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.

It’s a Human Thing

Over dinner with a dear cousin of mine, I was waxing pathetic about how much it grieves me that I can never slice vegetables in a straight line. My cucumbers and carrots end up being very fat on one side while dwindling to a mere ghost of themselves on the other. I was going on and on about how I can never get the angle right, and that blindness really gets in the way. I told her that I imagined there was some kind of mystical trick to it, because there’s no way that everyone was messing up the way I was.
“Meagan, that’s not a blindness thing. That’s a human thing. I can’t cut straight either.”
“You have no idea how much better I feel right now.”

Sometimes, blind people hold themselves to much higher standards than sighted people do. I think it’s because expectations are tragically low: a blind person is lucky if their sighted family and friends think they’ll be able to feed themselves and hold down a job. These low expectations can force some of us to aim very high—even higher than the average sighted person might.

There is this drive to be totally independent (never mind that no one is entirely independent). Even sighted educators and consultants have fallen into this trap. They expect a blind person to go the extra mile to be an excellent student, a fantastic cook, an immaculate housekeeper, a highly successful employee … and on and on. As Leo once said, few sighted people aspire to or manage these things, especially in this age of convenience.

Sighted people aren’t perfect by default. They aren’t even particularly successful by default. Sighted people make many of the mistakes that blind people attribute to their failings as a blind person. Revelation after revelation has led me to the point where I’m not nearly as ashamed of my own struggles, because I now realize they’re a result of being human, not of being blind.

Some sighted people don’t eat neatly, while I generally do, depending on what I’m eating. Sighted people spill things, knock things over, and drop stuff; I rarely make messes, because I’m very careful not to “seem too blind.” Many sighted people don’t know the bus system, while I berate myself for not being familiar with its every component. So many sighted people aren’t great cooks, so now I don’t hate myself for being a mediocre one.

I look around at the students I’ve gotten to know, and I find that even the older ones aren’t as capable as I thought I had to be at, say, sixteen. If they can pop a bowl of soup in the microwave, deal with their leaning tower of dishes, and occasionally vacuum, they’re doing okay. I was taught to see that lifestyle as the lowest point you can ever experience. I thought that, if I wasn’t perfect, then I was being a bad blind person. I was exemplifying all those lowered expectations, while simultaneously failing to meet the much higher standards others had imposed upon me.

While in junior high, I struggled to complete an art-based science project on my own. I’m very creative, but not when it comes to using my hands. My idea of arts and crafts is to put random beads onto a piece of string. Maybe I’ll glue a feather and some seashells onto construction paper and call it a collage. I wasn’t an art person in any sense, and being blind didn’t help, of course. While I was struggling with this exercise, my EA came over to show me a gorgeous science project some blind girl at another school had made. The assumption, I suppose, was that if she could do it, I should be able to do it, too. You’d never ever say to a sighted student, “Someone in a completely different school made this. What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you make this, too? Why can’t you go the extra mile?” Yet, when it came to me, my inability to equal her work was attributed to laziness. I must be an underachiever, right?

I’ve written about why it’s a mistake to compare blind people on more than a superficial level. Having different strengths and weaknesses than another student is not a blindness thing, but a human thing.

Once a blind person grasps this, they can start living a more relaxed and contented lifestyle. Once educators and other professionals who work with us realize this, too, everybody will be happier for it.

Another dear cousin (my cousins are awesome, what can I say?) once gave me this advice:

Ultimately, the only person you have to live with all your life is you. The only person who will always be there is you. Therefore, the only person you have to please, in the long run anyway, is yourself. Live up to your standards, and nobody else’s.

Whether she knew it or not, that advice altered my thought processes and, by extension, my self-concept. It has, in short, changed my life. I hope it changes yours, too.