“Hey, your shoe is untied. Want me to tie it for you?
“No thanks. I can tie my own shoe”
“Are you sure?”
Although the context changes depending on the situation, some form of this, sadly all-too-familiar conversation is usually, somehow, integrated into the overall structure of my day.
The other morning, I was telling Tigger, my guide dog, to turn left (the general direction of the stairs) when it happened again:
“Would you like the elevator because you’re heading towards the stairs.”
“Nope, I took a left, in order to take the stairs.”
“Are you sure?”
Yesterday, I was heading to my internship, and have to cut through a construction site to get to the door. Someone yelled, “No! Hey! You need to go around the construction. You’re not going the right way.”
Stop. Think. Re-read.
Re-read the above dialogues one more time.
Re-read them for
Those whose intelligence has been unintentionally and explicitly questioned as a result of their disability,
For those whose decisions, actions, and rational thought have been doubted to the point of the emergence of the starting traces of self-doubt,
For those who have been pushed past the initial mistrust of themselves, and forced into the dark reality of deprecating thoughts and the downward spiral of self-worth,
For those who have been coerced into believing that they have absolutely no say in the social, economic, and political aspects of societal problems, in fear of their opinions being minimized by other able-bodied individuals.
Re-read, then, word by word, take each dialogue apart.
What emotions does it evoke in you, as an able-bodied individual to hear this from an outsider’s perspective?
Do it all again.
This time, though, try to imagine this happening to you. What would be the thoughts and emotions spinning through your head in response to the uninformed questions of others, if you had a disability?
The carefully constructed façade I have chosen to settle on, to approach these conversations is constantly conflicting with an array of suppressed emotions, which if were to bubble up to the surface, would explode, shattering any distant hope of evoking change in others perceptions regarding disability into a million pieces. Several alternative responses spun through my head as I simultaneously proceeded to answer the person who just inadvertently questioned my ability to make rational choices for myself. I felt my hands clench into fists from the frustration that was threatening to emerge in the tone of my voice. I felt something in my gut drop, as I was reminded of how uninformed our society still remains around the topic of disability. I closed my eyes, not only to gain my composure, but for a second, I visualized a large stone wall, built stories high, made out of others preconceived notions and assumptions about blindness. I remember thinking: if each stone represents one wrongful belief belonging to one person, the hindering of my future success in the areas of education, employment, and my personal life is inevitable. My lips parted a quarter of an inch, a sarcastic remark at the ready on the tip of my tongue. Then, I took a deep breath in, feeling the slow rush of air cyphering through my lungs, bringing with it a gentle reminder of the importance of education in breaking down barriers about difference and diversity. Educating others, presents the facts, enabling the person to make a decision based on verified and established truth. I knew that…
As good as a snappy comeback might feel, it has the potential to fly over someone’s head, or simply lead them to think of you as unappreciative of their help. Not wanting to accomplish either outcome, I settled for the most direct and honest answer, the truth.
Opening my eyes, I answered calmly and headed up the stairs. All the while, the fading echo of the “are you sure?” question, left unanswered by me, diminished to barely a whisper over Tigger’s paws clicking against the hallway floor as we made our way to the next approaching flight. My solid answer, along with the completion of the action, hopefully exposed the observing individual to facts to bring about change regarding their view of the blind and visually impaired minority.
Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes, my breathing fails to slow down, and I snap. Sometimes, I neglect my own personal values and beliefs about spreading awareness, and with the combination of exhaustion and little time, I disregard the questions and comments altogether. For all, we are only human, and that should be good enough, shouldn’t it?
If nothing else, I ask that you come away with one lesson from this post. Please, please realize that not everyone has the same disability, and not every person who is blind or visually impaired has the same visual acuity. Despite the groups we form, stemming from our inherent nature to distinguish each other by a means of labeling ourselves in relation to others, our range of abilities vary individual by individual. Just because you happen to come across a blind person who asked for help tying their shoe in the past, or was in the same elevator as you, a multitude of factors could have contributed to their decisions, not solely blindness. The person who was taking the elevator could have simply had a long day and accepted a 2 second ride up to the fourth floor.
It is never black and white, and there is not a definite answer for everything. I encourage you to ask questions to arrive at educated conclusions, and to meet unfamiliarity with a clear and empty slate. For a second, try to push all your previous encounters with people from the same group aside when you cross paths with a person from that group. Do not seek additional confirmation if someone reassures you that they can. In the example above, I was not tying my shoe already and struggling to do so. The person made a wrong assumption based on the way blind people tend to be portrayed in society: inspiring for completing the same tasks as someone who can see, amazing for going far in school, and incredibly well-known for our apparent heightened and over-compensated sense of hearing.
I am not asking you to befriend every person different from yourself, or to deliberately go out of your way to read articles and travel as a means of exposure, but just to give people with disabilities an equal chance to coexist within the same level of opportunity and expectations placed on the rest of society.