The Unconscious Cultivation Of Defensiveness

Disabled people have often been (unjustly) accused of being perpetually offended. We seem to be screaming about some atrocity or other with regularity: words like “discrimination,” “bigotry,” and “injustice” flow freely from our lips. Most of the time, able people’s unwillingness to understand our anger drives me mad. If they spent even a single day in our shoes, they might change their tune. No matter how often we explain why our passion is warranted, there will always be some able people who refuse to listen. But … (I do love buts, don’t I?)

I’m becoming more aware of our unconscious, unintentional cultivation of defensiveness. We mistake simple kindness for condescension, barriers for willful discrimination, and ignorance for deliberate refusal to change. Often, our suspicions are proven accurate—indeed, we are so often proven right that it’s understandable that we’d jump to conclusions. I can’t help but worry, however, that we are jumping the gun.

This issue was brought to my attention when I read a blind person’s rant about a flight attendant who did not want to charge him for a drink. His assumption was that the free drink was offered out of pity, as though the only reason to be kind to us is to express a desire to improve our tragic lives. To my surprise, this assumption did not remain unchallenged. The vast majority of those who responded cautioned him against narrow-mindedness, even advising him to simply accept the gesture and move on. While I can identify with his instinctive defensiveness, and acknowledge that I’m guilty of the same, I think we should all examine our biases very carefully. The free Slurpee I was provided with at a convenience store may have been given out of a genuine wish to make a girl’s day, but the reaction, even from family, demonstrated that disabled people and those close to them always suspect random acts of kindness to be a direct result of blindness. When I announced that I’d been given a free drink, I got the following response.
“Maybe it’s because he was feeling generous tonight.”
“Nah,” said someone else, “it’s because you’re blind, I’m sure.”
Able people’s tendency to attach unnecessary meaning to disability can be shocking. I was insulted when a student, after discovering that a professor often praised my work, remarked that his favour was based solely on blindness. (It may have had something to do with her own poor performance in the class, but I’ll never know for sure).

The thing is, similar acts of kindness are directed at perfectly able people, and they do no more than I have to earn them. If you stand in a crowded pub long enough, some stranger will buy you a drink as often as not. If the Slurpee machines are about to be cleaned and refilled anyway, you’ll probably get a free one. If someone sees you from across a restaurant and is feeling magnanimous, they might send a free dessert over to your table. These actions are not, and should not be, linked with pity or condescension. Sometimes, humans just feel like being nice.

If you receive a free drink, try to take it with grace if you can. If someone pays for your coffee, interpret it as an attempt to make your Monday morning better until you see evidence to the contrary. If you are not chosen for a job, don’t immediately blame blindness—it’s possible you simply were not the most qualified candidate.

Don’t get me wrong: I realize that, in the majority of cases, blaming blindness is justified. I and other disabled people have been through too much, and faced too much blatant mistreatment, to be crucified for viewing disability as the culprit in most cases. That said, it’s worth stepping back and asking ourselves whether we’ve become too accustomed to defensiveness. We may not mean harm, but perhaps we’d be better served by approaching life with a bit more thought and a little less passion.