One of my readers, Tyler Ensor, wrote this post about the subtle ways in which ableism manifests itself in his life.
When I was three years old, I was sick with flu-like symptoms for a week. Following one day of an apparent recovery, I awoke the next day completely blind. The blindness was caused by an autoimmune response. I am not well versed in immunology, so some of my description and/or terminology is probably incorrect. However, from what I can glean from doctors’ explanations of what happened, my immune system continued to fight the infection even after it had been neutralized. Because there was no longer an infection to attack, my immune system attacked my optic nerve, rendering me blind. My official diagnosis is bilateral optic neuritis.
Over the next several years, I regained some vision. I do not remember my exact visual acuity, but the last time I had it tested, my left eye’s acuity was approximately 20/350, and my right eye’s acuity was approximately 20/750. Perfect acuity is 20/20, and the threshold for legal blindness is 20/200. A person with 20/200 vision perceives objects at a distance of 20 feet with the same resolution that a person with 20/20 vision perceives objects 200 feet away.
My vision is now stable, and doctors do not expect it to change again. I am unable to read a computer screen; instead, I access computers using screenreading software. I can also read and produce braille. When travelling in public, I use a white cane.
I typically use the word “blind” to describe my condition. Technically, this is incorrect: Blindness refers exclusively to a complete lack of sight. So, using the narrow, scientific definition, a person who cannot see but who can perceive the difference between light and dark is not blind. The term for people with vision loss that doesn’t meet the scientific definition of blindness is “visually impaired.” Personally, I dislike this term both because it is ambiguous and because, at least to me, it seems to connote helplessness. The ambiguity stems from people’s lack of exposure to the term. Although most people—including those who have never heard the term before—will immediately recognize that it denotes a visual deficit, their first thought is likely to be: “So, how does that differ from blindness?” The term “blind,” conversely, is easily understood and, in my experience, people tend to interpret the term in its legal sense (i.e., not necessarily no vision) rather than its scientific sense. Therefore, for the remainder of this post, I will use the term “blind” in the generally-used sense rather than the scientific sense.
I encounter ableism in my day-to-day life on a fairly regular basis. Because I use a white cane when travelling, I have a visible disability (i.e., everyone who encounters me immediately knows that I am blind). The overwhelming majority of incidents of ableism I encounter are well-intentioned: They stem from ignorance rather than malice. Nevertheless, it can be extremely frustrating to deal with ableism. Below, I will describe some of the more frequent examples I experience.
I am a graduate student, and often walk home from my university rather than taking the bus in an attempt to obtain a modicum of exercise. It’s about a thirty-minute walk, and there are eight street crossings along the way. It is when I cross the street that I often encounter ableism. Sometimes, people ask if I would like help crossing the street. There is nothing wrong with asking, and I always politely decline. However, far too often, people refuse to believe that I don’t require assistance, and they proceed to “help” me cross the street anyway. The mildest form of this “help” is simply the person saying “It’s safe to cross” when the light changes. This is sort of annoying, since I have already told the person I don’t need help, but it’s so innocuous that I would count myself fortunate if this was the extent of the ableism I encounter. However, in other situations, the person will grab my arm and walk with me across the street. The worst example of this street-crossing help—and, thankfully, the least common—involves a person grabbing me without asking and without warning. It is very unsettling to be grabbed by a complete stranger. There are very few situations in which it is permissible to touch a stranger without permission, and this is not one of them.
Being given unsolicited help across the street might seem relatively mild. In some respects, it is. I have never feared for my physical safety from any of these people, and I believe that they honestly think they are doing me a favour. However, it is also a very awkward situation from which it is difficult to extract oneself without being perceived as rude. Consider the following: A person approaches me on the street, and asks if I need help crossing the intersection. I smile and say: “I’m okay. Thank you for offering.” Then, instead of believing that I’m telling the truth, the person grabs my arm and begins walking/pulling me across the street. What now? If I say: “Don’t touch me”, onlookers may think I’m overreacting or being rude for no reason. I don’t know for a fact that this is what they would think; however, I have never had an onlooker step in and say: “He told you he doesn’t need help.” Obviously, some people might simply not want to get involved (which is completely understandable), but the fact that this has never happened leads me to believe that a subset of onlookers believe the “help” that I have declined is not actually unwanted. My other option when grabbed is to simply acquiesce to the help. To me, this always feels like I am perpetuating the stereotype that blind people are helpless and dependent on the charity of strangers. (As a somewhat irrelevant aside, I always wonder how these people think I cross the street when no one is around to “help” me.)
It has been suggested to me that I should take situations like the one described above as an opportunity to educate people about blindness. Rather than being frustrated or feeling embarrassed, I should explain to the person why what she or he did was inappropriate. I have no problem with people who are blind taking this approach if it is what they want to do. Unfortunately, many people who give this suggestion tend to imply that it is obligatory for me to educate people. I have attempted this on occasion, but I find it exhausting and unrewarding. In general, people have taken my attempt at education as an invitation to ask a series of personal, sometimes-offensive questions. Common examples include: “How did you go blind?” “Are you sad that you’re blind?” “Do you even know what you look like?” “Do you know what colours are?” A surprisingly large number of people have actually attempted to administer an impromptu eye exam by insisting that I tell them how many fingers they are holding up. Obviously, not all questions are inherently offensive. Asking me how I went blind is appropriate if we are friends, or, possibly, even if we are just getting to know each other. However, consider what the possible answers could be, and how awkward they could make the conversation with a complete stranger. What if I am blind as a result of a brutal attack? What if my blindness is quite recent, and stems from a terminal brain tumour? It is odd that, while most of these people would be uncomfortable asking me personal questions about, for instance, my sex life, they are less inhibited when it comes to personal questions about my blindness. After all, such questions are questions about my medical history—a topic that is generally accepted as personal by most of society.
I want to re-emphasize that the reason the questions I am asked are problematic are because they come from complete strangers. After someone gets to know me for who I am rather than for my blindness, I am not bothered by tactfully-asked questions—curiosity is obviously natural. In some situations, I will explicitly invite questions with the assurance that I will not be offended. For example, I recently began a graduate program in cognitive science, and I invited my supervisor to ask any questions she had about my blindness. Because we conduct research together, it is crucial that she understand any limitations I might have, and thus I thought it was important to invite questions.
As I am sure readers of this blog can imagine, there are a plethora of other examples of ableism I encounter that I have not discussed here. Primarily, this is because I want to keep the length of this post under that of an average novel, and I think it’s already nearing the point at which people will have stopped reading. Note, too, that I am not trying to personally attack the people who exhibit ableist behaviour; I am sure I have said or done ableist things in the past. Rather, I wrote this in the hope that it will educate people. If there is one thing to keep in mind when interacting with people who are blind—or, for that matter, people with any disability—it is that you should look at them as a normal person who happens to be blind, rather than as a person who is defined primarily by the fact that they are blind.
Tyler Ensor grew up in Southern Ontario, Canada. He received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, and is now pursuing a Master’s degree and PhD in cognitive psychology at Memorial University of Newfoundland. His research focuses on human memory.