Hands Off: Defining Consent as a person with a Disability

Dear readers,
I want to address all of you today on an issue that has received considerable media attention in recent weeks in the wake of the Stanford rape case but that has largely (if unintentionally) excluded people with disabilities from the conversation. I want to talk to you about consent—more specifically, the questions and challenges that arise around the ways that people with disabilities negotiate consent.

In conversations about rape culture, we often discuss the all-too familiar problem of victim-blaming. Victims dress a certain way, speak a certain way, exhibit specific body language, consume too much alcohol, or otherwise “invite” acts of sexual violence. We also address the argument of self-defense; people question (and victims often question themselves) how they might have defended themselves against unwanted advances, which still places blame on the victim. If the victim had screamed, called for help, or physically retaliated, the attack wouldn’t have occurred. Yet any of you reading this who has found yourself receiving unwanted sexual advances can affirm that such claims fail to take into account how fear and shock can be immobilizing sensations, particularly if you’ve been physically restrained or overpowered by your attacker.

This question of self-defense holds particular relevance within the disabled community, for however independently we function, we can’t deny that our various disabilities can sometimes impact our physical mobility, including the ability to anticipate or react to threatening situations. I can only speak for myself and others in the blind and visually impaired community, and we face specific concerns regarding consent that the sighted community takes largely for granted. Anyone who has ever been physically intimate with someone, or even exchanged casual flirtation, knows that the rhythms of physical intimacy and communication rely as much on visual cues and the ability to read body language as on tactile cues. People show interest in one another, for instance, by smiling or making eye contact. The blind or visually impaired, on the other hand, can’t rely on such signals. In a relaxed social or professional environment where we feel comfortable, we often appreciate it, for example, when someone touches our shoulder or arm in a loud room if we can’t hear that person calling us by name. Yet many of us can also agree that we don’t appreciate being touched without warning, particularly by someone we don’t know well—even someone we do.

We all have varying levels of comfort with personal space. If I know you well, I will probably hug you; if I’ve never met you, I will more likely shake your hand and keep my distance. I don’t exhibit this body language out of rudeness, but more out of the desire to maintain the degree of personal space that meets my comfort level.

Physical and sexual intimacy have their own set of personal space ground rules. If you can’t see another person, you can’t see that person reaching to drape an arm over your shoulders, or to take your hand, or to lean in for a kiss. As such, that gesture might catch you off guard if the person you’re with doesn’t announce his or her intention. Recently I found myself in this precise situation. I was spending time with someone I trusted; he wanted to be physically intimate. While I gave my initial consent (initial being the operative word) to be touched, I decided not to move any further when he became rough and I felt uncomfortable. I attempted to stop him; he continued despite my protests. He insisted that he thought I was enjoying it; he insisted that I had given him mixed signals; he insisted that “nothing” had happened because he didn’t remove his clothes, so apparently, lying on top of me and pulling my hair constitutes “nothing.” His argument bore all the hallmarks of classic apologism—making excuses for his behavior that shifted the blame off of himself and onto me.

In the aftermath of the situation, I wondered what more I might have done to protect myself. Why didn’t I scream? Why didn’t I hit him? Why didn’t I fight harder to extricate myself from him? These responses, responses in which we blame ourselves for the actions of others, are symptomatic of rape culture. Rape culture indoctrinates us with the belief that victims somehow bring sexual violence on themselves through the way they dress, speak, how much alcohol they drink, ETC., ETC., ETC.

Friends, I want to make this point crystal clear: you are never responsible for the actions another person makes toward you without your consent. Never trivialize or allow anyone else to trivialize actions that make you feel uncomfortable or threatened. If you don’t consent when someone wants to hold your hand, and that person insists that “it’s just holding hands,” that argument fails to take your comfort level into account. If the person grabs your hand anyway, you’re being touched without your consent. Trivializing any action that makes you uncomfortable sets up a highly dangerous slippery slope; it’s the reason why Brock Turner only received a 6-month prison sentence for “twenty minutes of action”—a phrase that disgustingly trivialized the rape he committed.

To return to the concern I raised earlier in this post that not having the benefit of reading nonverbal body language can complicate a blind or visually impaired person’s ability to anticipate behavior, people with disabilities are uniquely situated to invite conversation about consent. While sharing my experience with a few close friends, we discussed the fact that at the heart of rape culture lies the problem that we teach the importance of self-defense without teaching consent. A clear understanding of consent would help to mitigate, if not entirely alleviate the need to practice the constant vigilance we’re taught to practice. Because the challenges of reading body language create a greater need to communicate the importance of consent, having a frank conversation with others about your comfort level with physical intimacy can be a productive starting point. I, for instance, generally like to stipulate that someone ask before touching me for the first time. Relationship experience has taught me that, like anything else, once I become intimate with someone and he learns how to communicate physical affection in ways that I’m comfortable with, asking or alerting me to the fact that he’s going to touch me becomes unnecessary. Such conversations serve the dual purpose of educating others about best practices when interacting with a blind or visually impaired person and defining the perimeters of consent. If you lay down such perimeters, anyone who disregards them is acting without your consent. End of story. Anyone who genuinely wants to spend time in your company will respect your wishes.

On a side note, I want to add that we tend to discuss sexual violence along gendered lines of male aggressors and female victims; this wrongly implies that men aren’t victims of sexual violence. As a woman with a disability, my understanding of and response to this issue is naturally informed by my experiences as a woman; however, the rules of consent apply to both genders, and the concerns surrounding consent that I’ve raised here are by no means specific to women. Men with disabilities can and do share these concerns.

Question

How can people with disabilities find voice in the conversation about rape culture and sexual violence? Share your thoughts!

Sign the Petition: Add Audio Description to Hulu Content

Hello, LivingBlindBlog readers!

Some of you might have heard through the grapevine that a petition has started on Change.org asking Hulu to add audio description to their content. Given the continuing success that Netflix has had in paving the way for accessible streaming content, adding Hulu to our viewing options would certainly broaden the playing-field.

Currently, according to FCC (Federal Communications Commission) regulation, local TV station affiliates of networks like CBS, NBC, Fox, and ABC in the top 60 TV markets must provide 50 hours per calendar quarter (about 4 hours a week) of audio-described content on primetime and/or children’s programming. 4 hours of accessible content per week seems hardly to scratch the surface, but as I’ve often said, when we address issues of accessibility, the impossible will take a little while.

The UK, not surprisingly, has the most developed AD program; while regulations stipulate that a maximum of 10% of programming include audio description, several networks, including Sky and Channel 4, have increased their offerings to 20%. Case-in-point: One of my favorite CBS shows currently is “Elementary,” a modern-day adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes stories set in New York. CBS does not offer AD for this title, but the show also airs in the UK, and it is fully-described. Given the ever-increasing catalogue of TV programming as well as options for viewing it, keeping pace with the content is certainly an accessibility challenge, but as we have seen, this is not impossible. Netflix continues to expand its selection of AD content, and given that Hulu is one of its fiercest contenders in the streaming market, providing this improvement would broaden the service’s viewership and take another stride forward in making our increasingly visual culture accessible. If you haven’t yet signed the petition, please consider doing so here.

Question

Do you watch audio-described content? What are some of your favorite shows? What shows would you like to see include audio description?

10 Things Only Blind People Will Appreciate

I recently had the opportunity to visit an education class focusing on teaching students with disabilities and special needs; the professor, who teaches class around the same time that I do and has noticed me on campus, asked if I’d mind speaking to the class about my experiences. Sure, why not? They’re covering the chapter on blindness, and it would help them to contextualize the content if they have a real live blind person in the class, in the same way that it probably helps students to contextualize learning the anatomy of a frog in Biology class if they have one to dissect.

I say this with tongue firmly in cheek, of course, because taking advantage of such opportunities raises awareness about the ways that people with disabilities function and the challenges we face on a daily basis. The latter, I think, tends to generate more questions; for the non-disabled, living with a disability can seem like an endless, exhausting trek up a hill that you’ll never reach the crest of.

To that end, one student asked, “What’s the hardest thing, do you think, about being blind?”
“Everything,” I quipped, only half-joking. Rehabilitation and technology have helped many of us to develop sufficient coping mechanisms, and over time, certain tasks become easier than others, but on some days, we have to measure out our energy in exact quantities. Learning to accept the good days with the bad has taught me how to survive. Whether you’ve lived with blindness or visual impairment for your entire life, have recently lost your sight, or know someone who has, here are 10 things only people who are visually impaired or blind can fully appreciate.

1. You occasionally have days when you wear a black bra with a white blouse

And people will probably give you strange looks. Fortunately, you probably won’t be able to see them, and if you can, I promise, the sun will rise tomorrow.

2. Eyeliner is not your friend

Yes, plenty of women have offered excellent tutorials on applying make-up without sight. Most of them work. I’ve found this one the most useful. But applying eye make-up without reasonably good vision almost requires a degree in art and design, not to mention, if your eyes water as much as mine do, the result looks less like glam and more like…glob. Mascara I can handle as long as I’m not dancing in front of the mirror to the soundtrack from “Mama Mia!” with the wand in my hand, but I’ve given up on eyeliner unless I apply make-up with the express intent to traumatize small children.

3. People think everything you do is amazing

From cutting your meat to cooking dinner for a group of friends, the scope of your survival skills will never cease to amaze the world. No amount of eye-rolling on your part is going to change this.

4. You learn to find stress-relief in staircase wit

Because I haven’t yet figured out how to channel Oscar Wilde, my arsenal of witty replies to “You’re so amazing” never seems to be at the ready until five minutes after the moment has passed. Several weeks ago, a woman on the bus observed, “Wow, you can dress yourself.” “Yes,” I wanted to reply. “But most blind people live in nudist colonies, for their own convenience.” If these verbal zingers never find their mark, they at least challenge me to find humor in the situation after the fact.

5. People will occasionally accuse you of “faking it”

AS ludicrous as this sounds, sometimes, the public have a hard time spotting blindness, which makes me wonder how many people in the world need to have their eyes examined. That said, while most of us don’t consider blindness an “invisible” disability, if we’re not wearing dark glasses or tripping over cracks in the sidewalk, we “don’t look blind.” Here’s the thing; blindness is a bit like a box of truffles. We come in all varieties. Some of us wear dark glasses; some don’t. Some of us use a white cane; some prefer guide dogs. Some need neither. Some of us can read large print or identify people’s faces; some of us read Braille or use text-to-speech programs on our computers to read. In short, even if someone is making eye contact with you, this doesn’t mean that they can see you clearly, or at all.

6. You will inevitably misplace something at least once a week

Most people regularly misplace everyday objects: keys, wallets, iPhones, or purses. But when was the last time you lost your vacuum cleaner…while cleaning? I once had to abandon vacuuming to take a phone call, and when I finished, I couldn’t remember where I’d left the vacuum. Eventually, I found it…or rather, my shin did. This wasn’t as funny as I’m making it sound now. When you don’t have the ability to scan your environment with a pair of working eyes, such domestic debacles are par for the course.

7. Sometimes you can “just tell” where you are

While many of us who are blind or visually impaired dismiss the myth that our other senses are stronger, in truth, they probably are, not innately, but because we’ve had to learn to develop them. Orientation to one’s environment involves much more than being able to “see” where you are; sounds, smells, tastes, and textures also offer valuable clues. You don’t have to have your eyes opened to know when you’ve walked passed the Auntie Anne’s pretzel stand at the shopping mall, for example.

8. People will occasionally forget that you can’t see

As flattering as this might seem, it’s also irritating to find yourself repeatedly reminding someone that you can’t read that street-sign or see the direction in which they’re pointing. Case-in-point: several years ago, a student emailed me in advance of class to let me know that she would be absent. To verify that she did, in fact, have a fever of 102, she attached a picture of her thermometer. If this were an isolated incident, I might have thanked her for the daily dose of ridiculous and moved on, but it happens so frequently with the same students that I want to tear my hair out and bang my head repeatedly against a brick wall to end the pain.

9. You will learn not to order messy food on a first date

Pro tip: this applies to anyone, even those with 20/20 vision. Please, learn from my mistake. Once, at Moe’s Southwest Grill, the contents of a burrito exploded all over my blue jeans as I sat across from the man whom I was convinced was destined to be the father of my babies. I’m still not sure how it happened. “Welcome to Moe’s. You’re never going to go on a date again. Ever.”

10. You can’t do anything in a rush

Running in heels? Don’t try it. Speedily applying mascara? Really, really bad idea. Chopping vegetables? Even worse idea. We all know that sometimes life doesn’t allow us enough time to accomplish the tasks we need or want to accomplish, but when you can’t see what you’re doing, fast and easy is a luxury you can’t really afford. (Of course, I don’t recommend running in heels to anyone. Fashion logic 101).

Question

What lessons have you learned about living with blindness? share your thoughts!

Cashing a check using Android for the first time

In keeping to the American tradition, I am insanely thin and I am lazy to boot.

Today the forecast said that it was going to be a high of 67 in Chicago. All of the residents are staying in, and one asked me if I ever was going to let God and Jesus into my heart, to which I made the devil sign and preyed for another children’s crusade.

Since it’s cold out and my already snowy complexion doesn’t need to become any whiter I opted to stay in today, as I will do all winter except for when I am traveling for the holidays.

In my facility, every resident has their own mailbox. Mine, hasn’t been opened in about a month since I don’t have any mail that’s worth reading. The only things I get are checks, and advertisements, to which I send back, bundled with ads the fowl company didn’t send me. I make sure the envelope is nice and big so they will have to pay a heaping amount of shipping costs only to open up ads. So far, this method has caused five companies to stop sending me mail.

Today however I have something golden. It’s a check for the articles that I published last month. After I clutch the check with my life, safeguarding it on my way back up to my apartment, I could try this new Chase Deposit that Chase brags about all the time, as if they’ve gone libertarian or something.

With an Android, or an IPhone, or IPad, any chase user gets to use their app to take a picture of checks and deposit the checks, all without ever having to go down to a branch. I’m lucky I fixed a friends android phone that he let me keep, because, now, I get to have the opportunity to conform to the stereotype that blind people who are atheists don’t go outside at all.

Ironically, the app is very hard to see visually. There’s white background splattered with a few light gray letters. The only thing that’s high contrast is the menu, which can be accessed by tapping the Chase logo in the top left corner.

When I enter deposit check, it asks me if I really want to sign up for this depositing option and do I really want to continue. I feel like it’s asking for my hand in marriage. I jab yes, like an eager toddler, and squint at the resulting screen. It’s a screen where I have to enter the amount for the check. I feel like it’s my husband or my mother.

When the amount is entered, I see two squares beneath the edit box where my amount rests. They are side by side, and, for some reason, Talkback isn’t reading the words just above the two squares. The print resembles a thousand ants crawling across my android screen. I feel a bit foolish because all of the seasoned android users have homed into my lack of android usage and are laughing quietly because I don’t know about magnification on the android. I tap on the first square and my unshaven chin springs into a tiny rectangle. I am to take a picture of the front of the check and the back of the check. With CP this will be all sorts of fun.

I write on the back of the check and then take a picture, flip it over, and snap another shot. The first time that the message pops up that says the image isn’t clear, I suspect it’s the contrast between my white sink and my white check. I have so many white pieces of furniture in my room I question my diversity tolerance. The only thing that’s colored are my clothes and my bed sheets. I’m glad Chase understands the value of diversity when taking pictures. I’m certain Chase embraces diversity because the application insists that I get away from the glaringly white furniture and I’d better find some place darker to take the picture or else.

The sun, unfortunately, is beaming into my apartment and closing the blinds don’t help. I repeat the picture taking process again and again, reminded of my diversity habits every time I fail to switch to a darker surface. I wonder if this is how Santa feels when people say they don’t have Santa in other countries.

With each failed attempt I feel like I am preparing to sign divorce papers.

I refuse to give up though. I get creative with my carpet in my apartment after the blinds have been shut. I’m kneeling on the floor, finally finding enough diversity to balance the overpoweringly white regime of counter tops, and try the pictures again. I can see the name on the checks, the amounts on the checks, my signature, and my note that the bottom that swears I’m not a racist because I have a colored TV

I stare at my cell that says it has been an hour. I’m sure there’s some award for perseverance when depositing checks. I’m certain nobody is as doggedly determined as I am when it comes to refusing to take a cab to my local Chase branch.

I spread out on the floor and snap the picture, eagerly awaiting the outcome. It still says the same thing, that I need to find a dark surface to take the picture on. I don’t know how to illustrate my open mindedness, so I look at the two squares again, and strain to read the tiny gray font on the glaringly white background. It is astonishing. Not only am I slightly prejudice towards furniture, I am also illiterate as well.

Above the left square it says, front of check, and on the right side, in the second square, it says, back of check.

I should be ashamed that I have been doing this entire process in reverse this entire time, trying to fit a front shot into the back option. I never cease to amaze myself.

Still choosing to embrace my diverse pride in my carpet, I use it again to attempt the photos. In an unexpected occurrence, they go through after I snap the pictures.

After about five more confirmations the check finally goes through. An hour later, an Email flies into my inbox, glowing in bold letters complete with a smiley face at the end.

Congratulations Robert Kingett,

After repeated attempts, you have successfully submitted your check for deposit. Please note that, as we question your suggestive choice in furniture, this transaction may take an hour or more to complete. If there are any problems, such as we hit a wrong key because we’re busy cracking jokes at you’re American spirit, we will definitely contact you for updates.

An hour later, the check has deposited successfully. The piece of paper rests on my desk, partly because I haven’t had the nerve to throw away my one and only prize. This check signifies my willingness to be open minded and free from oppressive thinking and beliefs. I don’t want to throw this away just yet.

Now, when a minority says that I don’t have an ounce of diverse acceptance in my body, I have the perfect proof. I will hold up the check, along with a perfect photo of the paper nestled on a dark surface to show my understanding of involvement. I will even use this image at customs, if, and when, I travel to Africa. The guards will sit me down in a chair and demand proof that I am who I say I am. I will whip out the hi definition photos, and proudly exclaim,

“this is who I am, an open minded, gay American!” just for added closure, I will produce an image of my colored TV, showing them what it means to truly be inclusive.

On the Courage of Living with a Disability: a Reflection

Over the years, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had some variation of the following exchange with another blind or visually impaired person.
Friend: So, did I tell you? I was getting on the bus this afternoon, and a woman stopped me to say, “You’re such an inspiration! I could never do what you do!”
Me: Yes, it’s like they don’t think we can put one foot in front of the other. Honestly. When will they learn?

As people with disabilities, many of us make tremendous efforts to live as “normally” and independently as possible, and when a stranger at the grocery store or on the bus calls attention to a simple action like identifying a bus pass or making the right change at the checkout counter, we feel singled out, as if our mobility aids—whether wheelchairs, canes, or service animals—don’t already make us stand out like a lady in a red dress at a bullfight. I always do my best to take the observation for the compliment that the person intended it to be—confirmation that others see the effort I make to live an independent life as far as I’m able. However, people with disabilities—and I include myself in this—can sometimes interpret such comments as patronizing. One afternoon, while walking on campus, I bent down to tie my shoe. It was 90 degrees; half of my students hadn’t followed the instructions on their most recent paper; I wanted only to board my bus, go home, and inject enough alcohol into my brain to erase my misery. Sufficed to say, I wasn’t looking for a compliment on how well I made my bunny ears, so when someone stopped to comment on my ability to tie my shoe, I smiled (or grimaced, more likely), thanked whoever it was, and continued on my way, all the while thinking, ‘Seriously? I tied my shoe. I didn’t turn water into wine.’

When I reflect on this and similar experiences I’ve had, I admit that it’s taken me years to realize that the person who compliments me when I manage to tie my shoe or find a seat on the bus—everyday tasks that we all take for granted—doesn’t see a woman tying her shoe; the person sees someone with a disability independently navigating the world. To people without a disability who can’t imagine how we live, even getting out of bed can seem insurmountable not, I think, because people think us incapable, but because they don’t know the resources, techniques, and technology available to us that allow us to function as independently as possible. The problem arises when we don’t educate the public about degrees of difficulty, which leads to slippage in the way we use terms like courageous, amazing, or inspirational.

People with disabilities are no different than people without disabilities in that we find some tasks easy and others challenging, depending on the nature of our disabilities and our personalities. Mastering adaptive technology always came fairly easily to me; when it comes to independent travel, I have a horrible sense of direction. I don’t mean I can’t get around independently, but because I have a very difficult time visualizing routes and places in my head, I require practice to learn to get to where I need to go. I know plenty of people with 20/20 vision who can’t follow directions to save their lives, so I’m not alone here.

Some people can play an instrument; some can’t. Some people can cook; others burn oatmeal. Some people can crochet; some are lucky if they can tie a square knot. Not everything people with disabilities do demands news-breaking attention. An account on Twitter, the Blind Onion, pokes fun at this idea with headlines like “blind man shocks world by getting out of bed.”

Courage, I think, applies when there is the existence of fear; it doesn’t take courage to do something that doesn’t frighten you. This is likely why people with disabilities feel that praise for performing certain tasks like brushing their teeth or making a phone call is misplaced. Having said that, in the same way that people with disabilities don’t like to be applauded for every little thing they do for themselves, they also need to recognize that what comes easily to them, another person with a disability might find challenging. It takes tremendous courage to do anything that scares you, whether bungee-jumping or walking to your mailbox. When you conquer something, you’re not conquering just the thing itself, but also the fear that prevents you from tackling it.

Some of my readers know that I recently moved from Gainesville back to my home town in South Florida. Yesterday, before meeting up with friends, I took my guide dog for a short walk and got disoriented because I stopped to say hello to a passing neighbor and lost my bearings. In reality, I was maybe 50 feet from my front door, but I might as well have been facing the fires of Mount Doom. I couldn’t see where I was, and I haven’t been here long enough to really have grown accustom to the sounds and sensations that help me to maintain my orientation, like traffic patterns or the direction of the sun. For about a minute, though it felt like much longer, I panicked before I calmed myself down, tried to listen for the traffic on the main road, and told my dog to “find the way,” which he did. In that moment, thinking on my feet to solve the problem I’d landed in took every ounce of courage I possessed. In a year’s time, this will probably be a cakewalk, but it taught me a valuable lesson about sensitivity to the varying degrees of challenge we all face in our lives.

Question

What frightens you? How do you handle it?

Be Careful What You Wish for: or, What Not to Say to a Blind Person

If you’re blind, or know anyone who is, you’ve probably either witnessed or been on the receiving end of comments like “I wish I could bring my dog to work” or “It’d be so awesome to have a computer that talks like Stephen Hawking.” Here’s the thing. I’m pretty sure even Stephen Hawking wishes he didn’t talk like Stephen Hawking sometimes; he’d probably much rather use his own voice—the non-computerized, non-patented one.

People with disabilities have grown used to these comments which, as off-handed as they seem, sometimes carry larger, problematic implications about the extent to which the non-disabled fail to recognize what using assistive technology or having a service dog really means for the disabled person. As both a guide dog handler and an adaptive tech user, I can tell you honestly that they are, like everything else in life, alternately amazing and a huge pain in the butt. When my dog spares me the pain and embarrassment of twisting my ankle on a crack in the sidewalk, he’s amazing; when he scavenges through the trash or chews a hole in my favorite pair of running shoes, not so much. When I can “see” a picture of my friend’s baby by running it through TapTapSee, technology is awesome; when my screen reader freezes on a website I’m navigating because Flash keeps refreshing the page every ten seconds, not so much.

Recently, the network drivers on my brand-spanking new laptop decided to stop working. As a freelance writer and consultant, I find the loss of internet capability more than a first-world problem; it jeopardizes my work and my ability to pay my bills. Desperate to resolve the issue and admittedly not particularly tech savvy, I put myself in a cab and made my way to the nearest Best Buy with my weirdly possessed laptop in my bag and my rosaries in my pocket, praying that somehow the geek squad would tell me I wasn’t screwed. In what I suppose was an attempt to make polite conversation, the driver asked what I needed at Best Buy, and upon hearing that I was on my way to troubleshoot a computer problem, he predictably asked, “Oh, does your computer talk to you?”
“Yes,” I replied.

The driver proceeded to edify me with a ten-minute monologue about why screen reading technology and other access software like voice activation shouldn’t just be available for the blind and disabled because it would make life so much easier for everyone. According to his logic, “it would be so great to just say to the computer, ‘Do this,’ and then sit back and wait.’ It would save a lot of time.”
‘Yes,’ I thought. ‘Your life is already so difficult because you have to read everything on your computer screen with your working eyes. How do you get out of bed every morning knowing the hardships you have to face?’ (If there were a sarcasm font, it would go here). Of course, because my life epitomizes staircase wit and I still had to depend on my driver to reach my destination, I kept my comments to myself for the time being.

I love the freedom that my adaptive technology gives me, from the ability to write for a living to reading reviews of the latest Colin Firth movie. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t wish every day that I didn’t need to rely on such technology. Sometimes I wish we lived in a world where the people who make such off-hand statements were forced to spend a day relying on the tools that they see as a convenience rather than a necessity. On a particularly bad day, the Sheldon Cooper suggestion of implanting chips into people’s brains that explode when they say something stupid is also appealing. People would sing a different tune if they had to ask someone for help every time they encountered an inaccessible captcha on the internet or couldn’t read a PDF that wasn’t properly formatted to work with a screen reader.

As if this weren’t enough, I had to deal with my other pet peeve: the lady who wished her dog was like mine. Now, I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t appreciate it when someone compliments my dog, the way I handle him, or his guide work. Most service animal handlers invite questions about the training process and how our dogs do their jobs.

That being said, whenever a non-disabled person, however innocently, asks how they can “turn their dog into a service dog,” they think they’re just observing how cool it would be to be able to take their dog everywhere, but This question essentially translates to: how can I take my dog to Starbucks? There’s only one way to legally have and travel with a service animal, and pay very close attention to this: you have to have a disability or other health condition that requires a dog—a medically, legally documented one. I’m not sure you “want” that. Actually, I’m pretty sure you don’t. Trust me.

I’ve had several friends over the years with multiple disabilities who have trained their dogs to perform tasks ranging from guiding to retrieving medication and picking up dropped objects from the floor. At first, it’s tempting to say “I wish my dog could pick up my keys when I drop them,” but in order to understand why some service animal handlers find this remark irritating and even offensive, we need to appreciate the distinction between convenience and necessity. The tasks that the non-disabled person wants their dog to perform, some of us need our dogs to perform. The emails that the non-disabled person wants their computer to read to them, some of us need our computers to read to us. To marvel at the advancements of technology or the intelligence of service animals is perfectly acceptable. Sometimes my brain is still bent a bit sideways when I think about just how much my iPhone makes me feel as though I’ve got a pair of working eyes in my pocket. To desire the mobility aids and access tools that we use overlooks the fact that these aids do for us many of the things that the non-disabled do for themselves with little or no difficulty. I love the fact that, on nights when I’m too tired to cook, I can snap a picture of the back of a frozen pizza box and get the directions, but trust me when I tell you that I’d love it a lot more if I didn’t have to do it.

How do you know when I want to shake your hand, and other questions.

This blog has been on my mind a lot lately. So, I thought I’d finally sit down, and write it. Here are just a few things that sighted people may not be aware of. (You may use this as a cheat sheet if you want)

1. *sighted person holding out hand to shake* In a normal conversation: Person 1: “Hi! I’m blah, blah.” Person 2: “Hi blah, blah, blah. I’m *insert name here* Nice to meet you.” What follows for most people is a handshake. This is also used to signify the end to something like a job interview, and so much more

This is ineffective for us because: 1. We can’t see where your hand is. Unless you have enough vision you may not be able to see this gesture. Even if you have some vision like I do it doesn’t mean that you will be able to see it.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been introduced to someone. Only to realize that their hand is out for me to shake, and I didn’t realize it. I’ve also started this thing of not shaking people’s hand. Though, this is mostly because I’ve come to the realization that some people don’t like to shake hands for one reason or another. Thus, I don’t automatically put out my hand unless prompted.

So, how do you as the sighted person let us know that you want to shake hands? Simple! You prompt us. You can use phrases like “Hand out.”, “hand out in front of you.” ETC. The important thing here is that you use specific words such as: In front, to the left, to the right ETC. Instead of just over there, or over here. We may not know what that means.

“How do I give a blind or visually impaired person who can’t see my hand a high-five?” In this culture at least. Joy is expressed through gestures such as the high-five, low-five ETC. However, for us we may not know that you want one.

I recently had trouble with this one during my cousin’s bowling league night. Everyone kept getting a really good score, and wanting to high-five everyone on the team, and who were sitting at their table. They soon learned to prompt me, or else I wouldn’t know that I wanted one.

So, how do you as a sighted person prompt us. You could use words such as: “High-five?” “Low-five.” ETC. Just make sure you use specific words as to where your hand is positioned. Other wise we (the blind or visually impaired ones) will spend seconds if not minutes just searching for your hand. That’s time you could spend high-fiving someone else, or getting a drink.

I think everything else that I was going to cover has been covered inthis previous article. Question: Have you had something like what I’ve described happen to you? If so, how did you resolve it? If it happened to someone that you know; tell me about it, and how the problem got resolved. I’d like to hear the stories. 🙂

Thanks for reading!

Five Things to Remember if You Know Someone Who's Blind: Blogging Against Disablism Day 2015

Once again it’s Blogging Against Disablism Day, a day that bloggers set aside to discuss issues related to ablism and how to combat ablist behaviors and attitudes. Since our mission here at the Living Blind Blog is to raise awareness and bridge the gap between the blind and the sighted, Blogging Against Disablism Day seems like a useful moment to open a conversation about how to interact with blind people. We’ve talked about this before, of course, but since I often find myself answering questions about the dos and don’ts of dealing with blindness, perhaps a little cheat sheet wouldn’t hurt. So: here are five things to remember when interacting with a blind person. Whether you’re meeting someone with a visual impairment for the first time, or you’re the friend, family member, colleague, or significant other of someone with a visual impairment, being mindful of these tips will improve your relationship and comfort level with the person. More importantly, such mindfulness will combat some of the disabling myths that the blind and visually impaired have to face on a daily basis.

1. We don’t like receiving unsolicited help

I don’t say this to sound rude or unappreciative, but the truth is that as blind people, we struggle every day to prove to the world that we aren’t helpless. On a much more serious note, jumping in to help a blind person who hasn’t asked for it can be disorienting and even harmful, particularly when the help involves physical mobility. Moving my wine glass so I won’t spill it is a nice gesture, but if you do it without telling me, and I search for it, I’m probably going to wind up spilling it anyway because I no longer know where it is. That’s a perfectly pointless waste of good alcohol, wouldn’t you say?

Also, reaching out to touch, grab, or maneuver a blind person without asking is extremely unnerving. Not only are we suddenly being touched, often by a stranger, but if we’re spun around or grabbed hold of suddenly, we lose our sense of orientation. How would you feel if you were stepping off the bus, and some well-meaning person, assuming you were going to fall, grabbed you by the wrist? This actually happened to me once when I was in graduate school, and I did fall, because of the woman who grabbed my wrist to keep me from falling. Thanks a lot, lady. Or, you know, not. Most blind people won’t object to help when they need it, but they’d much rather you ask first instead of assuming that they can’t climb down a flight of steps independently.

2. We sometimes have a hard time reading body language

If you’re fully or even partially sighted, you know that conversation isn’t just verbal. Speaking and listening to others involves a myriad of visual cues, including eye contact, hand signals, and nodding. Most people who’re used to spending time with a blind person know to speak directly to us, addressing us by name to get our attention if we’re in a room full of people because they can’t make eye contact to get our attention. However, sometimes the nuances of conversation fly right over our heads, particularly when facial expressions are involved.

Example: you’re at a party and someone spills his drink. He’s particularly accident-prone, so your friends are all rolling their eyes and giggling. You have no idea what’s going on because you didn’t see the accident, nor can you see your friends making faces at each other. When you ask why everyone’s laughing, someone responds, “It’s nothing,” or, the much more hurtful, “You wouldn’t get it unless you could see it.” At the risk of sounding childish, this makes us feel shut out. It can be hard enough to keep up with the conversation without visual cues, and sometimes we accidentally interrupt people because we can’t follow the visual cues that allow us to spot an opening to interject. Alternatively, we might wind up sitting in silence for most of the evening if we find our endeavors to join the chatter are being rebuffed, albeit unintentionally. So the next time a blind person asks you what just happened, tell them. Allow them to be an equal participant in the social environment.

3. We don’t get offended when people use words like “see,” “watch,” or “look.”

I wish I could tell you that nobody has ever been afraid to use these words around me, but I’ve actually encountered people who’ve mistakenly believed that I’d burst into tears if they asked me whether or not I’d seen the latest movie in theaters. (I do go to the movies, by the way. I even write film reviews. Because you were wondering). On the one hand, as an English teacher and a writer, I appreciate the sensitivity to the impact that language has on whomever it’s directed toward, and within disability discourse, we often call into question the political correctness of expressions like “being blind to the truth” because such expressions stigmatize disability, associating blindness with negative character traits like ignorance. However, we can only guard our language so far. Words that denotatively refer to vision also connotatively refer to comprehension and awareness. How often during a conversation have you endeavored to explain something to someone and concluded with the question “Do you see what I mean?” You aren’t literally asking them if they see; rather you’re asking them to confirm that they understand.

I once had a professor in college who stopped me in the middle of a conversation after class to observe (do you see what I just did there?) “I notice that you use visual words a lot. Like, you’ll say, I saw so-and-so yesterday.’ That’s really interesting.” The implication that blind people don’t, or that they shouldn’t use visual language is problematic because it implies that we haven’t accepted our blindness to the point that we can’t acknowledge that we live in a visual world. We’re more likely to take offense when we hear comments directed toward us along the lines of “you can’t see this incredible sunset, so you just wouldn’t get why I love photographing nature.” Maybe we can’t see it first-hand, but we can experience the world through our other senses, not to mention, as several of my friends will tell you, the running descriptive commentary of others. Think Mat Murdock and Foggy Nelson here.

4. We really hate guessing games

No, seriously. I don’t know whether or not I speak for all blind people, but I challenge you to tell me that you’ve never met at least one blind person who hasn’t told you a story about someone who always came up to them and talked in funny voices to try to fool them. News flash: this isn’t funny. It’s disorienting and disrespectful. I knew someone who used to think this was hysterically funny, and trust me, after I’d spent two hours in a classroom discerning all of my students’ voices during a heated class discussion, the last thing I wanted to do was play a game of “guess who” in the elevator. I just wanted to go home, grade papers, and shove my head into a bucket of vodka.

I can’t deny that my friends have occasionally had fun at my expense; I had a friend who used to take me to the Cheesecake Factory and give me fork-fulls of whatever cake everyone had ordered to make me guess the flavor. If you overlook the fact that this probably did my waistline and cholesterol no favors, it really wasn’t something I felt in a position to complain about. In a volatile economy, I appreciate the value of free food and free entertainment as much as anyone, but don’t take advantage of this. People with disabilities aren’t circus freaks with strange and mysterious powers. If my sense of smell or touch is keener than yours, it’s not because I enjoy party tricks. It’s a survival skill to compensate for what I can’t see.

5. We’re perfectly capable of living alone

While most blind people will tell you that they don’t mind answering questions about how they function, when you do have a question, it’s important to be attentive to the tone and the language in which you ask the question. The question that I find the most frustrating, and often the most offensive, is “who takes care of you?” contrary to popular misconception, blind people can, and do, live independently. We also have spouses, children, and pets (in addition to the guide dogs that some of us work with). So not only can we care for ourselves, we’re also fully capable of caring for others. I once dated a guy who probably wouldn’t ever have eaten a home-cooked meal if I didn’t feed him. He was fully sighted.

Thanks to adaptive equipment and devices ranging from braille label-makers to smartphone apps like TapTapSee and BeMyEyes, the blind and visually impaired have ways to cook, clean, and perform any number of tasks to run their households and care for their families. To ask someone, “How do you cook breakfast” expresses genuine understandable curiosity about how someone can function independently without sight. To ask “Who does your laundry” assumes helplessness, and whether intentional or not, such perceptions perpetuate disablism because they emphasize lack of ability rather than capability to survive and thrive.

I realize that I’ve probably only scratched the surface, but what I’ve covered here addresses some of the most common instances of disablism that I encounter daily. I share them here today in honor of Blogging Against Disablism Day as a reminder that open dialogue about disability is one of the simplest and yet most powerful ways to break down barriers of discrimination.

Question

Are you blind, or do you know someone who is blind? Can you think of any other advice that might be useful? How do you address these issues in your own life or with the blind people in your life?

Blind Devotion: a Review of the Jubilee Project Short Film

How do you tell the person you love you’re going blind? How do you cook? Clean? Go to work? Dress yourself? Care for your spouse? Run your home? A recently released short video, produced by the Jubilee Project, poses all of these questions about living with a disability, whether you’re the person who has the disability, or you’re a friend, family member, or colleague of someone with a disability. Several friends in the blind community drew my attention to this video recently. It tells of a married couple’s struggle with the realization that the wife (Cecilia) is going blind, and what that means for her identity as a woman, as a professional, and as a wife, as well as her husband’s(Louie) endeavors to support her despite her denial.

Curious about the backlash the short provoked amongst many of my friends, I watched (several times) and still find myself sifting through mixed emotions. Intended as a short film about unconditional love and the challenges of marriage, Blind Devotion instead seems to misappropriate disability for a religious agenda and presents a troubling picture of the ways that fear and denial can damage healthy lives and relationships. However, it also offers us some startling realities about the challenges that people with disabilities face—realities that many of us live with day in and day out, but that we wish would go away.

Firstly, it bears pointing out that this video’s target audience isn’t the disabled, or people who are close to someone with a disability, but that’s all the more reason, in my opinion, that appropriating blindness symbolically to tell a story about marital and life challenges is all the more problematic, because if handled insensitively, such appropriation perpetuates the myths and stereotypes that people with disabilities spend every day of their lives trying to dispel. As for the portrayal of blindness itself, while I disagree with Cecilia’s attempts to hide her disability, I think her story should evoke compassion and concern from the blind community rather than the ridicule I’ve heard from some. To put it bluntly, going blind is scary. Anyone who has gone blind and doesn’t remember the fear has selective amnesia. While those of us who’ve dealt with it know in hindsight (pun intended) that denial isn’t just a river in Egypt, we often forget that we asked many of the questions and wrestled with many of the same fears that Cecilia has expressed. This is a woman who, having lived her entire life with fully functional sight, is now facing the prospect of adjusting to life without it. When she tells us that a disease she can barely pronounce is taking away her vision, many of us can relate to the figurative as well as the literal truth in that statement. The future she’s carefully mapped out for herself is being obliterated. We know, sadly, that despite the ADA, employers still discriminate against people with disabilities, and her career is likely in jeopardy.

As she admits, her domestic devotion to her husband might seem like a throwback to prefeminist domesticity, but let’s not devalue the work of running the household and caring for one’s family—tasks in which she obviously takes pride and which partially define her identity as woman and wife. Because of her denial, and her fear, she can’t recognize that blind people can, and do, live perfectly productive lives as professionals, parents, spouses, and even as single people. While her denial will ultimately make the road she has to travel much rougher and longer than it might be if she would face the truth, the process of acceptance, in a lot of ways, mirrors the five stages of grief. According to GoodTherapy.org,

The onset of disabling illness or physical or sensory impairment is often accompanied by complicated grief processes…Most often, people who acquire a disability or disabling disease lose a part of their bodies and/or the functionality of parts of their bodies. Additionally, they may lose physical comfort, vigor, mobility, spontaneity, the ability to engage in certain activities, aspects of their previous lifestyles, privacy, a sense of dignity…actual or perceived life roles, friends and other social supports, the ability to work, financial stability…the ability to pursue previously established dreams, their previous body image, and all in all, their previous sense of self as a whole.

I don’t mean to suggest that having a disability is all doom and gloom; on the contrary, many of us are perfect examples of just how wrong that perception is, but the road to acceptance is long.

Secondly, many of the blind people I’ve spoken with have expressed concerns about Louie’s actions in the video—particularly when he follows his wife to work. Any independent-minded blind person, myself included, would naturally object to this level of hovering. However, we need to keep in mind that this is a man who legitimately wants to help his wife, but has no idea how to go about doing it, in part because he’s likely never been exposed to blindness, and in part because Cecilia refuses—or, more kindly—isn’t ready to admit she needs help. While I don’t agree with his actions, as someone who refused to use a white cane until I nearly fell down a flight of stairs, I can’t honestly fault him for trying to protect her, because she doesn’t yet have the mobility skills to travel independently without sight. In his own sense of helplessness, Louie doesn’t realize that the best way he can help Cecilia is to show her that she needs to learn to help herself by accepting the truth of her blindness.

Overall, I found the Jubilee Project’s appropriation of this couple’s story of dealing with disability as symbolic troubling, because it offers no message of hope. If the video aims to show the power of true love in overcoming life’s challenges, it falls sadly short of driving that point home because it doesn’t show viewers how Cecilia and Louie work together to solve this problem, nor how viewers might apply the lessons learned here to solve their own. Those of us who live with disability or illness, whether physical or mental, fight two battles on a daily basis: one is that of simply navigating the world, and the other is dispelling the myths and the ignorance of those who tell us we can’t. The first one is exhausting enough without the second, and videos like this one, whether intentionally or not, disseminate the negative stereotypes that make everything from walking into a restaurant to finding a job a battle.

Question

Have you watched the Jubilee Project short? What is your opinion? Share your thoughts!

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