THE A-E-I-O-U’S OF ACCESSIBILITY — O IS FOR OPEN

Welcome, friends, to the fourth post in our series, The A-E-I-O-U’s of Accessibility. Today, I want to share some thoughts with you about what I believe is the key to making the accessible, equal and safe world I dream about into a reality. Let’s chat about change.

Change is not easy. Sometimes, it can be downright terrifying. Even positive changes, like going to college, moving to a new city, getting a job, or starting a family, can be scary as well as exciting.

I held onto my childhood pajamas until they were so threadbare and see-through that my parents had to throw them away without my consent. I was so attached to the blanket I’d had since I was three that I wouldn’t go to college overseas without it [and still won’t sleep without it]. I cried when my mother cut her hair in a different style because I was scared to lose the mother I’d been able to see before I became blind.

But I had to make those changes. And do you know what I found out? Those changes weren’t as scary as I thought. They helped me grow into a better person … and my mom was the same, beautiful, loving mom she’d been before.

It’s the same way with growing and changing your perspective. It’s not about losing who you are, but making room for new things to come in and shape you into a better person.

It can be scary. Very scary sometimes.

But it’s worth it.

But no one can change if they aren’t open to change.

Open The Box

I’ll wager that every person reading this post has, at some point in their life, been told to “think outside the box.”

It’s pretty straightforward, right? It means to think creatively, freely, without limitations, to find solutions to problems that are outside the realm of tradition.

But is it really so straightforward?

Before you answer, I have three questions for you to consider when telling, or being told to think outside the box:

  • What box are you in?
  • What else is in the box with you?
  • And what will it take for you to get out?

As hard as it is to reconcile, our pro-equality, pro-rights society has continued to this day to put people with disabilities in a box. This box has been affixed with different labels at different times; “dependent,” “helpless,” “incapable” “burden,” and “inferior” are a few that come to mind that have been taped to my personal box.

When I’m passed over for a job by someone who is less qualified than I am, but isn’t disabled, my box says, inferior.

When I have to ask friends for rides to events outside of public transit areas, I wear the label burden and worry that they’ll resent me for being needy.

When I am forced into accepting help with a task that I am fully capable of doing on my own, my box says, helpless.

It seems that no matter what I do, my box has a label on it that tells the world I’m disabled and here’s what to do with me.

But I believe there’s another group of people who are in a box, too.

Able-bodied people.

Yes. Able-bodied people.

People who are not disabled.

Their box may not wear the same labels as those with disabilities. And it isn’t up to me to write their labels for them.

But I do have my suspicions. And what I suspect is that people put others in a box because they themselves are in one.

Hands up if you’ve heard the expression, “Hurt people hurt people.” It means that when someone is hurt, they may act in a way that hurts others, even people they love. Maybe we could adapt it. How about:

Boxed people box other people.

Remember the three questions I posed earlier? I want to take a moment and go through them, not to give you the answers, but to help you find the answers for yourself.

What Box Are You In?

Everyone’s box is unique, constructed from a combination of familial influence, experience, choices and a host of other factors. The answer to the question of what box you’re in will depend on your upbringing, your personal experiences, and how those experiences have shaped your worldview, and how you choose to live out your life day to day.

What Is In The Box With You?

Is it a need to feel superior? Is it a need for self-preservation?

Is it fear? Are you afraid that your world view and your place in it will be threatened by allying yourself with people who are different from you?

Maybe it’s pride.

Now hear me out before you click over to another blog.
Everyone has pride, and pride in who you are and what you do is a great thing. But it can be our downfall if we’re not careful; sometimes, pride can tell us that we’re above others who have less, do less, or appear less due to individual circumstances. And sometimes that can make us distant, hesitant to associate, or fearful of the results if we do.

What Will It Take For You To Get Out?

This will be up to you and your box.

All I can do is encourage you to explore a means of escape. Therapists and trained professionals are always a recommendation of mine. The therapist I’ve been seeing for five years has held my hands as I’ve struggled out of countless boxes. It may be an option for you, too.

Or maybe you need a friend.

But no matter what path you take out of the box, I believe the key is being open and willing to go.

Let people help you. Let people teach you. Let others take your hand and guide you. Let those who care about you come alongside you and encourage you every step of the way.

I believe that this is the way forward. To create that accessible world that I, and every other disabled person dream of living in, we have to not only think outside the box, but ditch the box altogether.

Open The Dialogue

But Rhianna, how do we do all this? It’s hard enough to get out of the box, let alone get rid of the entire box.

Yes, it is hard. And in no way do I expect you to do this alone, immediately or without mistakes. That isn’t possible, nor is it right of me to put those demands on anyone. So let me offer one, crucial way for you to get started.

Open the dialogue.

Start the conversation.

And see it through.

Talk to people with disabilities and listen to their stories and experiences. Ask them how they feel. If they tell you about the challenges they face, ask what would be helpful, or not helpful? What would they appreciate able-bodied people doing (or not doing) in interactions with them or in situations like employment, relationships, education, etc?

Talk to them. Talk to us.

Disabled people are the only people who know what it’s like to be disabled. Go to the source and get it straight from those who live it day in and day out.

By this time in the series, I may sound like a broken record to you. Ask, explore, include, and now open, they all lead back to the same, founding principle: people with disabilities are people and deserve the equality, rights, and dignity of every human being.

But I’m not just going to let the record play out.

I’m putting it on repeat.

Change is the only way forward. And being open to that change is the crux.

It’s often said that you can’t help people who don’t want to be helped. It’s true: As much as family and friends encouraged me to seek out mental health counseling and medication, I had to come to that decision on my own and in my own time; for years, I didn’t want to be helped and so I couldn’t be.

I was in a box.

And as soon as I realized it, and felt the effects of the claustrophobic space I’d created for myself, I did something about it. I got myself to counseling and began taking antidepressants.

It took a long time, and hundreds of sessions of therapy (yes, really) before I could see the progress I was making. But I had to be willing to take the steps to make that change.

I had conversations, sometimes hard and hurtful conversations, with friends, family and my therapist. I still have these conversations. But because I knew these people loved me and cared for my well being, I pressed on.

And those dialogues changed my life.

And the dialogues we have about disability will change our lives, too.

But it has to start with being open and willing to have those conversations and the change that will result from them. It will hurt. It will be uncomfortable, and may even cause some pain.

But I’d like to think that you’ll believe it’s worth it.


How can you help to open the box, step outside of it, and close it behind you?

Be sure to check back soon for the next installment! See you there.

FIGHTING THE FOG I CANNOT SEE

It’s a question that hangs over my head like fog whenever the first symptoms start to emerge.

Am I depressed again?

In this post, I talk about the what ifs that surround me when it comes to a potential cancer diagnosis. I monitor symptoms, research every possible cause, and panic at the inevitable truth—I have cancer.

But that hasn’t come true, and I’m thankful for that.

But what does seem to arise every few months is a bout of depression. I monitor symptoms, research methods of coping and regaining energy, and then succumb to the inevitable—I’m depressed.

Every person’s journey with mental health is unique. Each story deserves to be heard and each person needs to be loved. And as I tell you a bit of where I’m at with my mental health, I ask for that love and grace to be shown to me and everyone in the comments.

My first sign of a depressive episode is always isolating myself from friends and family. That study session at the coffee shop? Sorry, I’m busy. Want to go for a walk tonight? Can’t, I’m not feeling well. No matter the event, I find a way to stay home, buried in my blankets and senseless entertainment. Then comes the sadness that I can’t process—where did this come from? I wasn’t sad last week. The sadness turns to anger, and the anger tries to find an outlet. And finally, I put the pieces together: I’m depressed.

But now what?

I first recognized my depression while living on campus during university. It was there that I began going to therapy on a weekly basis and working through my struggles. I still see my therapist on a monthly basis, five years later. And while she’s given me many tools to manage my mental health, I have to resign myself to the reality that, to some extent, I will always have mental health challenges.

But over time, the way my struggles manifest has changed.

I still isolate. I still get sad and angry and hide within myself. But if this past week has shown me anything, it’s that as I change, my symptoms do, too.

Tonight, I was on the phone with my fiancé when I asked out of nowhere: “Is something wrong with me?”

Bless him for knowing what I meant, because that question is as vague as they come. I was referring to my headaches, my nausea, my inability to sleep through the night, and my preference for laying on the couch watching Netflix. I was talking about the lethargy, the realization that I don’t want to do those things that I find fulfilling, and how all I want to do is cry. My voice never got above a loud whisper as even talking took more energy than usual.

“I don’t know, honey,” he said. “Maybe you’re depressed.”

“I don’t want to be depressed,” I said, almost in tears.

I don’t. No one does. Being depressed is awful; if the symptoms we experience aren’t hard enough, add to it the societal stigma associated with mental illness which makes it difficult for many to reach out for help, and our depression is just compounded.

But it may be happening again. And as much as I may fight it, I may be in the early grips of a depressive episode.

I do have the tools to work through it. I have my therapist, my support network, and my antidepressant medication which helps to keep me stable. But nothing is foolproof, and even with all those measures in place, I still struggle.

And I’m scared. I’ve been here before and it’s a scary place to be.

But as I stare down the barrel of yet another depressive episode, I’m trying to remember three things:

  • It won’t last forever.
  • It’s okay to feel what I feel.
  • I have my God and my people to walk alongside me, no matter what comes.