“Wait…You Work Here?”

About a month ago, I was charged with covering reception at my workplace. We were severely short-staffed that day, but in small non-profits, everyone pitches in. Our clients are used to seeing unfamiliar staff members covering the desk, and it’s common enough that it never raises eyebrows. When I sat behind the desk, however, everything changed.
Instead of asking me questions about how to send a fax or print in colour, clients asked, often openly and a little confusedly, “Do you…work here?” Many of them avoided the reception desk altogether, knowingly violating protocol and striding past the desk without so much as a by-your-leave. They’d quiz other coworkers milling about in the reception area, even when those coworkers encouraged clients to speak to me directly. At times when I managed to engage with them and ask them what they needed, they expressed a preference for the intern who had been with us less than a month and knew maybe a tenth of what I did about how things are done. Although the intern was nervous and visibly uncomfortable, clients chose to wait and interact with her rather than dealing with a long-term staff member who had a visible disability. After only one short hour in reception, I realized that having worked at this non-profit for almost a year, sitting confidently behind the desk, asking people directly if I could assist them, and being dressed as professionally as anyone else working there—none of it mattered. People just assumed I was either incompetent or not an employee at all. (I don’t know whether they believe my workplace routinely allows non-employees to sit behind the desk for fun. I didn’t ask.)
In a move that was a little twisted even by the cruel universe’s usual standards, I was stopped in my apartment building a few days later by a fellow tenant I’d never spoken to before. I was clearly in a rush, walking briskly, and doing my best to ensure I wouldn’t miss my ride to work. Ignoring every signal I was blasting frantically to the world at large, this inquisitive woman started to pepper me with questions.
“Hi. Where are you going today? I see you leave here most days. Always wondered where you go.”
“I’m heading to work.”
“You work?!”
“Yes, yes I do.”
“Like, every day?”
“Five days a week.”
“Where?”
“At a small non-profit.”
“Oh! Which one?”
The interrogation probably would have continued, but I was able to extricate myself by pleading lateness and managed to escape before snapping at her with much more irritation than she’d have deserved. It’s not a crime to ask questions, and I’m not one of those who will eviscerate someone for daring to try it, but having strangers ask you where you go every day and the exact location of your workplace seems a little dodgy, disability or no.
As with almost every other disappointing situation I’ve experienced because of disability, I soon realized I was far from alone. While discussing the matter with others, I heard several accounts of blind people being mistaken for non-employees who had strayed into forbidden areas, or who were merely assumed incapable on sight. Sighted people are used to seeing us sitting at a piano or acting in feel-good, promotional videos, but a blind person sitting at a desk or standing behind a counter seems to be a bit more of a leap for them. Fellow blogger Blindbeader has been stopped twice now at her new workplace, where she was warned by strangers that she was going the wrong way and was trying to enter a secure area. Only when she flashed her security badge and explained she was an employee did the people in question re-evaluate their assumptions. Apparently, even a professionally-dressed, confident-looking blind person looks lost and out of place in a work environment, at least to some people out there.
This type of unconscious discrimination can have more serious consequences than mild annoyance and inconvenience. While working as an intake assistant at CNIB, I conducted most of my consultations with clients by phone, so they readily listened to and respected my advice without question. When they’d walk into my office and meet me for the first time, though, some of them, even people who were going blind themselves, would do an astonished double-take, hard pressed to believe the helpful, knowledgeable woman they’d spoken to on the phone was blind. My partner, who has a moderate eye condition that is sometimes visible, was frequently discriminated against at work in retail and food service fields, despite his capabilities. While working for a fast food restaurant, coworkers were quick to blame any mistakes on “the blind guy,” and management was a little too quick to believe them. When he worked at a computer repair shop, customers would request to work with a different technician, or complain about him to his coworkers, because they thought it glaringly inappropriate for a person with even mild vision issues to be employed there. Their complaints are perplexing to me, since his vision issues are minor enough that he doesn’t usually use accessible devices and never uses mobility aids. He’ll never drive, it’s true, but he can certainly repair your computer and even read your screen without help. To this day, reliving these experiences makes him uncomfortable and anxious, and it’s easy enough to understand why. Hard as we work to convince interviewers and supervisors we deserve to work alongside everyone else, we still have to face the hurdles put in place by public and peer perceptions.
I didn’t realize how prevalent this casual discrimination actually was until I entered the workforce at age eighteen. At one point, while trying to comfort a distraught mother whose teenage daughter had just gone blind, I found myself explaining to her that, no, her daughter’s life was not irrevocably ruined. Yes, she’d be able to go to school, and have a career, and be successful. In a moment of weakness for which I don’t blame her one bit, she burst out: “How would you know? You’re just saying that!”
“Actually, Ma’am,” I said as gently as I could, “I’m blind, too. I’m getting a degree, and I have good career prospects. Many of my blind friends are very successful in their fields. It’ll be hard, no question, but your daughter’s going to be okay.”
So, if there are those out there who honestly believe blind people are destined for lives spent at home being cared for by our unfortunate families, and cannot aspire to anything higher, it makes sense that they’d react oddly when confronted with blind professionals. All manner of superficial attributes make people seem more or less trustworthy and credible, right down to appearance and voice. Why, then, should it be shocking that a visible disability would, however unjustly, decrease a person’s credibility in a stranger’s eyes? It’s not fair, and it needs to be combatted, but it does make a kind of sense. At least, it’s no less illogical than thinking tall, deep-voiced people are more credible than short, higher-voiced people with the same qualifications and credentials. The world is a vastly illogical place.
My solution to this issue mirrors the one I default to in so many other cases: education, education, education. The more blind professionals are seen out in the world, the more accustomed to us society will become. People’s minds do change, and I know a few who, since having met me, have altered their perspectives on a great many things. No more would they stop a blind person in a hallway and automatically presume they don’t belong there. No longer would they avoid seeking help from one of us if they found us behind an information desk, or repairing their computers in a shop, or cooking their food in a restaurant.
As usual, the way is long, and slow, and sometimes painful—but it is, I think, the only way we have.

Paratransit Is Bad (But Your Judgment Is Worse)

If you want to get a group of blind people to sneer derisively or rant passionately, simply mentioning the word “paratransit” will often do the trick. Paratransit, for those fortunate enough to be uninitiated, is the general term often used to describe specialized accessible transportation. Many cities offer this service, under several different names, to ensure that people who cannot take public transit can still travel. There is a very wide range of people who use these services, so they can be quite complicated to administer. Coordinating schedules is complex, particularly when life’s everyday interruptions throw a wrench into carefully-planned runs. As you can imagine, this creates an awful lot of frustration for just about everyone.
When I first signed up for paratransit, it was out of dire necessity. I was living off-campus for the first time, (I grew up in an area so rural I did not properly understand basic intersections until I was seventeen), and I needed a reliable way to commute each day. Due to less-than-ideal circumstances, I found myself living in a part of my city that was nearly impossible to navigate without sight. It certainly wasn’t pedestrian-friendly, transit was sporadic, and my options were severely limited without the ability to drive. At my roommate’s urging, I agreed to investigate paratransit.
Paratransit, I soon discovered, had its serious downsides. Drivers had a generous half-hour window for pickup, so I never quite knew when I would arrive anywhere. I had to arrange to be extremely early for everything, because I couldn’t predict how long the trip would be ahead of time. The same commute could take ten minutes one day and an hour the next, depending on the whims of the dispatchers. Scheduling was tricky and the rules were quite strict, such that abrupt schedule changes could rarely be accommodated. Even now, when I’ve been using the service for almost a year, I become anxious each time someone sends me a last-minute invitation to dinner, or I wake up feeling a migraine approaching. Since there are thousands of people using the system, my personal ups and downs aren’t met with much sympathy.
Worse still is the attitude of so many working for paratransit. While I only have firsthand experience with my own city’s system, the stories I hear are all variations on the same sad theme: disabled people’s time is neither valued nor respected. Paratransit is treated like a charitable service for which we should be quietly and reverently grateful, even though many of us pay well for it. So many seem surprised that getting to work on time is of importance to us (or that we work at all). Some appear to believe that disabled people only ever go out to attend medical appointments. Still others, mostly in administrative roles, are unmoved by the idea that, no, I can’t cancel my trips 24 hours before a migraine strikes. I don’t have that much warning. I’m human, and therefor subject to the unpredictability of my body. Disabled people are often plagued by medical issues, so the inflexibility of many paratransit services, where last-minute cancellations are penalized, suggests a startling lack of familiarity with and understanding of the very population they’re trying to serve. I am, therefore, disappointed to say that paratransit systems, in my city and elsewhere, are in need of major changes if they’re to be a viable option for disabled people with full, active lives.
Above all else, though, what make using paratransit hardest are the criticism, judgment, and snide comments of fellow blind people. Many who have had to depend on paratransit in the past speak of their transition to ride-sharing services (which not everyone can afford) or public transportation (which is not always an option) with a kind of triumphant contempt. They describe paratransit in terms so dismissive I wonder if they actually remember what it was like or if they simply had unusually terrible experiences with it. Blind people in my own city, some of whom have never even tried it, have such condescending attitudes toward it and toward people who use it that I felt as though even admitting that I use it would mark me somehow. Paratransit, I learned, was for desperate, dependent souls who are either too lazy or too incompetent to use “real” transportation. Further, some of these people actively discourage others from using the service, supplying hyperbolic horror stories that are sometimes third-hand. As I was following the long and drawn-out procedure to sign up, I was warned, again and again, of how huge a mistake I was making—so huge, in fact, that a three-hour daily commute on public transportation was supposedly preferable.
I’m pretty quiet about my use of paratransit services, but when a new acquaintance posted about her own struggles on Facebook, I paid attention to the comments she received. Many, like mine, were understanding and supportive: yes, it’s terrible, but it’s okay that you still choose to use it despite its flaws. A few, though, had a much different tone—the tone of contempt I mentioned earlier. Apparently motivated by their own misfortunes, these people seemed intent on judging anyone who uses the service by choice, as though any self-respecting blind person would get out there and learn how to use the damn buses already. After seeing this one too many times, I felt compelled to speak up at long last.
When a disabled person complains about paratransit, empathize with them. Give them advice if you have any that is relevant to them, and focus on being kind. Hold your judgment and—yes, I’m going to use the P-word, which I rarely do, so listen—check your privilege. It is a privilege to use something other than paratransit. It is a privilege to have the mobility skills and confidence to use public transportation. It is a privilege to live in an accessible location. It is an even bigger privilege to have the means to use ride-sharing services, which are financially out of reach for a lot of people.
I beseech you: next time you find yourself judging people who use paratransit, or cajoling someone into dropping it, stop and think about whether these comments will be productive or respectful. Does the person you’re talking to have personal reasons for using the service? Do they have other disabilities that have an impact on their travel needs? Do they have the skills and confidence to use public transport? Do they have the money to use ride-sharing services and cabs? Are they, like me, plagued by anxiety and a severe lack of outdoor orientation and mobility skills for various reasons? Is it, perhaps, none of your concern?
For me, and for all the people I know who willingly use paratransit and feel it is the best current option for us, do us a favour. Let us complain. Pat us on the shoulder and make comforting noises. Be there for us if we decide to switch transportation method. Do not, however, tell us yet another horror or conversion story. We’re frustrated enough as it is—after all, our ride is late again!

The Myth Of Ambassadorship

After about ten years of interacting with the “blind community”, I’ve discovered that, like most other minority groups, people expect us to represent each other. You know what I’m talking about—“Excuse me, but what do blind people think of…how do blind people manage…what is the blind community’s opinion on…” and so on—and I’ve found that this leads to a disturbing conclusion: people think we’re all the same. We’re always lumping marginalized groups into categories; “women do X” and “black kids do Y” and “deaf people think Z”. So, yes, there are certainly some areas of commonality within these groups. I don’t deny that. The danger is when we (and I’m not exempt here, not by a long shot) expect one member of a group to represent everyone in that group. No woman alive is able to speak authoritatively about “all women”, and no blind person alive is able to speak authoritatively on “all blind people”.

 

This has led to ideas like “you need to be an ambassador for the blind”; in other words, you need to be the best blind person you can be at all times, in all circumstances, so that people will get the right idea about blind people in general. This means that I, personally, am responsible for people’s opinions on every blind person out there. That, my friends, is a mighty tall order—especially when you consider that no one can agree on what a “good blind person” might be. That said, Chris Swank has taken a satirical crack at it here.

 

You might be thinking. “So, uh, why should I care?”

The reason you should care is the reason I’m writing this blog: people need to understand that blindness, while being common, is a different experience for all who deal with it. No two blind people will have the exact same coping skills, or management techniques, or observations. Certainly the blind friends I have gotten to know over the years can identify with me on many levels, but not one of them is exactly like me. Not one of them has experienced every single thing I have. Not one of them has the authority to speak for me, and I have no more authority to speak for them. If I’m a clumsy cane traveler, this does not mean every blind person is a clumsy cane traveler. If I can’t cook to save my life, this does not mean no blind person can cook. (In fact, I know quite a few who are brilliant at it. I’m looking at you, CrazyMusician.) If I’m a little rude to someone one morning because they’re offering help I don’t want, or asking intrusive questions, or otherwise getting on my nerves, I might be perceived as ungrateful; this does not mean, however, that all blind people are ungrateful and rude.

 

This can be a problem for sighted and blind alike; sighted people expect us to be able to answer questions on behalf of all blind people, and the blind expect other blind people to represent them fairly. I am no exception: while reading this fascinating article about a blind mother’s struggles to adapt to her failing vision, my first reaction was irritation, because she didn’t “represent” me accurately. I remember thinking, “She’s giving us a bad name. Not all of us avoid glassware because we’ll break it; not all of us bash into furniture in our own homes; Not all of us need to use adhesive dots on every appliance we own!”. Then, right after I thought these things, I realized how foolish and destructive this line of reasoning was. Why on Earth should she represent me? She isn’t me. She doesn’t even know me. All she knows is what works for her, what she has experienced, and what she needs to feel secure in her environment. Why do I, who know full well that “ambassadors for the blind” should not and do not exist, expect a stranger to accurately portray my personal experiences?

 

My good friend CrazyMusician points out that asking blind people to be ambassadors is a very heavy burden—one which she, personally, is unwilling to bear. “Perhaps I am more visible because of my cute black guide dog, and am therefore expected to be an ambassador,” she says. “Calling me an ambassador gives me more power than I actually have; I am no more an ambassador for the blind than I am of humankind.”. And, as Chris Swank very aptly points out, “People need to understand that blind people are individuals. It’s not up to each one of us to make sure every sighted person we meet has an accurate idea of what we’re all like.”. I understand that we live in a world where stereotyping and generalization run rampant. None of us are exempt from the habit of assuming everyone in a minority group is exactly the same. Sometimes, it’s tough to see past the cane (or the dog), and recognize that we’re all very different in crucial ways.

 

So, my sighted friends: the next time you have the urge to ask a blind person to speak for all blind people, stop, and instead ask them how they cope with things as an individual. As for my blind friends, don’t make my mistake: next time you feel the urge to accuse another blind person of “giving us a bad name”, stop, and realize that only you can give yourself a bad name. The myth of ambassadorship needs to disappear, and it needs to do so for all of us.