“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.

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Let Me Be Generous

Earlier this week, a particularly trying driver took me to work. Exhausted from too little sleep and running dangerously low on patience, I listened as he prattled on about his “amazing” blind friend, with whom I must be utterly fascinated since all blind people are endlessly interested in each other, right? I explained how my phone’s GPS allowed me to follow along with the route, and indulged him when he asked, at least three times, “Where does it say we are now? … Now? …How about now? … Amazing!”
For this man, in fact, everything about me was amazing, from my university degree (a standard bachelor’s, nothing spectacular), to my full-time job, right down to the fact that I don’t live with my mother. He concluded that, like the afore-mentioned blind friend, I was a winning combination of blessed and, well, amazing. Due to my acute frustration and sleep deprivation, I was unable to appreciate his good nature and kindness, which I would certainly have noticed on an ordinary day.
The last straw came when we pulled up to my destination. As he assisted me with the debit machine, he skipped right past the “Tip Option” screen without asking me if I’d like to tip. Aware that cab drivers often do this instinctively—to the point where it stands out when they don’t try it—I had previously asked that he please stop at the tip screen. Ignoring my explicit instructions, he breezed right past it, and steadfastly refused to cancel and re-enter the transaction. Disregarding direct instructions when I’m letting someone else act as my eyes will inspire pique on the best days, and this was not my best day. By this point, the lack of caffeine and goodwill in my veins signaled that I should let this one slide. So, I let him go on his way, no doubt convinced he’d done me a kindness and blissfully ignorant of my annoyance.
Refusing to allow disabled people to express generosity is dismayingly normalized. Judging by the many conversations I’ve had with other disabled people on the subject, I’m far from the only one to find attempts at everyday generosity being rebuffed, sometimes forcefully, by all kinds of people. Even those asking for money on the street will sometimes push our money away, as though taking funds from disabled people would be a violation of their personal moral codes. Apparently, being homeless is still better than having a disability, and taking money from disadvantaged, less-fortunate souls is practically criminal. Who would accept gifts from such abjectly pitiable people, anyway?
I’m all too familiar with the prevailing narrative on disability in much of the world: anyone with a disability is disadvantaged, pitiful, and even cursed. People break the mould all the time, especially when they are accomplished enough to feature in inspiration-laden news stories, but no matter how successful we become, we are perceived to be worse off than nearly anyone else. The cab driver who laments he does not have enough money to feed his children will resolutely resist my offers of a tip I would otherwise spend on an overpriced latte I certainly don’t need. A person who does not have a place to sleep, food, or even a clean blanket is uncomfortable receiving support from me, even though I have every appearance of someone who is solvent, if not extravagantly wealthy.
There is a tiny nugget of truth in this stereotype, as with so many others. high unemployment rates, coupled with the extortionate costs of assistive devices and technology, mean many disabled people are indeed struggling financially. Some of us have incomes that are supplemented by government benefits, but most of us, myself included, are supporting ourselves without help. At the moment, my full-time job and freelance career are enough to give me a stable home, a nutritious diet, and the ability to afford the occasional luxury without compromising my student loan payments. That’s more than many of my nondisabled peers can say.
As with so many other disability-related issues, the problem runs more deeply than strangers who won’t take my money. I’ve written in the past about friends and family who, whether consciously or otherwise, shy away from allowing me to be generous. Whether they’re telling me not to help with difficult tasks or claiming they don’t want to burden me, even those closest to me are under the impression that I either have nothing to offer them, or at least should not be expected to give what I can. Having been raised in an extraordinarily open-hearted, unstinting community, the inability to participate in all the generosity around me was and continues to be a blow to my pride and spirit. My personality is characterized by a powerful need to give, and give lavishly, so any barrier that keeps me from doing so is emotionally devastating. While I do have people in my life who feel free to lean on me for support and will ask unhesitatingly for assistance whenever it’s needed, many others seem sheepish or even vaguely shocked at the very thought. It’s as though a voice inside them is saying, with not a little surprise, “You mean…*she* might be able to help *me* out? But that’s not how it’s supposed to go!”
I hope that, in time, strangers and friends will realize it’s possible to move beyond the paradigm where I am the helped and never the helper. I envision a society in which a disabled person’s tip or gift is seen as standard generosity and accepted guiltlessly. The world will be a slightly better, kinder place when people are open to the idea of a disabled person as more than a problem waiting to be solved or a good deed waiting to be done. In this, as in all things, I want to be no more and no less than everyone else.
Let me be generous. I have a lot to give.

When It Happens To You…

It happened on a bus. I was sitting near my boyfriend, who is not fully sighted but whose vision loss is not noticeable to the average passers-by. An older woman began talking to him, and my mind drifted a little. I was jolted back to earth, though, when I heard her say, quite sweetly, that it was “so nice of [him]to take care of [me].”
There it was.
I knew it would happen sometime, I really did. I’d heard so many stories from other blind people who had sighted partners. I’ve commiserated with them, thinking I knew how it felt because people had made abstract statements of that kind to me. I’ve basically heard it all: you need a husband so he can take care of you; you can’t raise kids or manage daily life without a man; you need to choose a sighted partner so he can keep you safe–and on and on.
It turns out that I was wrong about one crucial element: an abstract statement, no matter how offensive, is far less upsetting than a well-meant but deeply personal one–and it wasn’t even directed at me!
I tried to break it down. After all, I knew this was coming. My previous partner had been totally blind, so we never encountered this situation, but as soon as I began dating my current boyfriend, I expected it. So if I knew it would happen, and had helped so many others bounce back after it happened to them, why couldn’t I anticipate exactly how much it would hurt?
In the end, besides the fact that I am an independent person who takes care of people as often as they care for me, the tone and style of her words were my undoing. This woman thought she was being kind. She simply wanted to commend this nice young man for what she considered exceptional strength of character. Her intentions were pure and I’m certain she did not understand that it might be the wrong thing to say–let alone harmful to the girl in question. I know all this, and yet…
I think it comes down to feeling like an object. The conversation did not include me, strictly speaking. I was not being spoken to, but about. This woman’s casual praise concerned me at least as much as it concerned him, but I don’t believe I was really meant to participate at all except to agree emphatically and gaze at him adoringly for the next few minutes. I was merely the tangible, living example of my partner’s essential goodness and compassion.
Now, he really is a wonderful human being, and sometimes having a blind girlfriend does involve offering a little extra assistance. We travel using sighted guide, for example. Other than a few relatively minor adjustments, we function as any other couple would. My blindness isn’t usually on my mind, and I doubt it’s on his either.
I know this–know it down to my bones–but I still feel insecure, hurt, and embarrassed when someone assumes otherwise. I found this particular incident so unsettling that it took me a few minutes to calm down fully, and I regret to say that I did not respond to her comment with as much grace as I should have. True, I tempered my “I take care of me–he really doesn’t…” with a smile, but I don’t know how effective my attempts to cover my shock and indignation really were.
So, okay, it was a difficult experience. It was humbling, because I thought I could handle such a thing with minimal effort. I believed I was near-impervious to this sort of thing, only because so many fellow disabled people had dealt with it first. What’s the big deal?
Ultimately, this is my takeaway: you cannot know how something will feel until you go through it. Guide dog handlers might be sure of their reaction when they experience their first access refusal, hoping their conviction that it’s wrong will carry them past anger or humiliation. Disabled people who are denied a job based on discrimination can’t know just how painful and frustrating it will be before it actually happens. A student cannot predict their emotional response to being barred from a course because they are deemed unemployable and unteachable until the moment it occurs. I know this, because I’ve been through the last two examples and witnessed numerous people go through the first. My experiences mesh with theirs: it’s easy to empathize; it’s much harder to deal with these situations when they’re directed at you, and only you.
So what can I do? What can we all do?
First off, we can avoid assuming we have such a firm handle on our emotions. We can choose not to claim we know how we will feel until we find out the hard way. We can definitely prepare for the eventuality, and do our best to steel ourselves against what we know we’ll face at some point. Even as we do this, we must be mindful that all that preparation might fly out the window when we need it most.
The more important step is to support other disabled people even more wholeheartedly than we have before. It is not enough to stand by and comfort them. We must avoid minimizing their feelings or pretending we can know what they’re struggling with if we genuinely do not. It may seem like we understand a situation intimately, but there’s just no replacement for first-hand experience.
Going forward, I’ll apply the lessons I learned from this encounter, while continuing to embrace the compassionate view I’ve tried to nurture all along. At the end of the day, I know I must not forget that this sweet woman’s only goal was to praise what she considered to be a small pocket of good in an increasingly dark landscape. She actually went on to say that we made a good couple. She wasn’t trying to hurt anyone, and while I know her viewpoint is wrong and even unhealthy, I can’t change it, not for now. All I can do is move on, let it go, and practice resilience. I hope that, next time it happens, I’ll be ready.

“I’m Not Prejudiced! Some of My Best Friends are Blind!”

“I’m not racist! Some of my best friends are black!”
“I’m not bigoted! Some of my best friends are LGBT!”

This century-old defence is generally dismissed, especially on the internet. People try to claim that, due to the presence of minorities in their circle of friends, they are above reproach. They can’t possibly be prejudiced. Would a racist have black friends? Would a bigot have gay friends? The general consensus is yes! a thousand times yes! Your best friends don’t shield you from your biases, even if they are willing to ignore or even embrace them.

Several months ago, someone I respect very much (let’s call her Alison) made a stereotypical blind joke: “Shouldn’t ads for blind people be on the radio instead of TV?” or something to that effect. I took no issue with the joke’s complete lack of comedic value; your mileage may vary, perhaps? What I did take issue with was the inherent (and silly) stereotyping in the joke. A lot of people think we don’t enjoy TV or movies simply because we can’t see. Apparently, the dialogue is some trivial, peripheral aspect of the whole experience. As helpful as described video can be, it is still very possible for us to enjoy TV shows (and cringe at the ads). Her joke played on that ridiculous stereotype, and she made it very publicly, reaching a large number of people all over the internet.

I, in my infinite foolishness, wrote to her:
“You do realize that blind people can still watch TV, yeah?”
“Um, hello? Of course. Ever heard of a joke?”
“Well, yes…it’s just that this one plays on some very pervasive stereotypes that we spend much of our time fighting against. Please please try not to perpetuate it.”

After this exchange, some friend of hers chimed in: “Wow, chill, bitch! Some of Alison’s best friends are blind!”

Ah, here we go…the ultimate trap: if my blind friend says it’s okay, then it is. No question. This is immutable, right?

Noooooo! Not even close. Not for one second.

I found this whole conversation distinctly odd. Alison is a well-known and very vocal feminist who supports the rights of minorities. She despises stereotypical jokes about women, LGBT people, and ethnic minorities. She devotes much of her time to dispelling the myths and encouraging truth and inclusiveness. All wonderful stuff, and I like her a great deal.

Why, then, does all this stop applying when dealing with blind people? Suddenly, all the ethics and inclusiveness and open-mindedness disappear. Suddenly, for no discernible reason, it is acceptable to make ridiculous, condescending jokes about us that, if made about a gay or black or transgender person, would be reviled for the bigotry that they are.

Jokes among your friends are different from jokes made in public. I play along with blind jokes made at my personal expense with enthusiasm. Blind people, in fact, are very good at laughing at ourselves. I’ve always written my blog with my sense of humour at the forefront, so it’s not the jokes I have a problem with, not really. Alison’s joke is pretty harmless, at least on the surface.

What I have a problem with is the defence itself. It’s such an empty, futile argument. It appears to lay a steel trap, but is really just so much shrinking from all responsibility. Maybe you have a blind friend who thinks stereotypical jokes are hilarious, and that’s okay. Feel free to make them whenever you’d like … around and about them, that is. Just because your blind friend is okay with something, does not mean that the rest of us are okay with it. Furthermore, it doesn’t mean that it’s okay, period.

There will be a lot of people who assume, judging by this post, that I’m an exceptionally uptight person. I’m not. I am almost too tolerant at times—something my friends never tire of telling me. My issue isn’t with the individuals, like Alison, who tell these jokes and/or excuse behaviour that would be bigotry if directed at any other group. My issue is with the people who allow that argument to stand unchallenged. I could have six hundred gay friends, and they could all actively encourage me to tell prejudicial jokes or otherwise behave in a bigoted manner towards them. That doesn’t change the facts, though: most people, LGBT or otherwise, would find that behaviour generally offensive.

Maybe your blind friend is okay with bad TV jokes. Maybe she thinks it’s funny when you pet her service dog while its in harness. Maybe he erupts into side-splitting mirth when you steal his cane and hide it. (God, I hope I never meet your friend.) None of that matters in the grand scheme. If you tried any of that in the wider world, people would denounce it, and rightly so.

If your best friends are allowing you to go out there and act like a bigot without at least warning you … get some new friends.