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.

THE LIE OF THE LIMITLESS PHILOSOPHY — AND WHY LIMITS ARE ACTUALLY A GOOD THING

Whether you prefer to use the term pessimist, realist or glass-half-empty, it amounts to the same thing: I see the world as it is. Perhaps it’s because I’ve grown up disabled, and been subjected to my fair share of pitying stares, condescending questions and ableist attitudes which have made me rather cynical. Or maybe it’s the handful of other trials I’ve faced that have shown me time and time again that life is, and will always be, a challenge.

This isn’t to say that I don’t dream, or have aspirations of greatness or ambition to reach high and achieve. Anyone who knows me in my personal life can tell you so. But I am, and will always be, a realist.

And as a realist, I must make a declaration, or a confession if you will, and one that I rarely hear uttered in the blind community. Pardon me while I take a deep breath.

There Is No Such Thing as Being Limitless

Well, have I done it? Have I just made myself enemies in the very community in which I’ve thrown so much of my time, passion and words into? Maybe, and the only reason I wonder is because, in my experience, this philosophy of limitless potential is one that is rather divisive in the blind community. But maybe, my words don’t have to be fighting words but offer another perspective for you to think about.

I’ve read many a headline, mission statement and mantra which propagate an idea that says that just because we are disabled, does not mean that we are limited. We’re fully capable of achieving anything we desire, and there is nothing that can stop us—especially people who aren’t disabled.

But each time I read the headline, the mission statement or hear the mantra repeated by a fellow disabled person, I inwardly groan. And this is why.

I have limits. So do you. You, my disabled compatriots. You, my able-bodied allies.

We all have limits.

And I believe we do a major disservice to the disabled community and our attempt at societal equality when we promote the limitless philosophy. Because it simply isn’t true. It creates a falsity that, motivating or otherwise, is wrong and will only lead to disappointment and failed expectations.

But We Are All Capable

Now let me be clear: Disabled people, and in particular, disabled children, must be explicitly taught that they are capable. The world does a good enough job instilling doubt in its disabled people, so we must combat that doubt with hope. Blind children can grow up to be teachers, lawyers, artists, performers, politicians, doctors and virtually, any profession they set their sights on. As a child, playfully predicting my future in a game of MASH, my friends and I always put “bus driver” as a possible profession, jokingly of course, since we knew that I could never be one. Ability is not a reflection of determination. For as hard as I may try, I, a fully blind woman, cannot drive a bus.

I have a limitation. There are things I cannot do, like drive, and there are things that are harder for me but still possible with the right adaptations or equipment.

Disabled children who grow up in the knowledge of their own capability, talents, skills and unique abilities can, and will, lead full lives. But what becomes of their dreams if a life without limits is the guiding principle?

Being realistic can have its downsides. But the prevailing positive of being a realist is that expectations can be more easily managed, and one’s limitations can be worked with, not against.

If one can acknowledge their personal limitations and learn to view them not as a drain on their existence but a parameter within which to learn and grow, so much can be done. How can the windows be washed to let the light in if no one acknowledges that they are dirty?

It’s the same with windows as it is for limits: we must know what they are, acknowledge their presence, and live on. Because to live life denying an integral part that influences my every decision is to deprive my life of what it could be if I were to embrace it, fully and completely.

Embracing limitations is not only a discussion for those with disabilities, though. Everyone has limits, so this is a discussion for everyone.

Maybe you don’t consider these limitations, but rather “struggles” or “difficulties.” No matter what you call it, doesn’t it amount to the same thing?

Being limitless is not what drives us to succeed. This philosophy only shelters the reality that, for many disabled people, is cold, inaccessible and an ongoing challenge. In this way, limits are exactly that, limiting, making it so that the person cannot achieve their goals and desires. But I believe that once the limits are acknowledged and not seen as the enemy, then a fuller, more free, success is able to be achieved.

And that success is a more rewarding kind, because it isn’t founded on the idea that we had no limits and could achieve whatever we desired, but that we embraced every part of ourselves and worked together to achieve our dreams. You don’t get more points for living a life free of limits, but you do get a more fulfilling one by working with what you’ve been given and doing your best.

Limitations are only limiting when we use them as excuses not to try. What we perceive as a limitation, like blindness, doesn’t have to limit blind people, but propel us to make a positive change. And this is what I strive for in my life, and what I want to encourage you to do, as well.

Tell me your thoughts in the comments. I’d love to hear your perspective about limitations and how you manage them in your daily life.