The Blind Girl Who Sings

In her memoir, Hourglass, Dani Shapiro writes about a “third thing” that all married couples should have in order to live happily together long-term. The first thing is you, the second thing is your spouse, and the third thing is the external glue that unites you. It could be a common taste in music, or the process of raising your children, or a mutual love of the outdoors. Whatever it might be, you need a third thing to give your relationship shape. And, as I read about this concept, I realized that music is the “third thing” in my relationship with myself. There’s me (first thing), disability (second thing), and music (that essential third thing).

I’m a complete nobody, but while I was growing up, I had a modest musical reputation. Rural surroundings made it easier to stand out, and my family’s love of music was all the encouragement I needed. One of my earliest memories is picking out “Mary had a Little Lamb” on my grandmother’s piano, refusing offers of help with growing stubbornness. At five, I was singing publicly. By the time I left home for university at seventeen, I had sung competitively for eleven years, and was a common figure at local fundraisers, funerals, weddings, and other community events. I’d never be Idol material, perhaps, but I was dependable and versatile, occasionally bringing crowds to their feet. Sometimes, I’d even win competitions. It was enough.

Once I began studying communications and preparing for a career centred more on writing than music, I let much of my talent go dormant. I still sang to myself constantly—to the dismay of my roommates, I’m sure—and found the time to sing with friends and perform at the occasional family funeral or wedding. I had shifted gears dramatically, releasing my careful posture and letting my exceptional lung capacity deteriorate. Music seemed to have no fixed place in my new reality, and city living meant that if I’d wanted to claw my way back up to where I’d been, I’d have to fight for it. Stressed as I was by academic pressure, chronic pain, and mental health struggles, I didn’t have that fight in me. I focused on writing, sang exclusively for fun, and made noises about joining a choir someday. Two years have passed since my graduation, and serious musical pursuits are still at the bottom of my to-do list.

Though I’m occupied with other things, I miss being a singer every day. I miss it for the obvious reasons: the rush of performing for an enthusiastic crowd; the joy of learning new and challenging pieces; the grind of endless rehearsals that somehow turn into effortless beauty when you’re looking the other way. I miss dressing up and connecting with strangers and congratulating fellow musicians. It could be gruelling, but I miss it dearly.

There’s another dimension to my longing: music was my conduit to a life less defined by disability. People often thought of me as “that blind girl who sings,” it’s true, and many of them waffled on about my vocal gift being divine compensation for my undesirable eyes. Even so, while I was singing, I wasn’t thinking about cane technique or traffic patterns. When people flocked to me after a performance to tell me my voice had meant something to them, no one was dwelling excessively on my broken eyes. If someone reached out to touch me as I passed, it was out of a desire to express something more positive than “You’re going the wrong way! I must save you!” Adjudicators were mostly impartial, occasionally referencing my lack of eye contact with audiences but otherwise more interested in what I sounded like than what I looked like on stage. With a few exceptions, I was judged for my talent, hard work, and emotional expression. Nobody who watched me earn a standing ovation with “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” was likely to label me incompetent, graceless, or pitiable. Music, especially in the minor leagues, was as close to meritocracy as I was ever going to experience, and I had no idea how valuable it was until I had to live without it.

The musically-talented blind person is a narrative with which society is comfortable and familiar. Few people questioned my right to inhabit that world. My “We’re not in Kansas anymore!” moment came in a rhetoric class, a couple of years in to my communications degree. I was unpacking my laptop, lost in thought, when a student I’d never spoken to before approached me.

“Why are you here?”

The question came with no bark on it. It wasn’t hostile, but there was a straightforwardness to it that made it shocking. Immediately, other students began to gather around, wondering how this would unfold.

“I’m in this course, so…”

“Right,” he continued, “but why are you here? In university?”

“I’m taking the Bachelor of Communication Studies program, and this class is one of the option courses.”

“I know, but blind people can’t be writers.”

It dawned on me that I didn’t have to participate in this bizarre conversation. I was being baited, or insulted, or something. Being a dedicated glutton for punishment, I responded.

“Of course we can be writers.”

“But how?”

By now, he was starting to sound genuinely curious. Receptive, even?

“Well, I use a computer, like everyone else…”

A few other students pressed closer, making disapproving noises. The student continued, sounding defensive.

“Well, I’m not up on all the technology…”

Clearly not.

Class began at that moment, interrupting one of the most unsettling conversations I’d ever had. As the instructor introduced the course outline, I realized, all at once, that I was back at square one, back to proving myself, back to basics in the worst way. Blind communications professionals made less sense to people than blind musicians, it seemed, and I had never felt more disabled. The student and I eventually became friendly, and I’ve since learned that the blunt approach I found so off-putting is simply part of his communication style, but he reminded me, whether intentionally or not, that I must always be ready, at a moment’s notice, to explain my place in the world.

The oft-repeated observation about minorities needing to work harder, shine brighter, climb higher than everyone else just to be regarded half as talented still holds true. Being disabled is a little less demoralizing when you have some talent or skill that helps you stand out for something other than your disability. If your reputation as a singer or designer or writer or chef becomes more powerful than your reputation as the weird girl with the stick, or the weird guy with the wheelchair, you’re winning. The trick is to train people to see your brilliance before they see your supposed deficiencies. Distract them with your finer points, and maybe they’ll forget about all the ways you don’t fit in.

There’s plenty of bitterness buried in this truth, but I’ve found a way to put a more encouraging spin on it. Instead of looking upon music as the only part of my life that made much sense, I choose to view it as a valuable skillset that set me up for greater success in other facets of my life. All those public performances have cured me of paralyzing stage fright. Public speaking doesn’t scare me, and thriving under pressure comes more naturally than working in slow-paced, gentle environments. Musicianship expanded my social circle, increased my confidence, and helped me shape my identity outside of the box marked “blind.” I may have been the “blind girl who sang” to most of my community, but that’s still better than simply being “the blind girl.” Now, I can be “the blind girl who writes,” or “the blind girl who edits,” or, you know, “another disabled human trying to live her life.” I’m happy enough in all of those boxes.

I hope every disabled child has the opportunity to find their third thing. Maybe, like me, they’ll discover fourth and fifth and sixth things, just to keep life interesting. These days, writing and editing have become almost as essential to my identity as music.

Discover that third thing. Give your relationship with yourself shape and definition. Allow others to see past the cane, or dog, or walker, or their own perceptions. Do it for yourself, primarily, and watch as other people begin to notice you in ways far more pleasant than “Hey! There’s that disabled person I always see at the bus stop!” Perhaps you’ll master that third thing to the point of renown, or perhaps you’ll choose to embrace it quietly. You do you.

Wherever your journey takes you, find your third thing, and be seen.

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“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.

What Does Blindness Look Like, Anyway?

I was at church a few weeks ago, and a women’s group I’m involved in was doing a bible study led by a woman who happens to be blind. We watched a video series featuring a blind person, and someone made the comment ‘You know, she doesn’t look blind!’ Of course I turned and said ‘What exactly does blind look like? Why doesn’t she look blind?’ While I had a smile in my voice, I silenced the whole table because no one wanted to answer. Their silence was answer enough.

This quote, contributed by one of my blind readers, perfectly illustrates the awkwardness that ensues when sighted people casually observe that someone doesn’t “look blind.” Many mean this quite literally, of course. Canes, guide dogs, and prosthetic eyes are dead giveaways, and they are fairly well-known symbols of blindness. So, when some people say this, they might simply mean that someone’s eyes look to be in working order, and they don’t have a mobility aid in sight. Unfortunately, there are many other sighted people whose comments are more complicated. Upon closer examination, the implications are somewhat troubling. It is rare that these people have given much substantial thought to what blindness is supposed to look like, and are reluctant to analyze their own perceptions when they are challenged.
So, what does blindness look like, really?
Maybe it looks like an anonymous person waving a cane around, or marching along with a dog. Maybe it looks like someone shambling in an ungainly manner like something out of The Walking Dead, arms outstretched, searching carefully for obstacles. Maybe it looks like someone who has half-closed eyes, or milky white eyes, or no eyes at all. This last, at least, makes a kind of sense.
For me, though, blindness looks like a normal person doing ordinary things. For me, blindness looks like anyone you might meet on the street, the only difference being a mobility aid and, in some cases, prosthetic eyes or dark glasses. For me, blindness looks normal—or as normal as any part of the human experience can be. Yes, blindness sets us apart; there’s no denying that. Still, people’s perceptions and the reality look quite different.
Whenever someone tells me that I don’t look blind, it’s meant as a compliment: they mean that I’m competent, graceful, and normal-looking. They mean that my eyes are pleasing to look at and seem natural enough, even though they move about constantly, never really focusing on anything in particular. They mean that I’m far removed from the graceless, clumsy mess they often picture blind people to be, and it surprises and delights them.
While I was trying on wedding dresses, my bridal consultant was apparently blown away by how quickly and easily I could move around in an unfamiliar environment. I don’t consider this of note, really, but she certainly did, and more than once she said things like “I don’t believe your blind!” and “You must be faking it!” For her, ease of movement and grace were not associated with blindness, and in her own strange way, she was trying to praise me.
The thing is, this compliment is backhanded, even when it isn’t meant to be. It is predicated on the assumption that a blind person will be pleased to be singled out from the rest, and happy to be recognized for their ability to participate fully in the wider world. We are expected, it seems, to look down upon other blind people—those people who look conspicuously blind—and be grateful that we’re not among them.
I’m not proud to be blind, per se; pride seems a little absurd to me. Blindness is, at its base, a hardware failure. That said, I’m not ashamed of it, either. I don’t see it as a stigma I am railing against at all times. My life’s mission is not to seem as sighted as possible or to stand out because of sheer normality. My life’s mission is to go out there and be a decent human being; to write and edit for a living; to play a little music in my spare time; and to love, laugh, and enjoy my time here with abandon. Blindness isn’t something that should define me overall, even if it is a significant part of my makeup.
So, what does blindness look like? Well, I think it looks … human.