ARE YOU ABLEIST? LET’S FIND OUT

Ableism in its simplest form, is discrimination toward disabled people. But it encompasses so much more than what you might assume. The belief and treatment of disabled people as “less than” is so deeply engrained in our culture that it can be hard to recognize ableism in our daily lives, which can also make it frighteningly easy to slip into.

Even disabled people can be unknowingly ableist. Over the last several months, I’ve come to realize that so much of my language and actions are ableist, and I didn’t know. But now that I do, I’m working on changing them.

But how do we know if we are using ableist language or creating environments that perpetuate ableism? To answer this question, I am not relying on my own perspective or experience, but on the collective knowledge of the greater disability community.

This post, as you’ll realize if you click over to this wonderful resource by Access Living is my primary reference for information on the basics of ableism. I’m no authority–I won’t try to reinvent the wheel. But they are by no means the only one. So, just as I will, I encourage you to continue to research, learn and grow in order to stand up against ableism. Please note, that as I share portions from the Access Living website, I may summarize, shorten or omit certain pieces for brevity’s sake.

Ableism: In General

Let’s start with a few of the more general ways in which we as a society can, are, and continue to be ableist. Let’s take a look:

  • Lack of compliance with disability rights laws
  • Segregating students with disabilities into separate schools
  • The use of restraint or seclusion as a means of controlling students with disabilities
  • Failing to incorporate accessibility into building design plans
  • Building inaccessible websites
  • The assumption that people with disabilities want or need to be “fixed”
  • Using disability as a punchline
  • Refusing to provide reasonable accommodations
  • The eugenics movement of the early 1900s
  • The mass murder of disabled people in Nazi Germany

Ableism: In the Every Day

If you look at that list and think “but I haven’t done any of that,” you may be right. Ableism is often unintentional. But even unintentional ableism is still harmful to the disabled community and to our fight for equality. That’s precisely why I’m drawing attention to it in this way, because we can all do better, and need to do better. But we can’t until we know where we’ve gone wrong. So please allow me to share with you some further ways that we as a society have practiced ableism. And if you see yourself on this list, you’re not alone–I do, too.

  • Choosing an inaccessible venue for an event, therefore excluding disabled participants
  • Using someone else’s mobility device as a hand or foot rest
  • Framing disability as either tragic or inspirational in news stories, movies, and other forms of media
  • Casting a non-disabled actor to play a disabled character in entertainment
  • Making a movie that doesn’t have audio description or closed captioning
  • Using the accessible bathroom stall when you are able to use the non-accessible stall without pain or risk of injury
  • Talking to a person with a disability like they are a child, talking about them instead of directly to them, or speaking for them
  • Asking invasive questions about the medical history of someone with a disability
  • Assuming people have to have a visible disability to be disabled
  • Questioning if someone is “actually” disabled, or “how” disabled they are
  • Asking, “How did you become disabled?”

Ableism: Micro-Aggressions

Micro-aggression is a term I only heard after joining the broader disability space on social media, and what it refers to explains so much of my past that I hadn’t had words to articulate before.

“Micro-aggressions are everyday verbal or behavioral expressions that communicate a negative slight or insult” in reference to a person’s disability. And it’s in this form that I’ve been the most guilty, and where I’m working on change. The words we use have so much power, and I don’t ever want my words to be used as weapons or instruments of ableism. There are more–oh so many more–examples of ableist micro-aggressions, but I’ll share with you this brief list which we can use as a springboard for further change.

  • “That’s so lame.”
  • “You are so retarded.”
  • “That guy is crazy.”
  • “You’re acting so bi-polar today.”
  • “Are you off your meds?”
  • “It’s like the blind leading the blind.”
  • “My ideas fell on deaf ears.”
  • “She’s such a psycho.”
  • “I’m super OCD about how I clean my apartment.”
  • “I don’t even think of you as disabled.”

How Can We Get Better?

All is not lost. It’s abysmal reading through only SOME of the ways that our world has been and continues to prcipitate ableism against people with disabilities. But there are things that we can do. There are ways to change and become better allies, fellow humans and let disabled people know how valuable and worthy they are. Here are just a few:

  • Believe people when they disclose a disability
  • Don’t accuse people of faking their disability
  • Listen to people when they request an accommodation
  • Don’t assume you know what someone needs
  • Never touch a person with a disability or their mobility equipment without consent
  • Keep invasive questions to yourself
  • Don’t speak on behalf of someone with a disability unless they explicitly ask you to
  • Talk about disability with children and young people
  • Incorporate accessibility into your event planning

Ableism is like anything else–something that needs to change but can only be done once we know how to change and are willing to put in the effort to make it happen.

What forms of ableism have you experienced? Let me know in the comments so we can find ways to ensure it never happens again.

Credit:

Access Living. Ableism 101 – What is Ableism? What Does it Look Like?

ASKING “WHAT WOULD YOUR LIFE BE LIKE IF YOU WEREN’T DISABLED” ISN’T BEING CURIOUS, IT’S ABLEIST

It’s always puzzled me, when watching interviews with artists and musicians who’ve made it big in the industry, that almost without fail, the interviewer asks a question along the lines of, “What would you do if you hadn’t pursued music?”

I understand that the underlying intent of the question is a curiosity about the artist’s other interests. After all, not everyone who pursues music makes it to a level where they can rely on it to pay their bills. Most creatives have full-time jobs, or several, with their creative passion as a side hustle or hobby.

But whenever this question arises, a lump forms in my stomach, and only recently, have I begun to realize why.

As a disabled woman, I’ve been asked a similar question but with a completely different underlying message.

“So Rhianna, what do you think your life would be like if you weren’t blind?”

For some, it may be simple curiosity. Maybe, if I hadn’t become blind, I’d be an airline pilot, something I am unequivocally unable to do, and that’s all they’re after.

But, there’s an hidden ableism in this question that even I didn’t realize for years, and it needs to stop.

Why are you asking me about what my life would be like without a disability? I am disabled, and unlike pursuing a career in the music industry, my disability wasn’t a choice. What good does it do to play the what-if game about my life now? — I can’t change it. And in truth, I wouldn’t change it even if I had the choice.

Is my disabled life that sad or pitiable that you need to imagine it, able-bodied and “normal” to cope? Are you really going to wallow in the “what might have been” pity pool?

These mindsets don’t do anyone good, but especially not for the disabled person for whose life you’re talking about like nothing more than a hypothetical rather than a human being. Our lives aren’t a guessing game, or a puzzle that’s missing a piece that you need to find so we’ll be whole again. You don’t need to feel sadness at what might have been if we weren’t disabled.

Because being disabled isn’t something to be sad about or pitied, and it isn’t something anyone needs to regret. You don’t need to dwell on the past in a vain hope to offer sympathy; all it does is tell me that you don’t see the value of my disabled body the same way I do.

And that’s what makes me sad.

I’m not sad that I’m disabled. I love my disabled self, because it’s who I am and life is only good when you accept yourself for who you are and who God created you to be.

So, before you ask your disabled friend what they imagine their life would be like if they weren’t disabled, do them a favour and don’t. Move on from the what ifs and might-have-beens, and accept that their life is just as valuable and fulfilling as anyone’s. And pardon my bluntness, but it’d be a lot easier to live like that without having to fight these ableist mindsets that are far, far too prevalent in our society.

Be part of the solution, and cut this question from your conversations with disabled people. On behalf of the 25% of the population, I thank you.

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.

DISABLED PEOPLE AREN’T MADE OF SUGAR — WE WON’T MELT IN YOUR PRAISE

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been told, “You’re not made of sugar, you won’t melt” and sent out into the pouring rain.
I have… looking at you, Mama! But you know what? Cover your ears Mom… but she was right. We won’t melt. I have never once melted from excessive moisture or soaked-sock syndrome.

The same goes for people with disabilities and the praise we often receive for just… living.

I’m sorry to burst your bubble, able-bodied reader of mine, but compliments regarding a disabled person’s ability to carry out simple daily living tasks are not flattering; they’re belittling.

In my eighteen years of blindness, I’ve been praised for almost everything. Some of the more notable examples are being praised for my ability to walk up a set of stairs, knowing the names of the streets in my neighbourhood and being capable of using a microwave without assistance, and all of these as a twenty-something woman. So yes, I am referring to praise for the simple acts of living a normal life—cooking, taking transit, getting dressed, putting on make up, using the Internet, etc. Think of something normal that able-bodied people wouldn’t think twice about and I can bet you that we’ve been praised for it.

Let me make this clear:
These are not compliments.

This is empty praise. It’s meant to bolster our confidence and flatter, to encourage and give us a pat on the back. We’re supposed to be honoured, to feel grateful and flattered that you noticed our achievements. So often, I hear that the able-bodied person is just being nice and that they have the best intentions with these comments, which may be true; I’m not the judge of someone else’s motive.

But when one of these “compliments” comes my way, I feel a lot of things… and flattered is at the bottom of the list.
You need to know the truth.

I feel small.

I feel patronized.

I fear that everything I do will always be viewed through the lens of my disability and what able-bodied society deems to be praise-worthy and what isn’t.

And a question always arises that I’ve never found an answer for: Do people truly believe that my life is so bad that I need the simplest things to be celebrated to make it worthwhile?

But let’s take a step back for a minute and get comfy. It’s story time!

THE ONE WHO WAS AMAZED

I met Mac in the summer of 2020 when I plucked up my extrovert courage and walked into yet another young adults group at a local church. My friend and I had been searching for a community like this for a few months and I was getting utterly exhausted. The emotional strain of putting myself out there, enduring not only the standard small talk of a new social circle but the inevitable questions about my blindness and my guide dog that I knew would come was wearing me out.

The first meeting went very well without incident, and the second was encouraging. I got the questions about how much vision I had and how long I’d had my pup, but those were to be expected. I was starting to hope that I was becoming more part of the group and less of the blind girl.
Until the third week when Mac walked up to introduce himself. And it wasn’t long until it started… and wouldn’t stop.

Mac: So, you can use a microwave?
Rhi: Oh for sure! I put tactile dots on the buttons so I can tell what’s what, and from there, it’s easy. I do the same thing for my oven and my other kitchen appliances.
Mac: So, wait. You can cook?
Rhi: Totally, I love cooking. You just have to make some adaptations and then blind people can totally do it, just like everyone else.
Mac: Wow… just, wow. That’s so amazing!

No matter how I tried to redirect our conversation to something other than my disability, Mac steered us right back. My best friend, who witnessed the exchange, described his expression to me later as “a faraway, dazed expression of pure awe and amazement.” Needless to say, when we got home that night, I needed to vent a little steam.

I was the blind girl again.
Maybe that’s all I was.

I was more than my blindness, wasn’t I? That’s what my family said. That’s what my therapist said. That’s what God said… right? I was a daughter, a friend, writer, and lover of espresso milkshakes. That counted for something, didn’t it?

But when none of the rest of who I was mattered to Mac, I couldn’t help but question what I’d been taught about myself.

What Mac didn’t know was that just a few hours earlier that afternoon, I had sat on my couch, writing out a list of posts for my new blog. “I’m going to do it,” I told my guide dog, Cricket. “I don’t care if they only know me as the blind girl. I’m going to start a blog and do what I love.” The peace that I felt was indescribable—it was like coming home.

I would write, no matter what.

But when I met Mac, my resolve was completely undone. If I was only ever going to be seen as the blind girl, then why write when everything I say would be filtered through my blindness? Would anything I say concerning anything outside of my disability even be heard?

My peace was stolen from me. And I watched it go.

Trade in Your Praise for Puddles

What I should have done is tell Mac what I’m about to tell you:

Stop! And just listen.

My blindness has shaped me in more ways than I even realize today. It’s a big part of my story and a part that I will never deny or diminish. Jennifer Rothschild said: “My blindness doesn’t define me. It refines me.” [My apologies, I couldn’t find the source of this quote as I don’t have access to all her books in accessible formats. Remind me to rant about that later].
My blindness doesn’t define me, but it refines me. I just love that. Don’t you?

But when I, as a disabled person, receive compliments for doing the things I need to do to live, it becomes the thing that defines me. My disability becomes the central force around which my existence revolves.

That’s not how I want to live.
But you’ll have to help me.

Stop paying me compliments for living in spite of my blindness. I do not cope with my blindness. I do not suffer from my blindness.

I am not my blindness.

Will you help me?

Will you help us?

I know that you mean well. But it isn’t enough. Stop and look. See us. See us for who we are and not what our bodies can and can’t do. Stop praising us for things that you wouldn’t compliment your fellow able-bodied comrade for, and look deeper. We’re human beings with stories of our own to share and voices to tell them.

So rather than expecting us to melt beneath the warmth of your praise, just take our hands and jump in the puddles with us instead.

Come on, I can’t be the only 24-year-old who still does that, right?

BREAKING FREEDOM — THE AIRLINE BROKE HER WHEELCHAIR [AND THOUSANDS MORE]

If once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, and three times is a pattern, what do we say after the 15,000th time? It’s high time many airline companies answer that question, especially in regards to the countless wheelchairs and mobility scooters that have been broken, damaged, lost or stolen on their watch, and the disabled people that suffer the consequences.

Emily Ladau is a disability rights activist, author of Demystifying Disability, and a wheelchair user. On January 25, 2023, she shared a video entitled, “Flying Has Become Hell for Passengers with Wheelchairs” on her Facebook page, which documented how a typical flight plays out for her as a wheelchair user. As more than 15,000 wheelchairs have been broken, damaged or lost since reporting became mandatory in 2018, Emily knew it would inevitably happen to her.

It did. And now, more than a month after the airline damaged her wheelchair, it is still not fixed and is being held together by duct tape.

Wheelchairs are more than a mobility tool. They are freedom, independence, and as one woman so aptly put it: “It’s like breaking our legs” when they get damaged.

It’s time to stop the discrimination and the mistreatment of disabled people. It’s time we begin treating them and their freedom-giving equipment with the respect and care they deserve.

I encourage you to watch the video, share it with your family and friends, and join in the fight to end this abhorrent discrimination. It’s about time.

Don’t you agree?

You can buy Emily’s book, Demystifying Disability here.

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 first guide dog, Cricket’s retirement, From First Pet to Last Snuggle.


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 CASE OF THE DISABLED CHRISTIAN, PART ONE: SHOULD WE PRAY FOR HEALING?

Let’s hit the ground running with this blog! And I’m excited to attack the most asked, and rather controversial question for most disabled people.

Do You Want to Be Healed?

While I have an easy answer to this question which I shout from the rooftops with more conviction than most people expect, I’m not going to answer it yet. I want to break down all the facets of this question first so we can understand fully what we’re asking. I think it’s much deeper than we realize. As you read, please be mindful that everything I say here is my own personal conviction and though I know many others who share my views, these are my words and not meant to represent every disabled person’s experience.

It’s Just Physical, Right?

When someone prays for my healing, they are asking for my physical disability to be restored to health. They’re asking that my blindness be taken away and that I be given sight. That seems fairly obvious, right?

Maybe. Maybe not.

In praying for any need, there is always something underlying, something which propels the prayer into action. When the Israelites asked Moses for water in the desert in Exodus 17, Moses petitioned the Lord and He provided water through the rock at Horeb. They were thirsty so they asked for water. Similarly, when the 19th-century preacher, Charles Finney prayed for rain, he prayed with expectation and with the knowledge that without it, the crops of Oberlin Ohio would die and they couldn’t care for their cattle. Their need for rain prompted a prayer, and God answered their prayer. Though prayer is first and foremost a way to be in conversation with God, to know Him, to listen, and to grow closer to Him, it’s perfectly okay to ask for what we need. Matthew 21:22 says “And whatever you ask for in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”

But I always wonder what drives people to pray for my healing. The most common answer I hear to this question is that they want me, the disabled person, to have a better quality of life. But stay with me here, because I want to break this down even further.

What constitutes a “good” quality of life? For some, I can imagine that it’s being financially stable. For others, having a family, or perhaps, it’s having the freedom to travel. Everyone is different—some love to be up and moving and others are perfectly content at home.

But you know what? I can do all those things, too. People who are blind can travel, raise families and be financially stable. There’s no one-size-fits-all standard for quality of life. So before presuming that a disabled person’s quality of life is somehow lessened by their disability, try something different… ask them. They may just be perfectly happy. I know I am.

There’s one more comment I’d like to make before I leave this quality-of-life discussion. In hearing this question, I can’t help but hear some underlying ableism — ableism being discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities. Now, let me ask this:

What makes an able-bodied person feel that they know what’s best for a disabled person?

Please, take a minute and think that over. I don’t pretend to have an answer, and it will vary depending on who you ask. But I encourage you to spend time with that question, and if you can’t find a reason other than “I’m able-bodied and they have a disability,” then I implore you as nicely as I can: STOP!

Maybe people think our quality of life would be improved by healing since we wouldn’t be bound by hospital visits or adaptive equipment or prescription medications. We wouldn’t be limited and would be free to live as we wish. But, everyone, able-bodied or disabled, has limits. Hate to break it to you. Mine happen to be physical, and for some, they’re mental or emotional. Limits don’t inhibit freedom—they enhance it.

But Doesn’t God Want Them to Be Healed?

In the Bible, there are countless stories where Jesus heals people. The healing of the blind man in John 9, the bleeding woman in Mark 5:21-43, and even after Jesus ascended, his disciples, Peter and John healing the lame man in Acts 3. These accounts are incredible and miraculous, clearly the hand of God at work in people’s lives.

But in being told and retold these miraculous accounts of healing, I’ve grown up a little fearful of what this teaches us about people with disabilities. Our presence in the Bible is often as the recipient of the amazing grace that Jesus offers in being healed of our afflictions. If this is how we are teaching about disabled individuals in the world and particularly in church, it’s little wonder that healing is our go-to response when presented with someone like me.

“But Jesus healed the blind man,” they say. “He healed the lame, the mute, the demon-possessed. Jesus was all about healing.”

Yes! He was, and still is! You’ll never see me arguing with that. But is that the only type of healing that Jesus wants for us?

I believe Jesus came to heal us spiritually, to draw us into relationship with him. Paying for our sins by dying on the cross in our place wasn’t so that I might be physically healed, but so that I could come to him, even as a sinful person, and find healing for my soul. Does that mean that Jesus has lost interest in physical healing? Absolutely not! But I don’t believe it’s his priority, and when he chooses to heal, it’s for a purpose.

Here’s where I am going to take a gamble, and this isn’t meant to put words in anyone’s mouth. But in my heart, I do believe this is a very real part of the driving force, whether the asker knows it or not.

It creates a crisis of faith for the able-bodied believer. Jesus healed the sick and disabled. He can heal today, right now, if we pray. But when he doesn’t, or the disabled person doesn’t want to be healed… what do we do with that? How do we as believers reconcile an ever-loving God with a disability? Because, if he were truly loving and wanting the best for us, wouldn’t He heal us?

We don’t know how to hold both, our God of love who made us fearfully and wonderfully and with a purpose, and disability.

But there is a way.

Continue reading: THE CASE OF THE DISABLED CHRISTIAN, PART TWO: “ALL TO THE GLORY OF GOD.”

THE CASE OF THE DISABLED CHRISTIAN, PART TWO: “ALL TO THE GLORY OF GOD.”

NOTE: Read THE CASE OF THE DISABLED CHRISTIAN, PART ONE: SHOULD WE PRAY FOR HEALING?” here.

Do I Want to Be Healed?

THE CASE OF THE DISABLED CHRISTIAN, PART ONE: SHOULD WE PRAY FOR HEALING? In part one, I promised you an easy answer to this question, so here it is:

Do I want to be healed?

No.

I do not want to be healed. Nor do I believe that I need to be healed. For the quality of life crowd, let me assure you that while I have my struggles like everyone, I have a wonderful life, blindness and all. I live within walking distance of a gorgeous beach. I have a family that loves me unconditionally, a supportive and inclusive church community, friends that uplift and encourage me, and I have my independence. I see nothing missing from this beautiful picture.
While sitting at the beach last week with a friend, looking out at the waves, I said, “I couldn’t enjoy this any more if I were sighted.” And I meant it.

But what of my relationship with God? It hasn’t always been this way. When I first became blind, I prayed for healing. My family prayed for healing. And that wasn’t wrong. When I prayed for physical healing last, I was eighteen and sitting on the window ledge of my second-story college dorm room. I had a nudge in my heart and I listened. Maybe there’ll come a time that I’ll ask again in the future, but only if the Lord leads me to it. I choose to believe, and be content with where God has placed me in this world. And that brings me to my final thought, and the most important lesson I’ve learned.

It’s About God, Not Me

In my last post, I said that we don’t know how to hold both a loving God and a disability together.

This is how:

By realizing that having a disability changes our lives, but it doesn’t change God.

The question of whether I’m blind for the rest of my life or if God restores my sight is irrelevant to the bigger picture.
It’s about God, not me. He is still who He has always been and always will be—a God of love, grace, justice and the savior of my soul. I am here on this earth to serve and glorify God, not the other way around. By no means has this been easy, and I struggle with this truth every moment of my life; my sinful nature persuades me that I’m the center of the world and even God is subject to my wishes. I get upset when He doesn’t answer prayers the way that I think is best, and my faith wavers when I don’t feel His presence the way that I hear worship leaders and christian authors describe. But the truth doesn’t change.

God doesn’t change.

The question of healing has been one that I’ve had to grapple with for as long as I’ve been blind. People are always curious about my answer, and even more so when they hear that my answer is no. I’ve given my reasons to family, to friends and to total strangers. But it took many years, lots of tears and constant wrestling with God to come to the conclusion that I have.

If it is God’s will to heal me, then may I be healed. But it will have to come from Him, not me. My healing must be part of His plan to bring glory to Him in my life. But for now, as I write this looking out the window at the beautiful ocean, I believe strongly in my spirit that I am firmly in the center of God’s will. I can see the blessings and the growth and the beauty that my blindness has brought. And if God is using this to his glory, who am I to rob God of a way that He’s chosen to work in my life and the lives of those around me?

God is so much bigger than I can imagine, and my healing is in His hands. I Corinthians 10:31 says it well: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”

“So Rhianna, can I pray for you to be healed?”

“Thanks for the thought. But no. There are other things going on right now that I’m struggling with, though. Could we pray for those? And if there’s anything that you need, I’d be happy to pray with you, too.”

I WAS BULLIED FOR BEING BLIND –A MINI MEMOIR

I’m somewhere between four and six years old–no longer sighted but not quite blind–when I’m bullied for the first time. And though the details are lost to memory, the belittlement and fear has never left my body. And I know it never will.

This is that story, the moment when I first learned that I would not always be safe, protected or valued because I was disabled.


“Who am I?”

“Who am I?”

“Who am I?”

Their voices tumble over each other, the cascade of the same mocking, accusing question thundering like a waterfall in my ears. I close my eyes and try to drown it out, but I can’t.

“Who am I?”

“Who am I?”

I don’t remember how I got here. The grassy slope that inclines up to the soccer field was where I’d been rolling down gleefully–maybe not today, but I know I have before–but now, it’s my prison. I’m on my back, my feet above my head at the top of the slope, and like a sheep amongst wolves, I am in the middle of them.

Trapped.

No way to escape.

Their hands pin me to the field, their taunts unrelenting. I can’t see whose holding me down, my vision is already too blurry to make them out. They’re older kids, anyway. I’m too small to struggle, and I’d never win. But there has to be at least five or six.

“Who am I?” comes the mocking refrain. Over and over, they spit the question and laugh. Let the little blind girl figure it out.

But I don’t.

So I stay put.

I don’t know how I get free. But at some point, I’m released from their grip, able to stand and brush the grass and dirt from my shirt, and go inside. It doesn’t happen again, but it doesn’t have to–I’ll never forget.

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.

ON ACCESSIBILITY — IT’S JUST THE RIGHT THING TO DO

Accessibility is near and dear to the hearts of many a person with a disability.

Why?

Because for me, it’s how the world tells me, “Hey Rhianna, we value you. You are important. We value your contributions to society as a person, and we want you to know that you matter.”

But unfortunately, this isn’t always the message that I receive.

Let me tell you a story to illustrate this:

After moving to a new city in early 2021, I was in search of a family doctor. I happened upon one practice in my neighbourhood and they had an application for prospective patients to complete. When I called the clinic to enquire if they had an electronic version that they could send to me, the receptionist rudely informed me that the application is only available in hard copy print and in no way could they provide an alternative format. My only option was to have a sighted friend fill it out for me. Having no other choice, I did just that.
My landlady picked up the form, and before leaving the office, asked that same receptionist about their policy of no electronic documents.
“We cannot provide electronic forms due to the possibility that someone may copy it for their own purposes,” came the clipped reply.
“Like they can’t do that with a photocopier,” my landlady said as she walked out with the printed application.
Needless to say, I never returned the form to that practice, resolving to find one that prioritized their patients’ needs above their convenience.

Yes—I said convenience. Because the truth is that it is often more a matter of convenience rather than an inability to accommodate.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a perfect example. When it became unsafe to attend medical appointments in person, and appointments went to virtual platforms, I breathed a tentative sigh of relief. On one hand, previously inconvenient obligations were now made easier and more accessible as I didn’t have to arrange rides to and from the clinics, spend money for the time and transportation, and I was able to handle my affairs independently. But on the other hand, a question was niggling at me, and the friends in whom I confided in, were also wrestling with this question.

Why did the change that disabled people had been lobbying for only come about when it became an inconvenience for the able-bodied? How come, when the world was thrown into unprecedented chaos, could we so quickly adapt to alternative means of living, yet, it was too inconvenient or “not available at this time” when a disable person asked for it before?

Was the voice of the non-disabled truly that much more valued than that of the disabled?

Let me tell you another story, thankfully one with a happier ending. I do not want this post to be all doom-and-gloom because there are people and businesses out there that do prioritize accessibility and the people who live with disabilities. It’s just sadly, the rarity.

It was November 2020, and I was sitting on the guest bed at a friend’s house, dialing the number for the walk-in clinic to ask for a prescription for antidepressant medication. When the receptionist answered, I launched into my explanation, undoubtedly a defensive tone to my voice: “I’m calling because I’m fully blind and use a screenreader on my laptop, but I wasn’t able to do the booking online as you requested. But I really need this medication for my depression and I was wondering if I could book a doctor’s appointment through you, please?” I waited, a bundle of nerves in the bottom of my belly.
“Of course. I’m sorry that the website was not accessible for you. Let me connect you with one of our nurses who will help you complete the mental health questionnaire for the doctor.”
I was astounded. Did they just accommodate my blindness without so much as a blink? I wasn’t reprimanded for going against their written request to book online only. I never once felt like a waste of time, or an inconvenience. I was heard, accepted, and treated like a valued individual.

How different are those two experiences? Where one wasn’t willing to think outside the box and offer their best service to a potential patient, the other was willing to recognize where their system was lacking and remedy that the best they could in the interest of getting me the help I needed. Where I felt excluded and devalued by the first practice, the second overwhelmed me; they cared about me, and I don’t know if any able-bodied person can truly understand how amazing this feeling is.

The problem is that it shouldn’t feel amazing. It should feel normal.

That’s what it comes down to. Accessibility is more than a laundry list of physical adaptations to be made in order to appease the disabled person. It’s making the world accessible for every person that lives in it, ensuring we know that you see us as valuable and equal.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t offer a few suggestions for those physical accommodations I mentioned, as, making a space, digital or physical, a welcoming and inclusive one for all, is a vital part in the wellbeing of
Let’s consider a few scenarios and how you can work to improve:

• Your website isn’t accessible for screenreader users? Hire an accessibility tester to offer feedback on ways you can improve.

• Are your virtual presentations audio-only? Provide closed captions for those that may be hard-of-hearing.

• Do you post lots of photos on your social media? Write an alt text [alternate text] description of the photo so that your visually impaired followers know what the photo is.

• Do your clients need to complete forms or paperwork for your services? Offer them the option to fill it out online or in an electronic document so that their personal information (like medical records, and identification) can be disclosed privately without a third-party.

There are countless ways to be more inclusive and accessible to someone with a disability, and so often, it’s simple and easy to incorporate into your business plan or process.
But the simplest, and best, thing to do for accessibility?

Ask.

If you want to know if your business is accessible, reach out to the disability community for input. Trust me: we won’t berate you for not already being accessible; we’re just grateful that you value us enough as people and as consumers to make your business accessible for us.

This article, “7 Reasons Accessibility is Good for Business” sums it up well in their 7th point: “The previous 6 reasons all amount to one main one: building sites and apps that are accessible is just the right thing to do! Just like you would hold open the door for your elderly neighbor who has trouble walking, you’d want to extend that same courtesy to everyone who wishes to enter your digital environment.
And this doesn’t even have to be for ethical/moral reasons – even if business outcomes are your number one priority, you’d naturally want as many users and/or customers as possible. Preventing people from purchasing your products or using your services would be the near equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot.”

I am a person who, day in and day out, lives on the cusp of accessibility; every time I visit a website, download an app, or walk through the door of a brick-and-mortar store, I don’t know if I’ll be facing a welcoming and accommodating space, or one where I have to fight for what the able-bodied take for granted. When I visit a doctor’s office, will I be able to independently fill out my medical information or be subjected to share it with a third-party because they only have a printed form? Will the cashier at Walmart address me as my own person, or direct all conversation to the able-bodied friend that I’m shopping with because they don’t realize that I’m 25 and don’t need someone to speak for me?

Accessibility isn’t an inconvenience. It’s a necessity. Don’t do it just because I’m asking you to. Do it because it’s the right thing to do. Do it to show that you love and value your disabled friends and neighbours.

Do it to make this world a better one for all of us.

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?”

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 — 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 — 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 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?