DISABILITY IS ABOUT PEOPLE, NOT POLITICS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE A-E-I-O-U’S OF ACCESSIBILITY — Y IS FOR YES!

It’s here at last, the final instalment in the series, The A-E-I-O-U’s of Accessibility! It’s bittersweet reaching this point, but more than a sadness at seeing this series come to an end, I’m excited to see where we take it going forward in our lives. I, as much as anyone else, have so much to learn, so much to explore, and I for one, am so excited!

A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y… isn’t that the rhyme we’ve been taught when learning our alphabet? Y’s place on the list of vowels is questionable, but on this list, there’s no argument.

Why.

Because…

Y is for Yes!

I’m not a natural adventurer. I’ve grown into this aspect of my personality and primarily, it’s come through practice and repetition. When faced with “hey Rhianna, do you want to go [camping, spelunking, skydiving, etc, you can fill in the blank], my instinctual response is to say no in favour of staying securely within my comfort zone at home with a cup of coffee, my guide dog and the familiarity of my surroundings.

But I’m learning to say yes. Not always to adventures of the outdoor variety because to be frank, I don’t believe I’ll ever enjoy them. One needs only to ask my ex-boyfriend to find out how grumpy I am on camping trips. But in non-outdoor environments, ones that are designed to grow me as a person and expand the limited perspective I’ve become accustomed to from living inside Rhianna’s brain for 26 years, I’m learning to say yes.

So, when the conversation turns to accessibility, I’m learning to always say yes.

Recently, I was asked if I thought the perception around disability and disabled people in society was improving. Yes, I said, when it came to physical accessibility and the ways in which we can accommodate different bodies; more buildings have wheelchair ramps, there’s more education and resources available on adaptive equipment and the creation of those devices are becoming more widely known and recognized in the non-disabled community.

But I also said no, I didn’t believe it was improving in the places where it counts the most–in the hearts of the people we love and do life with.

When I’m being “helped” across the street against my will, I do not feel trusted as an individual, capable of making safe decisions. When I’m denied access to establishments because I work with a guide dog, I feel discriminated against because of a tool that gives me independence in a way I’ve never had before and that many people take for granted. When a disabled person is praised and viewed as inspiring for being able to use a microwave, we are belittled. When our disabilities make able-bodied people thankful that they aren’t like us, we are pushed to the margins of society.

Until our disabilities are seen as an asset, until we are treated as people, until we are valued as equal members of society and not pushed to the sidelines, we have not grasped the true meaning of acceptance, love and equality.

there is so much work still to be done. And the best way to do this is to say yes.

But how, Rhianna? What do we say yes to? Oh, I’m so glad you asked!

  • Say yes to making the lives of disabled people as fulfilling and lifegiving as possible.
  • Say yes when disabled people need you to cheer them on in the fight against ableism and discrimination.
  • Say yes, I trust you, when disabled people tell you they don’t need help.
  • Say yes, I’ll help you, when a disabled person does reach out for help.
  • Say yes to seeing people with disabilities as people and not broken objects in need of fixing.
  • Say yes to being our allies and not our enemies.
  • Say yes, I see you for you and not what is or is not on the outside.

We are people. And people deserving of the same human dignity, value and love that every human deserves.

But we also have disabilities, and those parts of us are just as valuable, just as worthy and just as in need of love and equality as any other.

Come with me and let’s work to create a world of accessibility, equality, trust and care for every person in it. Because when we make the world a better place for one person, it becomes a better place for everyone.

Well? What do you say?

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

Welcome to the third installment of The A-E-I-O-U’s of Accessibility. Today, I wanted to take a few minutes to chat with you about disability and inclusion.

Inclusion is one of those words that, when used too often, starts to lose its true meaning. It’s a little like love—it amazes me how I can say I love my fiancé with the same word I use to describe my feeling towards mint chocolate ice cream. After a while, if we let it, we lose the meaning and understanding of what love is.

And in looking at the world around me and the society I live in that prioritizes things like inclusion, tolerance and equality, I have to wonder if inclusion is starting to lose its impact, too.

But let’s take a step back. What, exactly, is inclusion? And how does inclusion relate to this series’ mission of helping able-bodied people to become allies with people with disabilities?

Include Accessibility in the Foundation

According to Merriam-Webster, include is defined as: “to take in or comprise as a part of a whole or group.”

Did you catch that?

“To take in or comprise as a part of a whole or group.”

Inclusion is not an afterthought. It’s part of the foundation.

While I was in university, I took several literature classes in which my instructors frequented the use of PowerPoint presentations in their lectures. While this didn’t pose a problem as a whole, the images were a challenge (for obvious reasons). In one particular class, to ensure that I didn’t miss out on any of the material, my instructor took it upon themselves to describe each image in their presentation in excruciatingly, vivid detail.

I sat at the front, scrunching down in my chair and wishing for Alice’s ‘drink me’ potion to make me shrink. You could feel it in the room; everyone knew that our instructor was describing the images just for me. And it was awkward.

I applaud my professor for making an effort to be inclusive. What I critique is their method.

I hope that we can all agree that chocolate chip cookies taste more delicious when the chocolate chips are baked into the dough and not merely dropped on top as decoration. When they are an essential ingredient in the making of the dessert, they cannot be added later and yield the same, yummy result.

Accessibility inclusion needs to be given the same treatment. It doesn’t function the way it ought to if it exists as an afterthought. For it to be effective at creating an inclusive experience for people of all abilities, it needs to be at the forefront.

So rather than add awkward, last-minute descriptions for the images in a PowerPoint, write an image description directly in the presentation so that it’s part of the presentation from the start. In doing this, you’ll let us know that you were valuing accessibility inclusion all along, and not simply scrambling to make it work when a disabled student shows up in your class.

Include Disabled People in the Discussion

But there’s a condition when it comes to being inclusive of the disabled community that can’t be overlooked.

Remember how accessibility is like the chocolate chips?

Disabled people are the cookies.

But, let’s look at this from another angle.

How do you think it would go if a cat tried to teach a bird how to fly. “No, not like that. Do it this way.”

What? Am I crazy? Maybe.

But maybe I’m eluding to a thread that is woven into the fabric of our society that frankly, needs to be cut out entirely.

I’m sorry to be blunt, [but what else is new, right?] Non-disabled people are very fond of telling disabled people how to handle their disabilities, without having any felt experience or knowledge of what it’s like to live with a disability.

And it needs to stop.

It happens in practical situations, when assistive technology organizations run by non-disabled people claim to know what equipment will best fit our individual needs, though we definitively tell them otherwise.

It happens in everyday conversations, when a disabled person is told not to be entitled when requesting accommodations to make something accessible.

It happens on a societal level, when changes are brought in that directly impact the lives of people with disabilities, but those people aren’t consulted or asked if the changes would even be of help.

A cat cannot teach a bird to fly since the cat itself cannot fly.

And a non-disabled person, well-meaning though they may be, cannot tell a disabled person how to best handle challenges that come with their disability because they themselves are not disabled.

Now, this isn’t to say that non-disabled people cannot offer suggestions, raise concerns or questions, or contribute in the greater discussion around disability and inclusion. It doesn’t mean that disabled people are never asked for their opinions, views or feedback on accessibility features or projects. It doesn’t mean that every non-disabled person is doing it wrong.

But what it does mean is that the voices of those in the disability community need to be the ones we go to first. We need to hear them out because issues of accessibility and equality directly impact their lives more than any other. We need them to explain what is helpful and what isn’t, and believe them when they do.

In the apartment building without an elevator, it isn’t the able-bodied person that will be most impacted if the elevator isn’t put in—it’s the person who uses a wheelchair, or the person with chronic fatigue syndrome, or the people with any number of conditions for whom elevators are essential to ensuring accessibility, equality and inclusion.

This is why the world needs to include the people who live with disabilities in the discussion from the get-go. We need to listen to their perspectives, validate their experiences and work to formulate a society that values inclusion as an essential aspect of our lives.

Because inclusion is a value, not about the practical considerations of buildings or university lectures, but a statement about the value of the people it impacts.


Chocolate chip cookies and cats… a post of widely varying analogies, but I hope you grasped my meaning.

Being inclusive isn’t a matter of simply not being left out. It’s a part of the foundation of the world we live in, or, to be more precise, the world I want to live in.

How have you seen people, businesses, and the world around you, be inclusive of people with disabilities? What have they done well? How could they improve? Let me know in the comments.

Be sure to stick around for the next post in the series!

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

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but seeing with new eyes.” — Marcel Proust

Welcome to the second installment of The A-E-I-O-U’s of Accessibility, a series where I’m exploring a few of the fundamental ways able-bodied people can become allies with their disabled friends, families and communities and create a world that is equal and accessible for all.

In the first post, I put forward the thought that asking is the only means of getting answers. But, this process is three-fold:

If we never ask, we’ll never know the answer.

If we never know, we’ll never learn.

And if we never learn, we’ll never change.

Explore Other Perspectives

I’m as at fault as anyone else—I am a comfort seeker. Staying tucked inside my comfort zone, which usually consists of coffee, a onesie and radio drama, is easy and non-threatening. It’s safe.

But it’s also contributing to the problem.

It keeps me in my own world view, and it keeps me from exploring other perspectives, learning from them and being an ally with my friends in the disability community.

I am one person with one disability. I’m blind. But I don’t even know what it’s like to be blind—I know only what it’s like to be Rhianna, who is blind. Yes, I can offer insight into ways the sighted world can accommodate and how particular views are damaging and how to remedy them, but it’s filtered through my unique set of experiences and beliefs.

But what about the experiences of the other 1.5 million Canadians with vision loss? How about the 26% of Americans who identify as living with a disability?

What do they have to say about these issues? Isn’t it time we find out?

Behind every person with a disability is a story. And for many, it can be quite a painful one. Disabilities happen for a multitude of reasons—genetic conditions, medical crises, tragic accidents, attempted suicide and more—and not every person is comfortable sharing the details. (So side note: please do not stare at us on the city bus and say, “Were you born like that?” We, or at least I, will not answer you).

Every experience shapes how we move through the world and where we choose to put our energy. Because of what I have personally experienced, I choose to advocate for ways able-bodied people can begin to see disabled people as equal, and treat them as such.

But other disabled people have their own drives, their own ambitions and their own passions. And sometimes, it isn’t in the realm of disability advocacy at all. And to anyone reading this who isn’t making disability rights their full-time passion project, I don’t want you to feel bad—not every disabled person is called to this, and I want you to use your talents and abilities in whatever capacity you wish.

But many persons with disabilities do feel called to make a change because we know how it feels to be disadvantaged, discriminated against, and undervalued. I am, but it took years for me to come to terms with that. Now I can’t keep quiet!

Each individual person, because of their individual experiences, beliefs and values, have a unique perspective on living with a disability, and that perspective needs to be heard, validated and viewed as an important contribution in shaping the world’s perception of disability.

And making progress toward equality between able-bodied and disabled people starts with the founding belief that people are people, no matter their physical, mental or emotional abilities. And the only way to learn about these is to ask and to listen.

It goes hand-in-hand: We ask, we listen, we learn.

Explore Available Resources

But there’s more to making a change than a paradigm shift. There are practical solutions that can be learned, implemented and go a long way to creating that equal, accessible world.

More than I complain about how the braille on the elevator buttons in my fiancé’s apartment aren’t even accurate, I lament about the lack of knowledge, and willingness to learn, of many able-bodied people regarding those with disabilities. I’m scolded and told that I can’t blame people for not knowing what they don’t know. And while I believe this to a certain extent, I also maintain that every person has a level of humanitarian responsibility to be educated about the world around them and the people in it.

When I’m told that people don’t know how I can be independent or complete tasks like attending school or cooking, my immediate reply (which thankfully doesn’t often make it out of my mouth) is, “It’s the 21st-century. Of course we can do that.”

But I also acknowledge the need for education. Just as disabled people aren’t always called to devote their lives to disability rights issues, not every able-bodied person has the resources to educate themselves. I don’t expect anyone to know the names of the assistive technology organizations or the equipment available, but I do expect and hope that people would give us the benefit of the doubt; in an age where we rely on a device the size of a deck of cards for directions, medical information, world news, financial services and virtually everything else, you have to believe there’s a way for someone with a disability to do it, just like anyone else.

So, in the spirit of educating and sharing resources, here are just some of the programs, courses and resources that I have taken advantage of in my personal life (and there are plenty more for blindness and people with all different disabilities):

  • CNIB [Canadian National Institute for the Blind] — A leading source of information and programs to assist Canadians with visual impairments
  • CELA Library [Centre for Equitable Library Access] – Providing books in accessible format for Canadians with print disabilities
  • PRCVI [Provincial Resource Centre for the Visually Impaired] – Providing services that ensure equal access for students with visual impairments
  • Canadian Assistive Technology – Retailer of adaptive equipment for blind and low vision consumers
  • WorkBC – Persons with Disabilities – Providing supports for disabled British Columbians to secure employment

Just look around, and you’ll find plenty of resources to empower people with disabilities. After all, it is the 21st-century, and if there are YouTube videos on cats flushing a toilet, there are certainly programs, courses, therapies, organizations, technology and so much more to assist disabled people with every challenge that comes.

Will you help? Will you believe that we’re capable until told otherwise? Will you take a minute to explore the world around you, listen to a different perspective, explore what resources are available for people with disabilities, and how you can get involved and become that ally we need you to be?

Let me know your experiences in the comments. What resources have you used? How has listening to someone’s perspective changed how you perceive disability?

Make sure to follow the blog and stay tuned for the next post in the series!

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 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?”

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?