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

Welcome to a new mini-series on the blog, The A-E-I-O-U’s of Accessibility.

I’ve started this series because I want to delve into a few of the fundamental ways the able-bodied community can begin to help build an equal and accessible world for people of all abilities. So often, it can feel as though the disabled community is fighting this battle alone,, without the support of our able-bodied allies.

But sometimes, I think it’s because they just don’t know where to start.

That’s what I want to do in this series, give you five ways to start and to become that ally.

But why did I choose to use vowels?

Because in an alphabet of 26 letters, there are only five vowels—five vowels that are essential to the mechanics of communication. They are woven into the very fabric of language, and I cannot think of a single, English word without one.

Likewise, I believe that this series discusses things that are essential to the building of that equal and accessible world that I want to live in, and that we can only make happen together.

So let’s jump right in, with the first installment in our series: A Is For Ask.

Ask Because You Care

Be honest with me for a minute: When the cashier says, “how are you doing today?” do you return the question, and mean it?

I know I don’t. At least not as often as I’d like to. I’m usually in too much of a rush, feeling tired, or just “not in the mood to human today.” And I always leave feeling a little guilty.

Could I not have taken five seconds out of my day to ask another person how they’re doing? How much energy would I really have expended caring about their answer?

Definitely not enough to complain about.

But already, I’m sure some of you may be thinking, “But Rhianna, it’s just being polite. They don’t want to hear your life story.”

And you’d be right on both counts. Often times, it is simply out of respect that the “how are you” is asked, and most people don’t want to hear every detail of a stranger’s day.

But what do we do about the one person that needs to be heard? Who needs to be asked? Who needs to feel like someone cares about them? And since we don’t know who that person is, isn’t it our responsibility to give each person we encounter that opportunity?

Now, by saying this, I’m not implying that we need to ask every passerby on the street how they’re doing and dive into a detailed analysis of their personal life. Nor am I insinuating that we must speak to every person to care about them. Caring goes far beyond just verbal; opening doors for someone with their hands full, standing on the bus to let the elderly lady sit down, or simply giving a smile as you pass by can go a long way to show someone you care in one simple act of kindness.

Or simply being… yourself.

I remember, during my last year of university, I became utterly exhausted of the insincerity of the “how are you” exchange. I could almost taste the practiced, automatic question and answers, and I wanted to change it. Since I couldn’t force anyone else to be genuine in their answers, I committed to being more honest in mine.

I was always the first student to arrive for my History of the English Language class, and Jeremy was always next. When he entered and said, “Morning Rhianna, how are you today?” I took a breath.

“I’m…” I paused. “I just am today.” I sighed. It was a tough morning and I was overloaded by everything I had to get done. “How are you doing?”

Jeremy’s reply surprised me. “I just am, too.” His voice sounded tired, a stark difference from his cheerful good morning.

“I know,” I said quietly. “We’ll make it.”

That’s the only conversation I had with Jeremy throughout my four-year degree and dozens of shared English literature classes together. But to this day, I can’t help but wonder if, because I dared to be genuine in my answer—even though it wasn’t the most optimistic answer—it gave him permission to drop the “fine” facade and be genuine himself.

I wonder if he could tell that I cared.

After all, Jeremy was a person with a story that, whether I knew its content or not, was worthwhile and valuable. If I could show that I cared about him in one simple exchange, then for me, it was worth it.

If we don’t take the time to ask, we’ll never know the answer. And they’ll never know we cared.

Ask Because You Believe

If we never ask the question, we’ll never get the answer.

But what do we do when we get that answer, especially if the answer isn’t something we want to hear?

It saddens me to say that what I’m about to describe is not an uncommon occurrence in my life and in the lives of many other disabled individuals. Living with a disability comes with numerous challenges that are just par for the course—limited access to gainful employment, denied access to public establishments because of a service dog, adaptive equipment that’s too expensive for the majority to purchase, attitudes that treat us as inferior, and much more. But there’s one that hurts more than any of the others, because it cuts straight to the core of who I am.

And that is when my lived experience of disability is not believed.

When confronted with the sometimes negative reality of my life with a disability, I’ve heard a range of responses:

“We have good intentions.”
“You can’t blame us for not knowing.”
“You should just be grateful for what you have.”
“Why is it such a big deal?”

Why is it such a big deal?

This is why:

Because a response like this doesn’t dismiss the practical struggles of the disability, but it dismisses the real, raw struggles of the disabled person.

Why ask a question if you’re unwilling to accept the answer? Why take the time to invest in our stories if your response invalidates what we’ve shared? Why ask about the challenges we face with systemic inequality and discrimination if you’re going to defend the actions of the very ones who discriminate against us?

This, my friends, is why it’s a big deal. And it’s also why I’ll keep making it a big deal. Because I’m not talking only about accommodations or adaptations or a theory to be debated.

I’m talking about the lives of people you love—your neighbours, your friends, your families.

It’s our lives.

It’s my life.

And you can’t guarantee that it will never be yours, either.

If we don’t take the time to ask, we’ll never know the answer. And they’ll never know we cared.

And if you never take the time to listen, we’ll never know you heard us.

And we’ll never make progress toward equality and accessibility. That will only happen once we stop segregating the able-bodied from the disabled and start asking, “What can we do to make this a better world for all of us?”

WHY I’M NOT WEARING A WHITE WEDDING DRESS

Having grown up in a traditional, conservative Christian household and adopting many of the traditions for myself, planning a wedding seemed straightforward. It would be a church wedding with the lead pastor officiating, every member of my and my fiance’s families attending and me, walking down the aisle in a beautiful, white dress.

I still hold to these Christian values, beliefs and traditions. They are the core of who I am and who I want to become.

So then, how do you explain the emerald green wedding dress hanging in my closet?

I find it amazing and a bit quirky, that sometimes, I don’t even realize I need the answer to a question until someone else asks me. This was the case when my Auntie—who, by the way, is the officiant for my wedding and neither my fiancé or I attend her church—asked me plainly: “Rhianna, why do you want to wear a coloured wedding dress?”

I was silent, but when I did speak, it was a mess of half-sentences and I don’t knows. I knew somewhere deep down, but until that moment, I hadn’t needed to find it words. My Auntie had asked a genuine question out of curiosity and I wanted to give a genuine answer.

It’s taken me weeks to process my thoughts and feelings into an intelligible form. So here we go, my three reasons for choosing a coloured wedding dress.

Green Is My Colour

Let’s begin with the simple answers.

Green is my favourite colour. It’s warm, cozy, inviting and also adventurous. Whenever I paint my nails, I love doing dark green with gold accents. My guide dog wears turquoise boots in non paw-friendly conditions, and any chance I get to buy green items, even down to mugs and socks, I take it.

And might I mention too, that emerald is my birthstone.

White Equals Vulnerable

Vulnerability is a necessary part to any healthy relationship. But learning to be vulnerable is not an easy process, and it becomes harder when you’ve been hurt. Sometimes, it’s hard for me to trust people because my trust has been broken by others. It’s hard to let go of the fear that my perspective won’t be heard or appreciated because in the past, it’s been thoughtlessly dismissed. I often look for ways to protect myself from further hurt, and one mechanism I’ve come to realize that I rely on is my clothing.

For as far back as I can remember, my wardrobe has consisted of jeans and sweaters, most of them in dark greys or blacks. And I was only in my early twenties when a friend broached the idea that my need to wear dark clothes might be connected to my blindness.

My blindness makes me more noticeable to the world, and for a teen who wanted nothing more than to fit in and not be noticed, I resorted to clothes as a protection mechanism. I was at a disadvantage—everyone could see me, but I couldn’t see them. And the less of me they could see, maybe the less susceptible I’d be to judgment or criticism.

As I get older, while I still prefer to be clothed in layers from top to bottom, my colour scheme is expanding. Nothing too bright or outlandish, but I’m more comfortable being seen in oranges, yellows, greens and other shades.

There is a caveat though—it needs to be a solid colour. This way, even in coloured clothing, I’m protected because no one can see through it to the me underneath. Yes, I am aware that lighter colours, like white, aren’t necessarily see-through, and I’m not just referring to the physical implications. But the deeper one, the one where I’m afraid to be seen because if I’m seen, I might be known for who I really am.

And that’s scary.

But before anyone jumps to conclusions, my fears of being known and judged do not apply to my future husband; I’ve known only unconditional love, understanding and complete safety in our relationship. But that doesn’t stop my mind from asking, “What about everyone else?”

White does not equal vulnerable, and colour does not equal protected. But due to my past experiences and my deep desire to be protected, a coloured wedding dress makes me feel safer.

I Want to Express My Individuality

I became blind at the age of six, and since then, my blindness has been a defining aspect of my life. I learned to read braille and use assistive technology. I participated in sporting events for the blind and attended programs specifically for blind and visually impaired children and youth, like summer camp and competitions. I used a white cane and after university, received my first guide dog.

Blindness was all over me. And while I gained valuable skills, made long-lasting friendships and had unique experiences that have shaped my perspective, I can’t deny the impact that my disability had on my self-image. I was still a blind girl, and for years, I viewed this as a negative. No matter how intensely I fought it, my disability was the first thing that people noticed. Whether it was the white cane sweeping the path ahead of me, the four paws guiding me around obstacles, or the fact that I couldn’t make eye contact and was usually looking up, it was there. The blind girl.

And when it came to getting engaged and planning my wedding, I began to notice a deep-seeded need to prove my individuality.

For so long, I’ve been different, but not for the things I wanted. I was praised for being a fast braille reader, winning a braille competition and maintaining a positive attitude despite my disability. Now, I was afraid that this thread would be woven into my wedding.

I didn’t want to be a blind bride, or a blind wife. I was afraid that the emphasis would be placed on the fact that my fiance is marrying a blind woman, or that the dress or decorations don’t matter because I can’t see them. I needed to be different for something I wanted people to notice.


Being deeply rooted in Christianity, I know that some may be surprised and curious at my choice to not wear a white dress. I don’t blame them; a few years ago, I may have questioned the exact same decision. But when I think about what it truly means, and what I wanted in a wedding dress, there’s one thing I come back to.

Before I bought my dress, I showed my Uncle a picture of it and explained my apprehension at what others might think of the non-traditional colour. His response was unshakable, and made me smile:

“It’s your wedding, kid. Wear what makes you happy.”

And you know what? This emerald green dress, with its silky skirts that do the best twirls I’ve ever done, makes me happy.

But what makes me more happy is that while wearing this dress, I get to marry the love of my life. It isn’t indicative of any deviation from my Christian faith or tradition, but simply an embracing of my individuality and something that makes me feel confident and beautiful. And that’s how I want to feel on my wedding day.

What did your wedding dress look like? Let me know in the comments.

THE WAY WE ALMOST WEREN’T

It would be easier to tell you the story of how my guide dog, Saint, and I met and became a team. Spoiler, it involves a lot of cuddles, kisses, wags, wiggles, and lots and lots of love. It’s straightforward and predictable: I arrived at GDB for training, I was given the leash of my dream match, and two weeks later, we flew home to begin our life together.

But that’s not the story I’m telling today. Rather, this is the story of how we almost weren’t.

Tears on Tuesday

It was the Tuesday of the second week and we had only three days until our flight home. By this time in the program, we were scheduled to be working on training in environments specific to our home life. For me, that entailed walking along some trails, rough terrain and navigating through chairs, tables and the crowds in coffee shops.

But Tuesday afternoon, while my fellow clients and their dogs headed out to work on various routes, my instructor, team supervisor and I headed to a local park to walk a long, looping path. It was half concrete and half gravel, nothing complex or difficult to navigate. We were there to work on pace.

Pace is a crucial aspect of matching the right dog to the right handler. If the speed at which the handler walks is faster than the dog, a myriad of issues can arise. The dog may begin slowing down because of forward pressure on the harness handle. The dog may also feel defeated and wonder, “if my handler is going to walk ahead of me anyway, then what am I guiding for?” Additionally, with a slower dog, the handler is often “hopping-up” the dog—hopp-up being the command to go faster. Alternatively, if the handler walks slower than their guide dog, the handler is continually asking their dog to “steady” or slow down. While this may seem less problematic than having a slow dog with a fast handler, neither are ideal and the pace needs to be matched appropriately.

My first guide dog and I were matched primarily for my mental and emotional health. I was struggling significantly with anxiety and wasn’t terribly active. Therefore, they matched me with Cricket who was very chill, laid-back and cool with lazy days in. But as time went on, I noticed that our pace wasn’t cohesive.

I was walking faster than Cricket was and consistently asking him to hopp-up. In response, Cricket would slow, and when I slowed to try and match, he would slow to a stop. Pushing the harness handle forward and simply walking at my preferred pace yielded only a moment of catch up before he would slow again. It was a source of constant frustration in our teamwork and a mishandling of the situation on my part.

But after Cricket’s retirement, my lifestyle changed and so did what I needed in a guide dog. When asked what I was looking for, I said simply that I wanted a dog with lots of energy and a fast pace.

Fast forward to week one of training and Saint was all that I had hoped for and then some. He had a good pace that matched mine and lots of energy and enthusiasm for the job. At our mid-training meeting, my instructor said that she was confident Saint would be going home with me.

But by Tuesday, we knew something wasn’t working.

Saint had slowed down, even from his recorded pace during his training, and my instructor noted how often I was hopping him up on our routes. I was befuddled; our first week had gone off perfectly. But it was now a problem.

The pattern was all too familiar. I hopped him up, he slowed, and we both got frustrated. It was happening again.

So on Tuesday afternoon, we were at the park, hoping that on a straight and easy-to-navigate path, Saint would get into his groove. We called it “the wiggle,” and feeling that dance in the harness was what I so desperately wanted.

He didn’t. And when we walked an in-town route afterwards, the result was the same.

My heart was sinking. My stomach was in knots, and the only sound on the drive back to the school was the slight gasping of my breath as I tried not to completely break down. No one said it out loud, but the question hung over us like a dense fog:

Did I have to give Saint up?

In the fireplace room, my instructor and supervisor sat me down and laid out my options. There were three:

  • I could keep Saint, so long as I accepted his slower pace and was content to work with him this way.
  • I could go home without a dog and come back to training when they had a dog who walked my preferred pace.
  • Or, I could try out a new dog, because they just happened to have one in the kennel who had just graduated and walked that fast pace.

Tuesday night was one of the hardest nights of my life. Every time I ran my fingers over Saint’s silky fur, or got a surprise kiss on the face, I started sobbing. I called my fiancé and my parents, trying to process what was happening, but I couldn’t. My heart was breaking and I could do nothing but cry and whimper a prayer of “help me, God.”

Was this really my last night with Saint?

Whirlwind on Wednesday

On Wednesday morning, I put Saint into a crate at the downtown training lounge and picked up the harness handle of a dog with tufty, yellow fur and boundless energy. When we set out on our route, it was obvious from the get-go that he had the pace I was searching for.

Maybe even a bit too fast. But then, it was easier to slow a dog down than to speed them up. This dog had the energy and the pace I wanted… but Saint was my baby. Already, we’d bonded on such a deep, emotional level and I couldn’t imagine my life without him. Saint was everything I’d dreamed about but hadn’t dared to say out loud; he was a boy, a yellow lab, an enthusiastic worker and a snuggler. But working with a guide dog wasn’t about snuggles, but being guided safely and independently through the world.

I was torn. Seeing the struggle, my team supervisor offered to have me walk one last route with Saint before making my final decision. But before we took off, I took a minute to talk to God. I said, “God, I need an answer on this walk. I’m so confused and I don’t know which dog to choose. But you know. If it’s going to be Saint, you need to make it clear on this walk.” Then I picked up the handle and said, “Saint, forward.”

It couldn’t have been clearer. And I couldn’t stop the smile from taking over my whole face. My supervisor, observing from across the way, said that this walk either made my decision so much harder or so easy.

“Easy,” I said. “God gave me my answer. I want Saint.”

Love for a Lifetime

It feels impossible to think that I may have come home with a different dog, or no dog at all. Both were very real possibilities. My instructor told me that dog switches happen almost every class, so I wouldn’t have been the first.

But I was among the minority to keep the dog that I was originally issued. And in the month since we came home, I’m so thankful I did.

Saint is my baby. Once I took the pressure off of us to keep up a faster pace, his pace naturally increased and is now exactly what I wanted. We fly down the sidewalk like a well-oiled machine. We snuggle in bed at night, and while I groom him, he licks me clean. He loves playing with his squeaky dinosaur and chewing on one of his many Nylabones. His favourite place to be is on my lap, tummy up and getting endless belly rubs.

He has my heart so fully and completely.

Guide dogs aren’t just dogs, nor are they just mobility tools. Guide dogs are so much more than that. They’re dogs who are part of who we are, who give us things this world can’t, and who help us become the people we desire to be. Because of Saint, I feel independent, free, safe, a little more equal, and so, so loved.

This was the story of how Saint and I almost weren’t. But I’m so overwhelmed with gratitude that we were, and are, and will be forever together—the dream team. Nothing in life is ever guaranteed, and once you come close to losing something you love, it changes your perspective. It helps you stay thankful and not take anything for granted. And that’s my prayer, to never take Saint for granted and to stay thankful for the amazing blessing that he is in my life. He gives me so much—independence, freedom, unconditional love—and all I want is to give him the best life I can in return.

SIX THINGS I LOVE ABOUT BEING A BLIND GIRL

Sometimes, it’s hard to be positive about having a disability. I’ve always called myself a pessimist and more often than not, I focus on the challenges and struggles that come with it. But, even I need a dose of disability positivity every now and then.

So here you go, a list of six things I love about being a blind girl.

I. Being A Braille Reader

A system of six raised dots arranged in various configurations to represent the letters of the alphabet, braille is a code developed to make reading accessible for the blind. It came out of the personal experiences of Louis Braille, born in France in 1809. After an accident in his father’s workshop at age three, little Louis was left totally blind and at the time, incapable of reading books independently. But determined to make a change, 15-year-old Louis Braille invented the system that is now universally accepted and loved.

And you’d be right to count me as part of braille’s fan club! My braille reading lessons started in earnest when I was in second grade and according to family, I soaked it up like a sponge. It’s true; I learned to read and write in braille with much enthusiasm and that enthusiasm has only grown with me as I’ve gotten older. I’m a sucker for braille apparel and accessories; I’ve had braille earrings, a braille necklace and the decorative quilt hanging on my wall has “love” and “friendship” knitted in braille on it. And from elevator buttons to washroom signs, to braille notetaking devices like this one that I use to a good, old-fashioned book read by the fire, I can’t imagine my life without it. It isn’t merely the way in which I read—it’s a way of life, a way that I learn and connect with my world. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to fully express my love for braille and what it has done in my life, but I’ll never stop trying.

II. Getting a Guide Dog

Although not every blind or visually impaired individual chooses to work with a guide dog as their primary mobility tool, I don’t think anyone, blind or sighted, could deny the perk.

From a young age, I knew I wanted to work with a guide dog. And while attending university, it was the end goal that propelled me to practice my independent living skills such as using public transit. By 22, I received my first sweet boy, Cricket. And now, I have Saint, who, by the way, 99% of the time, does live up to his name!

A guide dog has given me freedom and confidence beyond what I ever expected. Now, even though I do have to plan my routes in advance, I feel more equipped to walk out the door with the harness in hand and face whatever may come. Having a floppy-eared partner to journey with me and keep me safe along the way is a blessing I can’t imagine living without and I’m so thankful for.

III. Painting with Many Brushes

Let’s get this out in the open once and for all: Blind people do not have a heightened sense of hearing. We simply rely on our senses more and are more in tune with them as our primary means of gathering information—sight–is no longer available. After all, it’s estimated that 90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual.”

But what is a reliance on sight when you have hearing, smell, taste and touch to paint a beautiful picture of the world. Think about it for a moment: If you could only look at a tree, you would miss out on the rustling of the leaves in the wind, the earthy aroma of the bark, running your hands over the rough knots of the wood, and… well I’ve never tasted a tree but you get my point.

Sure, sometimes I miss being able to see. But I’m just grateful I have other ways to enjoy this life and I’m completely content with that.

IV. Being the Innovator

By being disabled in a world that doesn’t always know how to accommodate it, it’s inevitable that a certain amount of creativity and innovation is required. Adapting to a disability can be challenging enough, but add to it the pace at which the world is evolving and it’s exhausting trying to keep up. Whether it’s a technical work-around or a tactile adaptation for an art project, simply looking about will give you enough fodder to be creative and find innovative solutions to a multitude of challenges.

At times, it’s been a negative, but I’m working on turning this into a positive. It stretches my imagination and expands my problem-solving skills which will help me in more ways than just my disability.

V. The Community

As a Christian, I often wonder who I’ll meet in Heaven. I dream about being reunited with my Grandma and Grandpa, and getting to have coffee with King David. Who knows if that will ever be part of a life in Heaven with Jesus, but why not dream, right?

But even here on earth, it’s quite amazing to think of the people, past and present, that are part of the blind and visually impaired community. History is chalk full of blind and visually impaired people who have left a mark on the world, like Louis Braille, [inventor of braille, 1809-1852], Helen Keller [disability advocate, 1880-1968], and Fanny Crosby [Christian hymn writer, 1820-1915]. Of course, there are contemporary figures including Christian speaker and author Jennifer Rothschild, Youtuber Molly Burke, among many others.

And I’d be remiss not to mention the blind and visually impaired friends in my personal life that helped me grow, heal and become a fuller version of myself—the one that accepts who I am as a unique, God-designed creation.

I don’t know about anyone else, but it feels pretty amazing to be in the same community as these amazing men and women who, in one form or another, have touched my life in immeasurable ways.

VI. The Little Victories

And I can’t end this list without having some fun. All right, it might be a bit at the sighted folks’ expense, but give us just this one.

  • We get to be the heroes in power outages when you don’t know where to go, but we do.
  • We can read books in the dark [and sneak past Mom and Dad’s bedtime rules].
  • We have access to programs, technology and resources that are unique to the blind and visually impaired community.
  • No one can peer over our shoulders at our text messages since we can operate our cell phones with the screens turned off.
  • We can watch movies from a different room, and without worry about the video quality.

There you have it, my friends! Another list, and definitely not the last! For any of my blind readers, what’s on your list? Let me know in the comments.

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.

GUEST POST — CHRISTIAN MOMS WANTED: BLIND NEED NOT APPLY

Having guest bloggers honour me by allowing me to post their brilliance on my blog is a dream I had as a novice blogger. And now, while I still feel entirely new at this blogging gig, I’m over the moon to welcome my first guest blogger.

I met Anneliese several months ago and found instant connection. Through our shared experiences of blindness, service dog use, and our faith in God, I’ve found a treasured friend and fellow writer. She is an artful communicator and her words have left me both awed, understood, and breathless, you know, that feeling when something punches you in the stomach because it’s so good! Yes, that’s Anneliese.

I invite you to read this post, follow her blog, Look On The Dark Side, and welcome her as she shares something intimate and rarely talked about in the disability community—the question of whether disabled women want to, or should, become mothers.

And after you’ve read her post–and ONLY after–check out the post I wrote for Anneliese’s blog where I tell the story of my guide dog, Cricket’s retirement, From First Pet to Last Snuggle.


Christian Moms Wanted: Blind Need Not Apply

Greta, a chestnut-toned German shepherd, sprawls across Anneliese's lap. She and Greta grin as Anneliese appears to whisper something in Greta's fuzzy ear.

Before I get into today’s topic I’d like to thank my hostess for lending me her platform. We’re doing a blog swap, so if you really miss her you can find her work posted on my blog at Look On The Dark Side.

I have some pretty thick mental armor. I’m pretty hard to offend, I rarely respond when insulted or patronized because of my disability because I have better things to do with my time. And for a while I thought the first time I’d experienced discrimination was a store manager yelling at me because of my service dog back in college.

Another version of this biography is that I’m naïve and didn’t realize until halfway through college that people in almost every church I’d attended or visited had been discriminating against me since I hit puberty.

I’d like to share with you my story of subtle exclusion on the basis of disability, how it affected me, and how I deal with it.

I recently read Beth Allison Barr’s controversial new book The Making of Biblical Womanhood; How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth so I can now tell you that it was the transition from medieval maidenhood to Protestant family values that produced the phenomenon of every church lady you’ve ever known asking “so what about kids? How many do you want? Have you thought about how you’re going to balance work and kids/ What kind of schooling options have you thought about?”

These questions started for most of my friends in early middle school, presented as jokes, but began to show up in earnest as we began to talk about careers and college, nearing the end of our high school years. Aunts, grandmothers, Sunday school teachers and youth leaders all had their own personal versions of the interrogation. Several of my friends complained about it a lot, but I never really understood why.

“Just tell them you’re focused on your career, or you’re not planning to have kids, or whatever,” I told them. “They’ll listen. It’s the 21st century, and our church is pretty up-to-date. It’s not like we’re in the sticks somewhere.”

They didn’t seem to grasp how easy it was to defuse the pestering, I thought.

In college I spent a lot of Sundays visiting different friends’ churches. I went with whoever would give me a ride, whoever was going “regularly” that semester, trying to find a church home. I visited SBC, UMC, PCA, PCUSA, non-denominational, Episcopalian, and a handful of others, even something called Reformed Baptist.

It was at that last church where my roommate drew my attention to something. She was angry at a woman who had spent a few minutes talking to us after the service. The woman had been talking to my roommate because they knew each other. I just hung onto the edge of the conversation, not really listening. But my roommate was angry on my behalf.

“Can you believe her?” she asked. “Does that happen to you a lot?”

“Does what happen?” I asked blankly.

“People just assuming you won’t have kids because you’re blind.”

What?

I didn’t remember any mention of my blindness coming up in my roommate’s conversation. Just like people find they can hear their names or interests in a conversation they’re not listening to, I know when people are talking about my disability even if I’m mostly ignoring them. What was she talking about?

“The way she kept asking me about boyfriends and marriage and kids and stuff, and she completely ignored you,” my roommate explained. “She wasn’t acting like you weren’t there, she said hi to you and all the niceties, invited both of us to the small group on Wednesday, and then shut you out of the kids conversation. It’s bad enough we get harassed about it the minute we start wearing bras, but it’s even worse that they just assume you won’t have them just because you’re blind!”

I’ll be honest, my first thought was “you mean people were patronizing me instead of admiring and respecting my forthright and confident attitude about my future career?” I felt like a failure because people had treated me differently, whereas previously I thought I’d won them over to my way of thinking by simply being clear about my goals in life.

But she was right; I couldn’t think of a single time anyone had asked me, except my mom. When I told Mom I had other plans for my future she said she hoped I’d change her mind, but that it was perfectly fine if I didn’t and she’d be super proud of me regardless. Thanks for that, Mom. I wish everyone had been as understanding and supportive as you. I thought they had been.

My then-future mother-in-law asked me, too. She had the same response as my mother. God bless those women!

But both those conversations stand out as the only times people asked me about having kids – well, except other women I know with disabilities. They ask, because to them it’s normal, not shocking that a disabled woman would have kids.

I’m married with no kids. My husband and I don’t plan to have them. SO why is this such a big deal? Shouldn’t I just be grateful that nobody’s judging me a feminine failure for choosing not to grand my husband an heir?

Yes, but no, not really.

I’m happy not to have to deal with it because I have plenty of other obstacles to deal with, like trying to order off menu boards, use photos I can’t see in my blog, read labels on canned food, or see arrival boards at airports. Having a disability is a lot of work.

But disrespect makes that work harder, and whether or not they meant to – I choose to believe they didn’t mean to – these women in my past who assumed I couldn’t, shouldn’t, or wouldn’t have kids because I’m blind sent out the message “you’re incapable of succeeding at biblical womanhood as we understand it.”

With the child-free movement gaining support and more egalitarian concepts of Godly womanhood seeping into the Church from all directions a man or a mother might argue that it’s not as bad as it used to be for childless women in the church. They’d be wrong. Even those who spout less Victorian beliefs about Christian femininity still instinctively behave in ways that signal a woman’s value to society is her skill at parenting.

Without this badge of honor women my age at churches avoid me. Older women attempt to mentor me as a daughter in ways they don’t other young women because if I’m not a parent I must still be a child.

To some degree this is amusing. I have a master’s, I’m a licensed counselor, a home-owner, a martial artist, and more. It feels a little like a kindly old sheepdog trying to warn the top mouser that there are rodents in the barn. But if I had a shortage of confidence in my relationship with God, it could be devastating.

I could write a book on why this concept, that disabled women are not equal in Christ because they can’t have children, is wrong and harmful, where it came from, and how to stop it. Maybe someday I will. But for now I leave you with this thought.

It is sinful – and pointless and harmful – to place limits on how we think God can use any given person.

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?

LOOK UP! — FINDING GOD WHEN I FEEL BLIND

Starlight Serenade

Sing, oh ye stars above!
Sing upon this earth with love.
Sing thy song with beauty inlaid
Sing your starlight serenade.

Sing to those who lie awake
Sing for the brokenhearted’s sake.
Sing a lullaby for those afraid
Sing your starlight serenade.

Sing to shine thy Father’s light
Sing to give His strength and might.
You’re fearfully and wonderfully made
So sing your starlight serenade.

© Rhianna McGregor

It was a seventeen-year-old Rhianna that wrote Starlight Serenade, sitting in the window of the spare bedroom at midnight. The cul-de-sac was silent except for the lone cricket singing his own serenade into the night. A neighbour’s fountain was trickling and if I settled my thoughts and stilled my heart, I could almost believe that I could hear the ocean. But what I heard above all this was the night itself speaking to me.

It was my escape and my safe place. In high school, when my life was shaken up like a snow globe and didn’t know how to settle, I turned to the night as a means to cope. The spare bedroom beside mine, which once belonged to my brother before he left for college, offered me a window ledge wherein I would sit, wrapped in a blanket with the window open all the way and only a screen separating me from the outside world. The breeze was gentle, constant, and I always wondered what the wind had seen; had it come from the sea, or had it visited someone else who was up late, crying over a broken heart? No matter what I was going through, the night was always there.

Most nights found me in the window, praying, crying, writing poetry, or a mix of all three. It was here that, all at once, I felt whole and distinctly broken, lost but safe at home, abandoned yet I was wanted.

It was where I met God.

But there was a catch. As with all things beautiful, they are never without heartache.

Here, my heart ached because in the silent beauty of night, I was acutely aware that I couldn’t see it. Here, I was blind and there was no escaping the truth. I couldn’t lift my eyes to the sky and get lost in the sea of stars, too numerous to count. I couldn’t make friends with the man in the moon, nor wish upon a shooting star like I had as a child.

I was blind. And my body knew it. This article discusses phantom eye syndrome, a condition classified by the presence of phantom vision, phantom pain or phantom sensations that individuals who have had one or both eyes enucleated can experience. In the years since my eyes were removed, I have often felt like I fit into the category of phantom sensations. But whether I am clinically accepted as experiencing phantom eye syndrome or not, I do not know, but what I do know is how it feels to want to see and not be able to.

I describe this sense of “feeling blind” to my friends and family as reaching for something but you come up short every time. Your fingers graze the edge, you strain and stretch to grasp the thing you so desperately want, but you can’t. It’s just a little too far, and no matter what you do, you won’t be able to reach it.
This is how my eyes feel. They want to see, and it’s almost as if they believe that in trying hard enough, they will. But they can’t. No matter how much they strain to encompass the visual world, they can’t.

But don’t think that I move through every moment of my life feeling this yearning to see that will never be satisfied. There are a handful of circumstances that I’m aware trigger these phantom feelings. And when they arise, I get myself into wide, open spaces. These phantom feelings aren’t dissimilar to claustrophobia in that I feel trapped in small spaces, so fields, beaches, even empty streets can help to alleviate the anxiety.

Here is a brief list of those circumstances:

  • The night sky
  • The sea
  • Looking through photo albums

Feeling blind doesn’t stop me from going stargazing or reminiscing over old photos. But I do keep mindful of its weight which at times, can be very heavy.
It reminds me that I am different
It reminds me that I am missing out on an entire sense and world of experiences that many people take for granted.
It reminds me that the visual memories I rely on to build new ones are quickly fading with time, and I’m working with limited resources that cannot be replenished.

But it reminds me too, that it won’t always be like this. CS Lewis said that “if I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

Being outdoors in the middle of the night is when I always feel closest to God. And I often wonder if that something that I’m reaching for but cannot grasp yet is God himself. I am a fallible human, incapable of grasping the truth of who God is and what His plans are for my life. I cannot grasp the ways of God or understand His thoughts in the midst of my humanity. Isaiah 55:8-9 says that “for my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. / For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

And when I look up into an endless sea of stars, I am reminded that the world is so much bigger than I am. And so is my God.


Is feeling blind frustrating? Absolutely, it can be. I believe that it is a physiological response to the trauma my little body endured at five years old. But can it point me to the one who is bigger than my blindness, more powerful than my problems, and in control of whatever happens in my life?

Yes. And that’s what I try to remember when the blindness overwhelms me and I cannot reach what I’m so desperately searching for. I take a breath, tell myself that it’s okay to feel it, and channel the overwhelm into my heart’s yearning for eternity with God. There, I will see Him and that’s the truth that keeps me going for my time here on Earth.