In Defence Of “Internet” Friendship

“So, where did you meet your friend ___?”

“We used to post to the same blindness forum, and–”

“Oh…so not, like, a friend friend.”

“A friend friend?”

“You know, like a…real friend. Someone you actually know.”

Friendships forged through online interaction have gained considerable legitimacy since I was a young teenager first experiencing the internet, but it’s dismaying how often online friends are casually dismissed by people of all ages. Apparently, there was an authoritative friendship conference several years ago that resulted in an unofficial friendship hierarchy, which influences the way friendship is viewed by everyone ranging from seniors to high schoolers.

According to this mystical hierarchy, you can’t measure a friendship in love, but rather in geography. If you only see your childhood friend once a year for a quick coffee and cursory catchup, that still ranks higher than an “internet” friend whom you haven’t met in person but with whom you communicate daily. Friends who live across the street usually carry more weight with people than a friend who lives across the world, regardless of intimacy, frequency of communication, and overall satisfaction derived from the friendship. (This also applies to romantic relationships, as I learned to my immense chagrin while dating men I’d met online.)

Besides the fact that I find this arbitrary standard inflexible and anachronistic, I also feel it comes down heavily on disabled people, who seem to have an especially large number of online friends. Anyone experiencing loneliness, isolation, and/or a lack of typical social opportunities can benefit from online social networks, and reducing internet interactions to something pale and second-rate targets a population that is already marginalized. While many disabled people can and do seek social opportunities within their geographical sphere, the internet is an enticing place where the playing field feels more equal and the supportive communities are numerous.

My isolated childhood is a living advertisement for the value of online friends. I was an introspective soul who struggled to make friends in traditionally-accepted ways, and internet social circles were far easier for me to embrace. Online, I didn’t have to be the awkward, introverted blind girl. I could talk to people who were older and wiser than me, share resources with fellow blind peers, and enjoy a sense of social freedom that couldn’t be found in my small-town ecosystem. I treasured the offline friends I did make, but they didn’t offer the diversity and understanding I found online.

Now, as my life becomes busier and my chronic pain limits my social activities, I appreciate my supportive online network of disabled and non disabled friends more than ever. The love, encouragement, assistance, and companionship they offer are as real and meaningful as anything provided by my equally-adored offline friends. As my heart breaks with the death of an online friend’s husband, and soars with joy at another online friend’s success at work, I do not doubt the gravity and significance of friendships conducted and sustained via the internet.

My internet friends are indeed “real” friends. When they are troubled or grieving or frightened, I comfort them. When I need a friendly ear in the middle of the night, there is always someone to call. My online friends send the best care packages, letters, and virtual (but no less heartfelt) affection. We pay astronomical amounts to visit each other, and make memories we cherish for years. We assist each other financially, emotionally, and spiritually. My online friends may not be able to drive me to an appointment or hold my hand when I’m ill, but they can provide love, advice, compassion, empathy, and laughter.

Never let anyone disparage your online friendships. The internet is a fickle friend, and you may certainly find dangerous, duplicitous people there–people whom you will befriend and later delete from every social network, wondering why you were ever naive enough to trust them. But more often than not, you’ll find people who are excellent friendship material–people who will fuse your happiness with theirs and do everything in their power to enrich your life. Whatever people say, however much they scoff, appreciate and cherish the friends you make online, and always measure your relationships in love and respect, not geography and popularity.

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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.

#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.

Yes, I Have “Bad Blind Days”

People complain about bad hair days. They complain about bad workdays. They complain about Monday’s very existence. I complain about all those, too. Frequently. One might even say, insufferably.

There is another day I feel less comfortable complaining about: the Bad Blink Day. Some days, everything that can go wrong does go wrong, in the context of blindness at least. This morning, for example, I was trying to prop my cane against a door. It fell no fewer than four times before I accepted defeat and folded it up. At that moment, I thought “I should have gotten a dog!” We all know how I feel about getting a service dog. I remember a day two summers ago, when I was learning the route to work and back, in an unfamiliar neighbourhood, with absolutely no one to go along with me. Everything went pear-shaped from start to finish…

The inauspicious beginning: I was sorting out some new outfits to wear to work, and found that I’d forgotten which skirt went with which shirt. I was panicking, because I apparently lack the ability to prioritize calamities. I eventually threw on something I thought might be okay, and off I went to catch the bus. The bus, of course, was late, and the driver very grumpy. I used my GPS the entire time, trying to make sure I didn’t miss any stops. (I’ve since learned to pester the driver, however annoyed they may become.) During the work day, things went reasonably well, but for a few accessibility hiccups I dealt with quickly. Well, okay, so I was on the phone with tech support for an hour, but otherwise it was great! And then …

I caught my first bus home, and transferred at a busy station. It was pouring, and we were under a tornado warning, I believe. I got onto the second bus, and when the driver reached the approximate location of my stop, she said “I’ll just drop you off over here.” The chosen spot left me disoriented, since I didn’t really know my way around yet. I wandered for ages through rain and wind. Normally rain doesn’t bother me much, but this rain was unusually cold, for July anyway, and it was really coming down. I was hopelessly lost, though I knew I was only a few blocks from my destination. The GPS was no help. My phone was nearly dead, and in any case my fingers were so wet and cold that I couldn’t get the screen to work (this was before I had Siri). I knew that, had I been sighted, this day would have gone a lot differently.

The dreary end: I ended up standing in some stranger’s yard, hiding under a tree, bawling my eyes out and getting soaked. The stranger was kind, and drove me home (yes, I got into a stranger’s car—sue me). I got in the door (wringing out my skirt as I did so), went upstairs to my room, and curled in a ball to cry. That day, like many days, I was so done with being blind.

Most of my “bad blind days” aren’t nearly as dramatic as all that. Usually it’s little things, like getting somewhat lost, calling cabs to go to an unfamiliar place, fighting stupid stereotypes, and generally getting people to treat me normally. We all have them. So why don’t I like talking about them?

I’m very free with blind friends. They’ve all gone through what I have, so we can share our frustrations without inviting negative perceptions, seeming whiny, or killing people’s buzz. Yet I have difficulty talking to sighted people about days like this. Maybe it’s because I feel ashamed: after all, blindness isn’t so bad. Many people have it far worse, so what am I grumbling about? Maybe it’s because I feel very slightly unsafe—as though anything I say will be twisted out of context. I don’t want one bad day to make people think my life is always confusing and frustrating. Maybe it’s because I’m a generally upbeat person, and I only feel safe venting to a select few.

I’ve recently decided to change this. I was chatting with my fiancé Gregg about social media. He was pointing out that people hardly ever post negative things there, and when they do, it’s usually to gain sympathy (we’ve all done it, don’t shake your head) or shed positive light in a subtle way. Oh, look how brave I am, fighting adversity! Oh, look how desperately busy I am; I can hardly keep up (but I actually can, see?).

What you don’t see, he said, is people posting genuinely negative things that have happened to them, without any intention of garnering sympathy or making themselves look good in crafty ways. “Maybe,” he continued, “posting more negative, less self-congratulatory things will help everyone feel better about the bad stuff that happens to them.” I decided he had a point. Research has shown that people often feel depressed as they scroll through Facebook, because all they see are the good times everyone else is having. All they see are the successes. All they see, in essence, is how well everyone else is doing, and how badly they are doing in comparison. It never occurs to people that what you see on Facebook is carefully chosen, and that it doesn’t represent the whole. I’ve met people who had glittery, perky, and plucky Facebook lives. I thought they must be the happiest people in the world, with a million friends and so many successes. These are some of the unhappiest people I know, by the way; all you have to do is ask them how they’re really doing. I’ve often heard the following: “I have a thousand Facebook friends and no one to talk to.”

So, on my Facebook, Twitter, and the blog, I’ll endeavor to share the foibles, failures, and trials without trying to be inspirational. I’m not trying to uplift others. I’m not trying to make everyone feel sorry for me. And I am definitely not trying to flatter myself in any way. What I want is to get people—disabled and otherwise—to feel comfortable talking about the bad stuff; the embarrassing stuff; the frustrating stuff. Share the things that aren’t inspirational, or uplifting, or flattering. Share the things that make you squirm just a little.

I’m not suggesting you roam into “too much information” territory, and I’m certainly not suggesting you post content that a possible employer might find unsavory. I’m not saying you should share stories about your latest drunken mishaps. Share the little stuff—the stuff we all go through but don’t like to talk about.

“But Meagan!” you say, “won’t that turn Facebook into a sea of negativity?” Nope, it really won’t. The less time we waste comparing our lives to someone else’s–without even seeing the whole picture–the more time we can spend supporting each other, keeping up with friends, and generally having a good time.

You can share the good things, too. Share your success in sports, music, art, and the workplace. Share things that make you proud. Complain bitterly about the impersonal—traffic, the government, the state of kids today. Just remember to share the personal stuff, too; if you can share the personal good, feel free to share the personal bad, too.