How Disabled Am I?
“The law says you have to do that,” I snapped to a colleague amid a roomful of uncomfortable stares. He had neither directed a question to me, nor did I hold any authority in this seminar; but his words were offensive to me.
In a workshop about crafting our most impressive academic CVs, the professor had just explained the importance of our highlighting how we excelled as teachers. Did we design curriculum? Implement exceptional pedagogical tactics or methodologies?
And then this man raised his hand and asked whether he should emphasize his tendency to accommodate for disabled students.
My response reflected my lifelong experience as a disabled woman---somewhere between the expected contrite silence and the defensive retort formulating in my mind. If I manage my department’s budget, should I note on my CV that I did so without embezzling any money? Should my colleague further boast his ability to teach women without sexually harassing them?
The inherent absurdity in my hypothetical questions is obvious, but in that seminar a group of educated adults patiently acknowledged my colleague’s question. To me, this elucidates the degree to which our society perpetuates discriminatory attitudes toward the disabled---including those able enough to function (or thrive) in a demanding environment. My own sensitivity is borne from belonging to this particularly uncategorized group of individuals both too able-bodied and too disabled for public satisfaction.
As an infant, I was diagnosed with nystagmus, a congenital vision condition in which the eyes make repetitive, uncontrolled movements. These movements can affect vision and depth perception and sometimes alter balance and coordination. While this impairment certainly complicates various aspects of my life, I am also undeniably able in many senses of the word: I moved to Spain by myself at 22; I have completed a Spartan race; my university has recognized me as an outstanding teacher and mentor. Interestingly, these reflections of my capability don’t signify to others the same balance they represent in my personal narrative. Rather, they cause confusion, even impatience, regarding my needs. I’m not blind enough to be taken seriously.
While most of us would never harass a blind person, my ability seems to label me fair game. Many times, I’ve inquired about restaurant specials or museum pricing only to be met with condescension from employees who assume I’m either unintelligent or unobservant. There’s a sign. Can’t I see? Do I need (better) glasses? Once, a Walgreen’s clerk openly and loudly made fun of me when I had to lean close to see the debit card screen. One high school teacher valued his alphabetical seating chart over my accessibility and made me sit at the back of the room. The list goes on.
I choose to understand these transgressions as consequences of misinformation and carelessness rather than malice. Sometimes, I find it difficult to articulate my particular experience in this in-between space, and sometimes I resent feeling obligated to do so. As an educator, however, I believe sharing information and experiences to be the most effective cure for ignorance. I can’t speak for all disabled people, or all vision impaired people, but I will ask you to consider several important points in your future interactions.
First, the spectrum between blindness and 20/20 vision is both expansive and complex. Many problems aren’t entirely correctible, and not all vision-impaired people see similarly. Our experience occurs on a continuum, rather than at extremes, and cannot be understood solely through numerical visual acuity measurements.
Second, if you are not a medical professional and I have not sought your expertise about my vision, I’m not open to your advice. When I’m in a coffee shop or riding the city bus, your suggestions about glasses and surgeries are both unwelcome and useless. No one understands my body’s limits and capabilities better than I do.
Finally, Americans are obsessed with equality, and my condition stomps all over that value. Because I am independent and adventurous, many assume I must either exaggerate my condition or possess some superhuman strength for “overcoming” it. The truth lies somewhere between the extremes. Every chore or activity requiring eyesight is more difficult for me than it is for most people, and I physically cannot do certain things. That said, I also don’t deserve praise for “overcoming”, because I don’t have a choice.
Able-bodied people, like my colleague, also do not merit recognition for accommodating others’ physical needs. While “body diversity” is common in discussions of weight and height proportions, it should also work as a term for understanding our immense range of movement and sensory abilities. If we reframe our perception of ability in this way, then an educator’s failure to accommodate someone’s physical condition would be equally scandalous and unacceptable as any other infringement on someone’s rights.