is far from guaranteed. Even with joint income, most of these couples are still unable to cover needs such as shelter, food, and medical care (especially the latter) without assistance. Given that a very high percentage of people living with disabilities is unable to work, these penalty laws prevent many disabled couples from getting married, despite their commitment to and desire for marriage. Social Security is sneaky about this. Program criteria states that if a couple is “holding out to the community as married”, that couple can be considered married for Social Security purposes, and lose their benefits. Unsuspecting couples–who accidentally find themselves within Social Security’s criteria for “holding out”—could lose their benefits, leaving them with very little recourse, if any.
My fiancé (Mark) and I both receive Social Security benefits and health coverage through Medicaid. If we were legally married, our cash benefits would be cut dramatically if not entirely, and we would both certainly lose our medical coverage. I have several physical health issues that would make my situation precarious. Even worse, my partner has cancer requiring aggressive expensive treatment. There is no way we could afford this if he lost his medical coverage, which forces us to choose between marriage and his cancer treatments.
I hasten to point out that these laws do not only affect people with disabilities. They unfairly penalize the elderly (often low-income) who are only able to cover their increasing health needs with programs like Medicaid. A friend told me a story about her Grandmother, who had lost her first husband. A year later, this elderly woman met a man she wished to marry. Marriage wasn’t an option, however, because they would both have lost their medical and Social Security Benefits. The choice: stay unmarried, or forfeit the funds that would cover essential medical and living expenses. The solution, whether for a young disabled couple, or an elderly couple with no disability at all, is to cohabitate, and make it abundantly clear to everyone that they are either roommates living together for economic reasons, or nothing more than boyfriend and girlfriend. I, like many others, cringe at having to refer to someone I love more than my own life with the same term a high school couple dating for a week would use for one another, but it is what we must do to secure our living and medical expenses.
When I first started discussing this issue on social media several months ago, I was surprised by the reactions I got, particularly from those within the disabled community. Many asked me why I was so upset: after all, Mark and I were married in our own hearts. Why did we need a silly little piece of paper? Weren’t our own feelings toward each other good enough? The answer is no. The even more infuriating thing is that many of the people giving us these platitudes were the same ones that were telling LGBT couples to keep fighting the good fight, and not give up until they were granted equal rights. No one told these couples that “it’s just a piece of paper.” So, why does this attitude change for couples like Mark and Me?
In the early days of the fight for gay marriage, the concept of Civil Unions was created, which gave same-sex couples the right to be at a partner’s bedside, privy to their medical information, and other rights of marriage without making it legal. For the most part, the LGBT community refused to accept this. For many that I talked with about this issue, it was the system’s attempt to placate them: “we’ll give you half of what you want, but not your heart’s deep desire.” Given that, even when civil unions were offered, same-sex couples continued fighting for the fundamental right that is legal marriage, and were encouraged to do so. Yet there is not even an option for civil unions for those receiving benefits like SSI, sSDAC, and Medicaid. In fact, we can lose these benefits by simply appearing to be married—no piece of paper necessary. Not only do we not get our heart’s desire, but we must go to the other extreme and make sure we don’t join our lives in any way beyond that of roommates.
People (some of them disabled), have come up with another argument concerning why they think I am wrong about this country still not having marriage equality for all. Their take is that prior to the Supreme Court ruling, a same sex couple simply could not get married, no matter how much they wanted to. It was just not an option. They argue that couples such as Mark and I could go down to the courthouse today, apply for a marriage license, and get married by a Justice of the Peace in record time. These people claim I have no argument, because Mark and I are simply choosing not to marry, rather than being unable to. on the surface that logic would make sense. But what happens to us after that marriage ceremony in the courthouse? Do we go off on a honeymoon and begin our lives as happily married people? No. Letters would begin arriving in the mail, announcing that the Social Security benefits which provide for our basic necessities for daily living have been reduced or cut off altogether. Next we get letters that announce that coverage for Mark’s life-saving cancer treatment has been taken away. What do we do then? We are not the only ones in this situation, and many people who wish to marry face disabilities and health difficulties even more severe than ours. Marriage or cancer treatments…not a real choice. For Couples where one or both partners is even more seriously disabled, this is not a choice, either. Marriage, or life-sustaining medical equipment, skilled in-home care, medical procedures….not a real choice. Marriage or food on your table, shelter over your head…this does not sound like a real choice to me.
My friend Amy likened this issue to the poll tax laws that many states had from the late 1800’s all the way up to 1966. Strictly speaking, blacks, whites, women, and Native Americans all had the right to vote….so long as they paid the required poll tax, and (in some states), passed a required literacy exam that showed they were educated. The makers of these laws knew full well that on the surface they would look like progress. Proponents of the poll taxes and literacy tests claimed the laws were perfectly equitable: after all, everyone did have the right to vote, and everyone wishing to exercise their right was required to pay these taxes, regardless of race or gender. What the lawmakers would not publicly admit was that there were groups who would be disproportionately unable to pay, such as African-Americans, Native Americans, women, and even impoverished white people. The sums of money those states required are literally pocket change to us in 2015, but they were exorbitant amounts of money at that time.
The reality was that the poll taxes and literacy tests were quiet ways to ensure that only select groups would be unable to vote. It could have been said to anyone at that time, “Oh you could go vote, you’re just choosing not to.” Technically, this would have been correct. Yes, a person in a minority group could have gone to their local courthouse and cast their ballot, but were faced with a choice that was not really a choice: use the money they often earned with back-breaking labor to exercise their right to vote, or feed and shelter themselves and their families.
Fast forward to modern day and the Federal marriage penalty laws. There are no laws on the books that explicitly state that people with disabilities or those who are elderly cannot marry. There are no rules that explicitly state that those receiving Social Security and/or Medicaid benefits are not allowed to get married. There would probably be a public backlash if the laws were this blatant. Like the historical poll tax, it is a very insidious form of discrimination that most people are unaware of. Many advocates who are aware view it as a quiet form of ableism and ageism.
They theorize that lawmakers are aware that people receiving benefits from these programs largely fall into the disabled or elderly categories. In the minds of many young and/or able-bodied people, these groups should not be allowed to marry anyway. The theory is that Federal laws penalizing recipients of these programs for marrying are just an easy way to ensure that this does not happen, while not being outwardly discriminatory. While I have yet to make up my mind whether I entirely agree with this, it would not surprise me to find it was the case. Therefore, it baffles and angers me that people continue to claim the US has achieved marriage equality for all, just as it would baffle and anger me if someone claimed the poll tax set-up was voting equality for all.
When Mark and I mention our plight to friends, family, medical professionals, etc. Our pain is minimized, more often than not. We get statements like, “Oh, you don’t really need marriage, you know how you feel about each other.” “It’s a silly paper that doesn’t mean much.” Really? I beg to differ. The gay rights movement didn’t see it this way, and though their fight was long, drawn-out, and in many cases painful, they eventually achieved enough lobbying power to get the laws changed. I can’t help but wonder: where is our lobbying power? Where are the groups that will rise up, go to our Congress people, and try to create awareness and change for the millions of couples who are disabled or elderly? Where are the Hollywood celebrities? The musicians with world-wide fame? The high-profile athletes? Where are all the people who helped fight for same-sex marriage? What no one has appeared to consider is that the Supreme Court decision now bring same-sex couples who receive these benefits under the same discriminatory rules. While awareness of this issue is growing, I’m not sure that the disabled and the elderly communities have enough numbers to push such change forward. Collective action is often most effective, but groups/organizations who recognize this problem and its seriousness are few and far between. Those that do exist are often very small groups without the ability to attract the high-profile audience that is needed to get the attention of those in power.
I’ve known of these laws for years, and they have always disgusted me. Unfortunately I never thought to help advocate for change, because I never envisioned meeting anyone I would want to marry. Now I have, so these laws have become very personal. I wish now that I had fought to advocate for change before this issue became so personal to me, but like so many of us, I failed to act until an issue touched my life directly. However, now that it has, I will continue to work to create an awareness of this discrimination, and do whatever is in my power to see the laws changed. I hope this post will be a step in that direction.