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.