ARE YOU ABLEIST? LET’S FIND OUT

Ableism in its simplest form, is discrimination toward disabled people. But it encompasses so much more than what you might assume. The belief and treatment of disabled people as “less than” is so deeply engrained in our culture that it can be hard to recognize ableism in our daily lives, which can also make it frighteningly easy to slip into.

Even disabled people can be unknowingly ableist. Over the last several months, I’ve come to realize that so much of my language and actions are ableist, and I didn’t know. But now that I do, I’m working on changing them.

But how do we know if we are using ableist language or creating environments that perpetuate ableism? To answer this question, I am not relying on my own perspective or experience, but on the collective knowledge of the greater disability community.

This post, as you’ll realize if you click over to this wonderful resource by Access Living is my primary reference for information on the basics of ableism. I’m no authority–I won’t try to reinvent the wheel. But they are by no means the only one. So, just as I will, I encourage you to continue to research, learn and grow in order to stand up against ableism. Please note, that as I share portions from the Access Living website, I may summarize, shorten or omit certain pieces for brevity’s sake.

Ableism: In General

Let’s start with a few of the more general ways in which we as a society can, are, and continue to be ableist. Let’s take a look:

  • Lack of compliance with disability rights laws
  • Segregating students with disabilities into separate schools
  • The use of restraint or seclusion as a means of controlling students with disabilities
  • Failing to incorporate accessibility into building design plans
  • Building inaccessible websites
  • The assumption that people with disabilities want or need to be “fixed”
  • Using disability as a punchline
  • Refusing to provide reasonable accommodations
  • The eugenics movement of the early 1900s
  • The mass murder of disabled people in Nazi Germany

Ableism: In the Every Day

If you look at that list and think “but I haven’t done any of that,” you may be right. Ableism is often unintentional. But even unintentional ableism is still harmful to the disabled community and to our fight for equality. That’s precisely why I’m drawing attention to it in this way, because we can all do better, and need to do better. But we can’t until we know where we’ve gone wrong. So please allow me to share with you some further ways that we as a society have practiced ableism. And if you see yourself on this list, you’re not alone–I do, too.

  • Choosing an inaccessible venue for an event, therefore excluding disabled participants
  • Using someone else’s mobility device as a hand or foot rest
  • Framing disability as either tragic or inspirational in news stories, movies, and other forms of media
  • Casting a non-disabled actor to play a disabled character in entertainment
  • Making a movie that doesn’t have audio description or closed captioning
  • Using the accessible bathroom stall when you are able to use the non-accessible stall without pain or risk of injury
  • Talking to a person with a disability like they are a child, talking about them instead of directly to them, or speaking for them
  • Asking invasive questions about the medical history of someone with a disability
  • Assuming people have to have a visible disability to be disabled
  • Questioning if someone is “actually” disabled, or “how” disabled they are
  • Asking, “How did you become disabled?”

Ableism: Micro-Aggressions

Micro-aggression is a term I only heard after joining the broader disability space on social media, and what it refers to explains so much of my past that I hadn’t had words to articulate before.

“Micro-aggressions are everyday verbal or behavioral expressions that communicate a negative slight or insult” in reference to a person’s disability. And it’s in this form that I’ve been the most guilty, and where I’m working on change. The words we use have so much power, and I don’t ever want my words to be used as weapons or instruments of ableism. There are more–oh so many more–examples of ableist micro-aggressions, but I’ll share with you this brief list which we can use as a springboard for further change.

  • “That’s so lame.”
  • “You are so retarded.”
  • “That guy is crazy.”
  • “You’re acting so bi-polar today.”
  • “Are you off your meds?”
  • “It’s like the blind leading the blind.”
  • “My ideas fell on deaf ears.”
  • “She’s such a psycho.”
  • “I’m super OCD about how I clean my apartment.”
  • “I don’t even think of you as disabled.”

How Can We Get Better?

All is not lost. It’s abysmal reading through only SOME of the ways that our world has been and continues to prcipitate ableism against people with disabilities. But there are things that we can do. There are ways to change and become better allies, fellow humans and let disabled people know how valuable and worthy they are. Here are just a few:

  • Believe people when they disclose a disability
  • Don’t accuse people of faking their disability
  • Listen to people when they request an accommodation
  • Don’t assume you know what someone needs
  • Never touch a person with a disability or their mobility equipment without consent
  • Keep invasive questions to yourself
  • Don’t speak on behalf of someone with a disability unless they explicitly ask you to
  • Talk about disability with children and young people
  • Incorporate accessibility into your event planning

Ableism is like anything else–something that needs to change but can only be done once we know how to change and are willing to put in the effort to make it happen.

What forms of ableism have you experienced? Let me know in the comments so we can find ways to ensure it never happens again.

Credit:

Access Living. Ableism 101 – What is Ableism? What Does it Look Like?

YOU ARE NOT ENTITLED TO DISABLED PEOPLE’S MEDICAL INFORMATION

People are curious about what they don’t know. I get it. I’m curious to know what a wooly mammoth feels like, and how people can read my emotions so accurately just by the way I move my face. [How does one raised eyebrow say so much?]

But there are some things, no matter how curious you are about, that are simply not appropriate to ask a stranger. And particularly, a disabled one.

“Were you born like that?”

The question came from a man sitting across from me on the city bus as I was on my way home from university. I was absorbed in my phone, tracking what stops we were passing so I didn’t miss mine, and more than that, I didn’t think this abrupt question was directed to me.

“What?” I said quietly. No one else had responded.

“Were you born like that?”

I didn’t reply. It was safer than anything that might have emerged from my mouth. But I knew what he meant. Had I always been disabled?

That encounter was years ago, but it was by no means the only time I’ve been asked that question. And the unfortunate reality is that the occurrence of strangers asking after disabled people’s medical information is ongoing, and far too frequent.

Disability happens for any number of reasons, and often, these origin stories are painful and difficult to talk about. I’m fairly open with mine: I became blind due to retinoblastoma, cancer of the eyes, when I was six years old. Both of my eyes were enucleated and I now have prosthetics, painted with the same hazel that I got from my mother.

I’m open about this part of my history. But I choose when and with whom to be open about it. And let me tell you that it is not with a stranger on the bus.

But there are people who became disabled in other ways, such as tragic accidents, attempted suicide, violence, and many more, things that are not appropriate to discuss. Maybe it brings up the trauma. Maybe they don’t want to relive what happened because it’s too painful. And maybe, they just don’t want to talk about it. Because, believe it or not, disabled people do talk about things other than disability.

It is their right to choose how they respond. And that reason also doesn’t have to be disclosed.

There is nothing more private than someone’s medical history and current condition. I’ve never once encountered an able-bodied person on the bus get asked this question.

But every disabled person that I know has been asked at least once, and often in a very insensitive way. Just because we are disabled does not mean that anyone other than the disabled person and their doctor gets to know that information.

At this point, it isn’t even curiosity about the unknown as it is plain and simple nosiness, and a good dose of ableism. If someone believes a stranger’s medical details are theirs to know and asks with no regard for privacy or consent, the disabled person has just been dehumanized and reduced to an object by which to glean information that to be frank, isn’t theirs to know in the first place.

Now, if someone asks me with genuine kindness and interest about my cancer history or my blindness, I’m often more than happy to answer. There’s a difference between curious and nosy, and if one can ask and still respect that what I divulge is my choice, then I’m all for it.

I said earlier that I’ve never seen a non-disabled person get asked so callously for their medical information. You just don’t do that — it’s an unspoken, societal rule of etiquette.

Why then, are these standards tossed aside in the face of a disabled person? When did we become things that exist to indulge and satisfy a stranger at the expense of our privacy?

Our information is free for the taking. It’s rude if we don’t give a satisfactory answer. We’ve offended the asker — how dare we refuse their request?

The entitlement is staggering. The line between personal information and public knowledge is so easily crossed and it both infuriates me and makes me laugh. How, in the 21st-century, have we gotten to a place where people feel entitled to the private information of strangers, simply to satisfy their curiosity?

Disabled people are not freaks of nature. We are not part of a circus display for you to stare at, poke and prod.

We are people. Yes, we have disabilities. But it is not your job, your right or your place to know about it unless we give our full and enthusiastic consent.

So the next time you ask me “were you born like that?” I’m going to take the advice of my mentor and respond with, “You mean gorgeous? Yes, I was born like that.”

ASKING “WHAT WOULD YOUR LIFE BE LIKE IF YOU WEREN’T DISABLED” ISN’T BEING CURIOUS, IT’S ABLEIST

It’s always puzzled me, when watching interviews with artists and musicians who’ve made it big in the industry, that almost without fail, the interviewer asks a question along the lines of, “What would you do if you hadn’t pursued music?”

I understand that the underlying intent of the question is a curiosity about the artist’s other interests. After all, not everyone who pursues music makes it to a level where they can rely on it to pay their bills. Most creatives have full-time jobs, or several, with their creative passion as a side hustle or hobby.

But whenever this question arises, a lump forms in my stomach, and only recently, have I begun to realize why.

As a disabled woman, I’ve been asked a similar question but with a completely different underlying message.

“So Rhianna, what do you think your life would be like if you weren’t blind?”

For some, it may be simple curiosity. Maybe, if I hadn’t become blind, I’d be an airline pilot, something I am unequivocally unable to do, and that’s all they’re after.

But, there’s an hidden ableism in this question that even I didn’t realize for years, and it needs to stop.

Why are you asking me about what my life would be like without a disability? I am disabled, and unlike pursuing a career in the music industry, my disability wasn’t a choice. What good does it do to play the what-if game about my life now? — I can’t change it. And in truth, I wouldn’t change it even if I had the choice.

Is my disabled life that sad or pitiable that you need to imagine it, able-bodied and “normal” to cope? Are you really going to wallow in the “what might have been” pity pool?

These mindsets don’t do anyone good, but especially not for the disabled person for whose life you’re talking about like nothing more than a hypothetical rather than a human being. Our lives aren’t a guessing game, or a puzzle that’s missing a piece that you need to find so we’ll be whole again. You don’t need to feel sadness at what might have been if we weren’t disabled.

Because being disabled isn’t something to be sad about or pitied, and it isn’t something anyone needs to regret. You don’t need to dwell on the past in a vain hope to offer sympathy; all it does is tell me that you don’t see the value of my disabled body the same way I do.

And that’s what makes me sad.

I’m not sad that I’m disabled. I love my disabled self, because it’s who I am and life is only good when you accept yourself for who you are and who God created you to be.

So, before you ask your disabled friend what they imagine their life would be like if they weren’t disabled, do them a favour and don’t. Move on from the what ifs and might-have-beens, and accept that their life is just as valuable and fulfilling as anyone’s. And pardon my bluntness, but it’d be a lot easier to live like that without having to fight these ableist mindsets that are far, far too prevalent in our society.

Be part of the solution, and cut this question from your conversations with disabled people. On behalf of the 25% of the population, I thank you.

DISABILITY IS ABOUT PEOPLE, NOT POLITICS

My high school history teacher said there would come a time that I’d need to understand politics. And although I know bits and pieces of governmental bodies and systems, I can’t participate in dinner table discussions or understand news articles in a way I always hoped to. I want to learn more.

Now, thanks to Bill C-22, I have a reason to.

In its own words, C-22, called the Canada Disability Benefit Act, is “An Act to reduce poverty and to support the financial security of persons with disabilities by establishing the Canada disability benefit and making a consequential amendment to the Income Tax Act.” In plain words, this is what disabled Canadians have been fighting for, and even though it’s on the political radar with its second reading earlier this week, no one knows if it will even happen.

I can’t explain the details of C-22. I’m still learning about this myself even as I’m writing about it now. Nonetheless, I felt it was important to speak up, because this is an issue that directly impacts my life as a disabled person, and so many more lives.

Recently, I’ve been researching the statistics regarding blindness in Canada, and I came upon a list of such statistics from the Canadian National Institute for the Blind [CNIB]. Here, they list the numbers of Canadians living with sight loss in each province and territory. If you will, take a look through this list and I’ll see you in a minute.

  • Alberta: 160,000
  • British Columbia: 252,000
  • Manitoba: 57,000
  • New Brunswick: 37,750
  • Newfoundland and Labrador: 21,700
  • Nova Scotia: 49,500
  • Ontario: 681,000
  • Prince Edward island: 6,250
  • Quebec: 205,900
  • Saskatchewan: 43,000
  • Northwest Territories: 1,220
  • Nunavut: 1,280
  • Yukon: 1,400

A significant portion of the population, would you not agree?

However, this list doesn’t account for Canadians living with the myriad of other disabilities, physical, mental, emotional and invisible. Can you imagine what the number is? It’s 22%, or 6.2 million over the age of 15.

That’s almost one quarter of the Canadian population. And what is being done to support those people?

My people.

“Oh but Rhianna, didn’t you get a Covid-19 benefit?”

You mean the $600 one-time payment that we received, when able-bodied, working Canadians received $2,000? Yes, yes we did. Thanks government for covering less than half of my rent for one month.

And let’s not ignore rising costs due to inflation, and the income PWDs [persons with disabilities] receive from the Ministry that don’t account for this, and already keep disabled people below the poverty level. If you want to read a more detailed account of how the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction handles income for its disabled citizens, particularly after marriage, you might want to check out my four-part series here.

Am I over reacting? Am I making a mountain out of a molehill? [Whatever a molehill is… is it actually a hill where moles live? Someone tell me, I need to know!]

I don’t think so. Please let me offer another perspective from fellow disability advocates regarding C-22, the response from the Canadian government, and the heartbreaking outcry of disabled Canadians who just want to know that they are valued and be treated like equal citizens.
As a disclaimer, yes, I retweeted these posts, but that does not mean I take responsibility for the exact wording or the messages of other tweets on these accounts.

This is not about politics, elections or legalities. It’s about people. And it’s about time we start seeing it that way and treat each citizen like the equal, valuable member of society they are.

LET OUR YES BE YES, AND OUR NO BE NO

I was asked to give a speech to a friend’s Rotary club on accessibility this week. Having been given free reign within that wide-as-the-world topic, I decided to speak about something that is near and dear to my heart as a disabled woman.

In preparing the speech, I grappled with the question of whether my words were too harsh or too blunt; after all, I want to be heard and understood. But the thought that yes, the truth can be sometimes be hard to hear, kept popping up in the background. I decided to speak my conscience and so, I wrote this speech.

The truth may be hard to hear. It often is. But just as I asked of my Rotarian audience to hear me out about my experiences, I ask it of you: Read with an open mind and a willingness to believe in the validity of my experiences, and of others living with disabilities.

I say these words with love and respect, and I pray that you can receive them in that same love.


Good morning. Before I start, I just want to say thank you for asking me to speak to you this morning. I’m glad to be here.

I’ve titled my talk this morning “Let Our Yes Be Yes, and Our No Be No.” I’ve taken the title from a Bible verse from the book of Matthew, where, regarding whether one should swear oaths, Jesus says, “Let what you say be simply “Yes or “No.”The reason I’m borrowing this phrase is because, although I’m not talking about swearing oaths, it does fit perfectly into one aspect of my life as a disabled woman. But before I get into it, I want to say that, as I go through this speech, the last thing I want is to come off like an ungrateful person or an accusing one. I will be talking directly to people with sight, and I don’t want anyone to feel accused or blamed in any way. But I also believe in being real and honest because that’s the only way for change to happen. So I hope that you can hear me out as I talk about my experiences as a blind woman in a very, sight-centric world. So with that disclaimer, the first thing I want to say is this:

I know you want to help us. When you come across people with disabilities, it’s ingrained in our society for the able-bodied person to offer help to those who need it, and an easy assumption to make is that someone with a disability needs help. Because yes, we have certain limitations and sometimes, we do need it. But that desire to help, which may very well come from a good and true place, can also be incredibly damaging. Too often, the scenario unfolds in a way that forces the disabled person to accept help that they don’t need, and often, this is after the disabled person has said no.

It’s a scenario that I, and others in the blind and visually impaired community, come across all too frequently. We are going about our normal, daily lives when a well-meaning, able-bodied individual shows up in our path, insisting on helping us. Often times, this is with tasks like crossing the street, finding a door, going up or down stairs, or simply… walking. I remember a particular experience that demonstrates this. I was at university, and I was walking down the mostly empty hallway on my way to my favourite study spot in the next hallway over. I was using my white cane. Two girls were walking behind me and they called out, “Do you need help?” I didn’t think they were talking to me and kept walking. But they caught up to me, put a hand on my shoulder, and said again, very concerned, “Do you need help?”
“No, I’m fine,” I said and moved to continue walking.
“No,” they said, stopping me. “We need to help you. Where are you going?”
“I don’t need your help,” I said again, but again, they insisted. Now at this point, I do have to confess that I simply didn’t respond and walked away. When I got to my spot, I did not study; I called a friend and vented about what had just happened.

For anyone who isn’t blind, it’s hard to understand why this interaction is so infuriating. So I want to walk you through what I felt after that encounter so you might begin to grasp the weight of it.

First, there’s a wave of anger. I’m not helpless! Why do feel the need to help me when I don’t need it? Do they really see me as less capable because of my one disability? I am fully independent; I’m going to university, living alone… surely I can walk down a hallway.
Next is the feeling of inferiority that always accompanies the anger. Why is it always the superhero able-bodied person helping the poor, disabled one? My disability doesn’t render me incapable, but somehow, it feels like sighted people will never understand that. No matter how many times I explain it, they don’t listen.
And of course, there’s sadness. My therapist tells me that anger is a secondary emotion, and that underneath anger, there’s always sadness. And who wouldn’t be sad? These types of encounters just prove time and time again that I live in a world that doesn’t view people like me as equal. And as long as society sees us as objects in need of help or fixing, we will never be equal.

If you’re uncomfortable hearing me say all this, I don’t blame you. But stay with me, this isn’t the entire speech.
It’s uncomfortable for me to say, and to experience. And I don’t pretend to speak from your perspective, but I suspect that one reason the divide between able-bodied people and disabled people is so so great, is because in order to make any change, we have to deal with major discomfort and swallow our pride. And as we all know, no one likes to do that.

But what’s the alternative?

Those feelings I described are universal among the blind community, and I have countless friends that could corroborate this. I’ve had too many phone calls with friends where one or both of us are in angry tears over the unfairness of it all.

And while there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to this systemic ableism, there is one thing able-bodied people can do that would make a world of difference.

You can trust us.

When I tell you that I don’t need help, I’m not being rude. I’m not rejecting your good intentions, nor being prideful or stubborn. So many times, the people offering me help are deeply offended that I won’t take it. It’s as if my being independent is a personal attack, and this comes out in their tone of voice and their insistence on helping after I’ve declined. But it isn’t simply that I don’t want your help—I don’t need your help. As a blind person, I am fully capable of knowing my routes and directions around the city, work and school environments, cooking independently, taking care of pets and service animals, and virtually, anything a sighted person can do. I always joke that the only thing I can’t do is drive… legally, that is. Trust me, I’ve driven cars before, just not on the road.

I used a word earlier that not everyone is familiar with. Ableism. Ableism is simply “discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities.” And our society has ableism woven into its very existence. Think about it for a minute:

  • Why do able-bodied people feel that they have an obligation to help disabled people, simply because they are a little different?
  • Why is the unemployment rate for disabled people triple that of non-disabled people?
  • Why are disabled Canadians twice as likely to be assaulted?
  • Why is the provincial disability assistance program only providing enough to make ends meet, and sometimes, not even that?
  • Why are disabled Canadians forced to choose between marrying their partners or keeping their disability payments?—because goodness knows, we don’t deserve both.
    • That is ableism.
      And I believe that one core aspect of this ableism is a distrust of disabled people. In encounters like I described earlier, a pervading theme that I notice is that able-bodied people don’t trust people with disabilities to make good decisions or know what’s best for themselves. I’ve had people question my ability to go for walks around my neighbourhood because I must not know the names of the streets so how do I know where I am? I’ve had people absolutely astounded that I can use a microwave independently. I’ve had people ask how I put on my clothes in the morning, and even though I know they’re referring to how I match the colours, I admit that I’ve let slip a snarky, “I put one arm into the sleeve, and then the other.” And during university, when I was in receipt of assistive technology, I kid you not, this is the dialogue me, and my fellow disabled classmates, endured with the organization providing the technology:

      Organization: So, what assistive technology can we get for you that would be most beneficial for you?
      Me: I think A would be really helpful, for x-y-z reasons. How does that sound?
      Organization: Well actually, that’s not what we provide. You’re going to receive this device instead.
      Me: But, that actually doesn’t help me in my studies. Why can’t you provide me with the one I asked for?
      Organization: We don’t offer that. We only provide this one for all of our clients.
      Me: Then why ask?

      If able-bodied people working in the realm of assistive technology believe that they are superior in making decisions regarding the disabled people they work to serve, they should not be working in this field at all. We are looking for allies, not dictators. The lack of trust is so blatant here and honestly, it’s disgusting.

      But it’s all too common, and for me personally, I’ve resigned myself to this life. Recently, a friend got heated on my behalf about my government-issued ID not being in braille. I was shocked, and I think I said something like, “Well, why would it be?” The idea of actually living in a world that views me as equal is so far-fetched that I’ve almost stopped reaching for it altogether. But what would happen if the trust was restored to our society? I almost don’t even dare to dream about that, because I’m scared to come back to reality. But, I’ll try.

      • Maybe we wouldn’t have such a high unemployment rate because we’d be trusted in the workplace to fulfill the role and do so as well and efficiently as an able-bodied person. Maybe our accommodations would not be a hindrance, but an asset.
      • Maybe we would be more confident moving about in our world, knowing that not every decision we make will be questioned.
      • Maybe building relationships wouldn’t be so scary, because we wouldn’t have to wonder, how will they react to my blindness?
      • Maybe my life would be just a little brighter, because for once, I’d feel equal, appreciated, valued and trusted by the society that I live in.

      If you think that sounds like the world you want to live in, then I have good news for you. Rather than grabbing my arm without consent and shoving me across an intersection I already know how to cross safely, this is how you can help: Change your mindset about people with disabilities. Trust that we know what’s best for our unique situations, and that with some adaptations, we can live full and happy lives. Please help make that easier for us.

      Now, I don’t want you to leave this morning thinking that every disabled person will refuse your help, or that we’re all angry about it, or that you should never offer help again. Truly, it’s the manner in which the help is offered that makes the biggest difference. Is it condescending and forceful? Or genuinely curious and respectful? I don’t want anyone to feel at fault; this is not one person’s problem, but that ableism that is so tied to our society that we don’t even see it. But once you do see it, you can’t unsee it.

      As I am a person who is very organized and loves making lists, I can’t end this speech without incorporating one. If you want to help us in a way that will be the most beneficial, here are a few things to consider:

      • When asking if we need help, be willing to hear our answer. If it’s yes, then go ahead. If it’s no, respect that, and move along.
      • Please never touch a disabled person without consent, even with good intentions.
      • Speak directly to a blind person; never talk about them or ask questions to people around them. We can answer for ourselves.
      • Please do not speak to, touch, or make eye contact with a guide dog. All of these are incredibly distracting and when a guide dog is distracted, my safety is in jeopardy.
      • If you see a blind person struggling to find an object, don’t jump to offering help. It might take us a bit longer, but 9 times out of 10, we figure it out just fine.
      • Please do not refer to blindness or disability as something that needs to be “fixed” or “cured.” We are not broken things in need of repair, and language like this makes us feel like it.

      There are many more things I could say about this. After all, this is my life day in and day out. But I hope that gives you a glimpse and maybe a springboard to make a change. The bottom line is that people are people, whether we have a physical, mental, emotional or invisible disability, and that is not the measure by which we need to be treated. The basics of life—trust, respect, compassion—you wouldn’t believe how far they can go and how much the world is in desperate need of more people that practice them.

      That is the best way to help a disabled person.

      Thank you.

THE HIGHS AND LOWS OF AIR TRAVEL

I am not a good traveller. As a kid, there was nothing more exciting than waking up at 3 AM, dragging my suitcase down the stairs (and usually over someone’s toe, oops), and heading off on some grand adventure. Whether it was a road trip across Canada or a flight that would transport us to Disneyland, I was eager for it all.

But upon returning from studying abroad after high school, my budding anxiety had already attached itself to many a victim, and flying was one of its first. I vividly recall walking to and from classes at university and as airplanes passed overhead, stopping to cover my ears until it faded into the distance. Many a friend held me in the middle of campus as this new fear gripped me tight. And it was then that I realized that if I was having this strong a reaction to the sound of airplanes, flying on them would be unbearable.

And as I’ve just recently returned from two plane trips, one trip to Michigan to take Cricket to his forever home and one to visit my family, I’ve been reflecting on the process of travelling as a blind woman. Seeing as I’m often asked about how it works, I thought I’d take a moment to share my reflections with you and maybe help to answer some of your questions.

So, how does it work practically?

When I travel independently by air, I make a note in my reservation stating that I am visually impaired and require assistance to board and deplane. Thus, when I arrive at the airport and check in, there’s a well established system that I’m immediately taken into:

  • A customer service agent guides me from check-in, through security and to my gate where they seat me and inform the airline agent that I need assistance on to the aircraft.
  • When pre-boarding is called, the airline agent assists me down the ramp and on to the airplane.
  • Here, the flight attendant guides me to my seat, helps me settle in, and often gives me a description of the plane, where the nearest exit is located and the safety protocols.
  • I sit back and attempt to bear the flight as best I can, often with headphones blasting tunes until the Ativan kicks in and I fall asleep.
  • Once landed, the flight attendant guides me to the ramp where I am met by another airline agent who guides me either to the gate for my connecting flight, or to arrivals.

Being passed from person to person is at times quite overwhelming and exhausting; I find myself on high alert, taking note of my surroundings, who’s assisting me and where my bags are at all times. It can be a convoluted process, but it does accomplish its goal: it gets me safely from point A to point B, and I’m just thankful that airlines have policies and systems in place to assist their disabled passengers.

But I’d be remiss not to address the issues inherent in this system. Let me take you back to 2016 and my most notable solo air adventure. You’ll see why.

For my reading break, I booked a week in California, soaking up the sun with a friend of mine from Bible college. To save myself money, I booked the most inconvenient trip—three flights spanning an entire day. Needless to say, when I landed in Sacramento, I was utterly spent.

The first two flights were blissfully uneventful. But before I could board my final flight from Denver to Sacramento, I had a four-hour layover, and for its entirety, I sat in a chair. Just, sat. When the airline agent came to assist me to my gate, I was stiff, cramped and relieved for the opportunity to stretch my legs.

Pre-boarding was just beginning as I arrived and I was passed off to the airline agent for my flight. From here, it was a short walk down the ramp and on to the aircraft, and as I’d walked on and off all my flights and through the airports, I expected to walk this also. But the agent had another idea.

Many blind travelers that I’ve spoken to have been offered a wheelchair as a means of getting from point A to point B. While I know some visually impaired individuals prefer this method—it can be less stressful, faster and easier to manage luggage—it’s never been a method I use or appreciate. I prefer to walk, and I said as much to the agent who had a wheelchair at the ready for me.

“Oh, no thanks,” I said.
“Honey,” she said, her tone not at all kind, “you need to sit in this wheelchair so we can get you on to the plane.” She proceeded to grab my arm and pull me down into the chair, knocking me off balance. I stood up and planted myself firmly in front of her.
“I would prefer to walk on to the plane, thanks.” I could almost see the glare I knew she was giving me.
“Honey.” Again, that tone. “You’re making a scene in front of all these people, and you’re holding up the line. Just sit in the chair.” Once more, she attempted to physically force my body down into the wheelchair, but I resisted. I was losing my cool quickly, but again, I said, “I don’t need this wheelchair. I prefer to walk, and if I could just take your arm for you to guide me, I’d appreciate it.”

She was right. It was a scene, and I knew my fellow passengers were watching. But I wasn’t making a scene. I was asserting my independence, advocating for my rights, and being denied.

It was then that an angel stepped forward from the crowd of onlookers and said to me, “I could guide you on to the plane. May I?” I have to admit that it was a fight to keep the triumphant smirk off my face as I took the woman’s elbow and walked down the ramp and onto the plane. As it turns out, this woman was returning home from visiting her aging mother who was visually impaired.

I was exhausted and fuming by the time I fell into the arms of my friend. And even now, five years later, I find myself reliving this experience and asking myself the same question:

Why are disabled people valued less than the systems in place to serve them?

During that trip to California, I was patronized, verbally dismissed, and physically coerced, the result of which was the unmistakable feeling that my life as a disabled person isn’t worth as much as an able-bodied person’s.

But Rhianna, isn’t that a bit exaggerated?

No. Not when I’ve lived two decades as a disabled woman and continue to hear and endure countless experiences like this, and worse. Being disabled has forced me to take a good, long look at the world I live in and see it for what it is. Too often, it’s an ablest, discriminatory place with people and systems that show an unwillingness to learn, change, and do better for their fellow people.

But people can’t do better unless they’re taught how.
I won’t claim to know how to accomplish this because it isn’t merely an attitudinal change but a systemic one and I’m only one voice out of a global community facing these challenges. But I’m doing what I can, sharing my perspective as someone who lives in this reality, and praying that it might spark one person to action.

So to the woman at the Denver airport, I say this:
I’m not mad that you offered me a wheelchair.
I’m not mad that you were following the directives of your company’s policy regarding passengers like me.
I’m not mad that you assumed I needed the help. After all, that’s what you’re lead to believe by the world around you.
But I am mad that you didn’t value me enough to listen, and trust that I know what’s best for me. I’m hurt that you didn’t respect my body enough to treat it with care and consent. I’m disappointed that it was a fellow passenger who stepped into help while your coworkers stood by in silence. I’m angry that in a society that prides itself on equality for all, I was treated like anything but an equal.
I did not feel like a person in that moment, but rather a task on your to-do list.

And now I ask the all-important question:
Now that you know how, will you work to make a change?

DISABLED PEOPLE AREN’T MADE OF SUGAR — WE WON’T MELT IN YOUR PRAISE

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been told, “You’re not made of sugar, you won’t melt” and sent out into the pouring rain.
I have… looking at you, Mama! But you know what? Cover your ears Mom… but she was right. We won’t melt. I have never once melted from excessive moisture or soaked-sock syndrome.

The same goes for people with disabilities and the praise we often receive for just… living.

I’m sorry to burst your bubble, able-bodied reader of mine, but compliments regarding a disabled person’s ability to carry out simple daily living tasks are not flattering; they’re belittling.

In my eighteen years of blindness, I’ve been praised for almost everything. Some of the more notable examples are being praised for my ability to walk up a set of stairs, knowing the names of the streets in my neighbourhood and being capable of using a microwave without assistance, and all of these as a twenty-something woman. So yes, I am referring to praise for the simple acts of living a normal life—cooking, taking transit, getting dressed, putting on make up, using the Internet, etc. Think of something normal that able-bodied people wouldn’t think twice about and I can bet you that we’ve been praised for it.

Let me make this clear:
These are not compliments.

This is empty praise. It’s meant to bolster our confidence and flatter, to encourage and give us a pat on the back. We’re supposed to be honoured, to feel grateful and flattered that you noticed our achievements. So often, I hear that the able-bodied person is just being nice and that they have the best intentions with these comments, which may be true; I’m not the judge of someone else’s motive.

But when one of these “compliments” comes my way, I feel a lot of things… and flattered is at the bottom of the list.
You need to know the truth.

I feel small.

I feel patronized.

I fear that everything I do will always be viewed through the lens of my disability and what able-bodied society deems to be praise-worthy and what isn’t.

And a question always arises that I’ve never found an answer for: Do people truly believe that my life is so bad that I need the simplest things to be celebrated to make it worthwhile?

But let’s take a step back for a minute and get comfy. It’s story time!

THE ONE WHO WAS AMAZED

I met Mac in the summer of 2020 when I plucked up my extrovert courage and walked into yet another young adults group at a local church. My friend and I had been searching for a community like this for a few months and I was getting utterly exhausted. The emotional strain of putting myself out there, enduring not only the standard small talk of a new social circle but the inevitable questions about my blindness and my guide dog that I knew would come was wearing me out.

The first meeting went very well without incident, and the second was encouraging. I got the questions about how much vision I had and how long I’d had my pup, but those were to be expected. I was starting to hope that I was becoming more part of the group and less of the blind girl.
Until the third week when Mac walked up to introduce himself. And it wasn’t long until it started… and wouldn’t stop.

Mac: So, you can use a microwave?
Rhi: Oh for sure! I put tactile dots on the buttons so I can tell what’s what, and from there, it’s easy. I do the same thing for my oven and my other kitchen appliances.
Mac: So, wait. You can cook?
Rhi: Totally, I love cooking. You just have to make some adaptations and then blind people can totally do it, just like everyone else.
Mac: Wow… just, wow. That’s so amazing!

No matter how I tried to redirect our conversation to something other than my disability, Mac steered us right back. My best friend, who witnessed the exchange, described his expression to me later as “a faraway, dazed expression of pure awe and amazement.” Needless to say, when we got home that night, I needed to vent a little steam.

I was the blind girl again.
Maybe that’s all I was.

I was more than my blindness, wasn’t I? That’s what my family said. That’s what my therapist said. That’s what God said… right? I was a daughter, a friend, writer, and lover of espresso milkshakes. That counted for something, didn’t it?

But when none of the rest of who I was mattered to Mac, I couldn’t help but question what I’d been taught about myself.

What Mac didn’t know was that just a few hours earlier that afternoon, I had sat on my couch, writing out a list of posts for my new blog. “I’m going to do it,” I told my guide dog, Cricket. “I don’t care if they only know me as the blind girl. I’m going to start a blog and do what I love.” The peace that I felt was indescribable—it was like coming home.

I would write, no matter what.

But when I met Mac, my resolve was completely undone. If I was only ever going to be seen as the blind girl, then why write when everything I say would be filtered through my blindness? Would anything I say concerning anything outside of my disability even be heard?

My peace was stolen from me. And I watched it go.

Trade in Your Praise for Puddles

What I should have done is tell Mac what I’m about to tell you:

Stop! And just listen.

My blindness has shaped me in more ways than I even realize today. It’s a big part of my story and a part that I will never deny or diminish. Jennifer Rothschild said: “My blindness doesn’t define me. It refines me.” [My apologies, I couldn’t find the source of this quote as I don’t have access to all her books in accessible formats. Remind me to rant about that later].
My blindness doesn’t define me, but it refines me. I just love that. Don’t you?

But when I, as a disabled person, receive compliments for doing the things I need to do to live, it becomes the thing that defines me. My disability becomes the central force around which my existence revolves.

That’s not how I want to live.
But you’ll have to help me.

Stop paying me compliments for living in spite of my blindness. I do not cope with my blindness. I do not suffer from my blindness.

I am not my blindness.

Will you help me?

Will you help us?

I know that you mean well. But it isn’t enough. Stop and look. See us. See us for who we are and not what our bodies can and can’t do. Stop praising us for things that you wouldn’t compliment your fellow able-bodied comrade for, and look deeper. We’re human beings with stories of our own to share and voices to tell them.

So rather than expecting us to melt beneath the warmth of your praise, just take our hands and jump in the puddles with us instead.

Come on, I can’t be the only 24-year-old who still does that, right?