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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If A Blind Person Could Do It…

“If a blind person could do it, what’s your excuse?”
Here we go again.
Here is yet another nondisabled person using blindness, that infamous limiter, to boost motivation levels while simultaneously shaming any sighted person who has accomplished less than any given blind person.
My strong distaste for this specific motivational quote has long baffled me. I see ridiculous inspiration porn plastered all over the internet every day, and I don’t even have to look for it. Why, then, does the “what’s your excuse” line crawl so persistently under my skin? What is it about the “if a blind person could do it” reasoning that makes me feel both belittled and misrepresented? Why do I care what strangers use to get them out of bed in the morning?
Unpacking inspiration porn, as many in the disability community call it, is never enjoyable and often controversial. However well-reasoned your conclusions, someone is always going to chime in with a plea to stop all the negativity. Why begrudge someone the right to feel inspired and uplifted by you? It doesn’t cost you a thing.
Or does it?
Let’s begin with “if a blind person could do it” rhetoric, shall we? My interpretation of this statement is that anything a blind person does must be relatively easy, because we are so much more limited and incapable by default. For example, if a blind person can learn to ski, or play the piano, or cook a five-course meal, anyone can. According to the typical inspirational framework, the “if a blind person could do it” narrative depends upon disabled people being less-than: less capable, less talented, less accomplished. It also depends on us being more-than in one way: determined. Supposedly, our innate resilience is such that, despite our nearly-insurmountable challenges, we manage to get out of bed, go to the gym, hold down jobs, and raise families. Were it not for our remarkable courage and superhuman desire to succeed, we’d be sitting inconspicuously in a lonely corner weaving baskets and smiling vacantly at the wall.
It gets worse: This specious line assumes that any skills and talents developed and honed by disabled people are immaterial. If a blind person could do it, it’s possible for everyone, right? I spent four years in university learning how to communicate professionally and edit meticulously, but if I can do these things well, anyone can. If my blind friend spends years practicing her jewelry design craft, making use of existing talent and working hard to improve, none of those efforts matter because if she can design beautiful jewelry, anyone can. After my high school valedictorian speech, a sighted stranger turned to their companion and whispered “If she can learn to speak like that and accomplish so much…what’s my excuse? Why haven’t I achieved those things?” Hollow admiration when you deconstruct it, since the reason I had already accomplished as much as I had by high school graduation was a combination of gifts I was born with and hard work I’d put in to get where I was. The glaring flaw in this backhanded compliment leaves a very bitter taste behind. (Side note: I wasn’t a particularly outstanding student, but as we all know by now, expectations are lower when you’re me.)
Let us move along to the “so what’s your excuse” portion. The logic of this idea states that sighted people should use us as a way to stem the tide of excuses that frees them from everyday tasks like cleaning, cooking, and working out. If a blind person gets up every morning and gets these done, that must mean sighted people have no excuse at all, despite any challenges they might be facing. Maybe the nondisabled person struggling to motivate themselves has had less sleep than the blind person they’re using for emotional fuel. Perhaps that blind person is an early riser by nature. Could they be healthier? Could it be that they enjoy cooking and cleaning and exercise? Myriad explanations come to mind, and they all lead me to the same destination: tasks don’t diminish in meaning just because a blind person can do them and a sighted person can’t.
I’m reminded of some of my more brilliant blind friends—the ones who laughed at the words “can’t” and “never” and achieved things any sighted person would be immensely proud to accomplish. One of my friends has more or less mastered physiotherapy, cat breeding, and cooking. She has starred in a documentary, travelled Europe on her own, and is currently teaching herself to sew. At thirty, she has achieved more than most sighted seniors I know, and I don’t think anyone can honestly say that all of the skills she’s acquired are less impressive simply because she happens to be blind.
Other blind friends are published authors, admired public speakers, skilled carers, talented designers, and exemplary instructors. They attain great things because they have the necessary passion, desire, and talent, not because great things aren’t really as difficult as they seem. I would never allow anyone to cheapen the hard work and exceptional talents of my disabled friends on the basis that anything a disabled person does mustn’t be all that hard.
What is your excuse, nondisabled person? I certainly hope it’s something reasonable like being too tired, or too busy, or too preoccupied with living your life.
I hope you motivate yourself by being authentically and respectfully inspired by those around you, for the right reasons. I hope you motivate yourself with passion, desire, hard work, and discipline. I hope you chase your dreams because you desperately want to, and not because some blind person did it first and inadvertently shamed you into it. I hope you recognize the accomplishments of disabled people as important and impressive because they are, and not because disabled people don’t normally succeed. Most of all, I hope you admire disabled people not for getting out of bed, or cooking a basic meal, or doing what all grown-ups are expected to do. I hope you admire us for our unique, personal, hard-won achievements, and nothing less.