[guest post] Experiencing Ableism as a Person Who is Blind

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.

[#wiscfi liveblog] The Mattering Map: Religion, Humanism, and Moral Progress

The WiS2 conference logo.

I’m liveblogging Rebecca Goldstein’s talk, “The Mattering Map: Religion, Humanism, and Moral Progress.” Goldstein is a novelist and professor of philosophy at Barnard College. Follow along!

4:18: “Amanda just said in her wonderful talk that she wasn’t going to bore you with philosophy. That’s my job.”

I agonized over this talk. Should I publicly address the gender issue for the first time? [Audience: yes!!!]

4:21: Criticism of literary criticism can be used to unearth biases. For instance, that it’s okay for women to write certain kinds of books that are mostly read by other women, but those books are then dismissed as being “for women.” Subconscious gender biases undermine women and make them unwilling to enter the fray–though that doesn’t seem to be an issue at this conference.

In preparation for this talk, I polled some very prominent women and asked them if they ever feel that their gender undermines them professionally. Virtually all of them reported saying something in a discussion or meaning and being completely ignored–until the comment is picked up and reported by a man. Then, suddenly everyone jerks to attention.

Obviously it’s true that compared to more violent manifestations of misogyny, being ignored/interrupted/talked over is easy to dismiss because it’s an experience of privileged women. We privileged women can feel petty and ashamed voicing complaints about these things.

Psychologists call these experiences “microaggressions,” and they cite evidence that for women (and other marginalized groups), these small attacks take a greater toll than the more outright expressions of misogyny.

Derald Wing Sue, a researcher on microaggressions, says that it’s easier for marginalized people to deal with the more outright expressions of bigotry because there’s no guesswork involved. You can easily dismiss them as bigotry.

4:26: As secularists with strong scientific orientations, we’ve concentrated almost exclusively on the way religions exploit the “will to believe.” We’ve used science to argue against this. And that’s important, but we’ve largely ignored another issue: the “will to matter.”

I first thought of this idea through one of my fictional characters. I was invested in being “rigorous” and these ideas seemed to lack rigor. My editor said, “I don’t really understand Renee [the character].” Renee, like me, was a rigorous philosopher. She started coming up with these ideas about “mattering.” We’re invested in “mattering” and will give up our lives to causes for the sake of “mattering.”

Her other idea was “the Mattering Map.” A person’s location on the Mattering Map is determined by what matters to them and their perception of people–who the somebodies and nobodies are, who the heroes are, who should never have been born. We differ on who we think the heroes are because we differ on what matters. If what matters is intelligence, then the heroes are the geniuses. (In fact, Renee, the character, married a genius and regretted it.)

4:31: The idea of the mattering map has become a working theoretical concept in certain areas of psychology. The idea of my fictional character has been incorporated into actual theoretical work! I Googled it and got tens of thousands of hits, more than I got for me. [audience laughs]

It was even written about in the Harvard Business Review: an article called “How Mattering Maps Affect Behavior.” The article even quotes Renee herself.

4:35: What is it that keeps intellectually sophisticated people clinging to propositions about the world so improbable that they can be described–if you’ll allow me to use the technical terminology of epistemology–as crazy-ass shit?

These beliefs extend at least 30,000 years to Cro Magnon man, whose cave paintings are interpreted as expressions of spiritual beliefs. But the religions that still resonate with people were all originally forged during the period called “the Axial Age“–between 800 and 200 BCE. At the same time, secular philosophy and tragic drama emerged in ancient Greece. This period is called “the axial age” because these traditions still extend into our own age, including among the secularists who are the inheritors of Greek tradition.

What they have in common is a preoccupation with the issue of mattering.

Some lives achieve mattering and others don’t. Perhaps there’s something a person can do that will make the difference when it comes to his or her mattering. The question is, what is the human life that matters?

The belief that you might mess up and have a life that doesn’t matter, that you might as well have not even had, erupted during the Axial Age.

4:38: Why did this preoccupation emerge in this age? One possibility is that it was spurred by the emergence of cities, and the greater anonymity and choices that they provided. Markets and money, which provide an impersonal measure of wealth, could also have provoked this development.

The ancient Greeks had religious rituals to ward off evil, but when it came to the issue of what makes a human life matter, the Greeks did not really use religion. They used human terms. This is what allowed philosophy to develop in ancient Greece.

The belief is that life must be extraordinary in order to matter; ordinary lives are not worth living. It’s not immortal attention you need to attract, but that of other mortals.

In The Apology, Plato has Socrates compare himself to Achilles, who chose a short extraordinary life over a long ordinary life. Of course, Socrates was already 70 years old…so it was too late to have a short extraordinary life. But still, this shows that Socrates/Plato bought into this general Greek idea of the “ethos of the extraordinary.”

4:45: On the other side of the Mediterranean, the Hebrews were grappling with the same issue. They approached the problem of mattering in divine terms, not human terms.

But only one of these approaches has been self-correcting, and that is secular moral reason, initiated by the Greeks.

Back to microaggressions. What do they do? They undermine a person’s sense that they matter. And they’re even worse when they come from someone who matters to you, who can’t be dismissed as the ranting bigots and slobbering misogynists.

4:50: Without sensitivity to the will to matter and how it gave rise to religion in the first place, we fail to understand the secular ethical progress to which we are the heirs, and upon which we wage an assault, macro or micro, every time we undermine a person’s sense that he or she matters.

4:54: Audience question: What about the tendency to matter by notoriety rather than popularity? When people like negative attention, is that because they feel like mattering by something positive isn’t an option?

Goldstein: The various ways that people want to matter are interesting. The Greeks had a concept of celebrity too (having poets fawn over you). Maybe when you’re a secularist and you think that this life is all you have, the attention of many people becomes all the more important. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to lead to a satisfactory life, though, and that’s an empirical question. That’s something for the psychologists to figure out.

4:56: Audience question: How do you justify the claim that we secularists are the heirs to the Greeks when there’s such a strong aversion to philosophy and the liberal arts in the atheist movement?

Goldstein: I think there should be a correction to that. A lot of times when we make points in the atheist movement, we’re relying on philosophy whether we know it or not. The idea that science is the best way of knowing is an epistemological claim. People are always wondering into philosophy without realizing it, and I think philosophers should be given some credit.

4:58: Audience question: Can you comment on traditional gender roles in terms of mattering?

Goldstein: One can become convinced of these things because they’re so rigidly imposed. They’re often just handed down to us–men/women, slaves/owners, adults/children. The empirical question is, do they work? Do they make people feel as though they really matter? Is it conducive to the greatest good of the greatest number of people? But throughout history, these roles break down. The suggestion is that they don’t work. It took so long to realize that slavery is wrong, that racism is wrong, that sexism is wrong, but after that you never go back. People never start owning slaves again. They never become racist again. It’s progress. It’s just as much progress as scientific progress, and the two are linked together.

5:01: Audience question: Can you bring your ideas on mattering and your ability to develop complex characters to understand the psychology of the reviled misogynist?

Goldstein: I feel like I do understand reviled misogynist. I’ve had quite a few in my books. I’ve never created a character that I don’t in some sense sympathize with, understand what’s motivating them. I think the explanations for misogyny are fairly well-understood. How wonderful it must be to be born and think that everything is coming to you, and that even if you don’t matter very much, you can be sure that there are people who matter less than you. That’s why, again, social justice is the answer to all of these questions. One has to make all people feel like they matter and don’t need to put down some group to feel like they matter.


Previous talks:


Faith-based Pseudoscience (Panel)

How Feminism Makes Us Better Skeptics (Amanda Marcotte)

The Supposed Virtue of Not Being Offended


I often encounter people who are Not Offended by bigotry or microaggressions and are very proud of that fact. In fact, because they’re Not Offended, they think that nobody else should be offended by the thing they’re Not Offended by, either.

It’s difficult for me to criticize those people because, often, they’ve been through a lot. They’re survivors of sexual assault who don’t see a problem with rape jokes. They’re people with mental illnesses who don’t care if you tell them to “just snap out of it.” They’re women who don’t care if they get catcalled on the street. They’re gay men who don’t care if you call them “f****t.”

Sometimes the way people cope is by growing a thicker skin. While that’s not something I’ve ever really been capable of, it’s none of my business how other people cope. It’s also none of my business what other people are and are not offended by.

When it becomes my business, though, it when such people start implying that because they’re not offended, nobody else should be, either. That’s when they lose me. It seems like some people haven’t really learned that 1) everyone is entitled to their feelings, whether those feelings are “rational” and “logical” or not, and 2) your feelings don’t have to be everyone else’s feelings too.

The other issue with this is the sense of superiority that such people often have. Being Not Offended becomes somehow morally better, or a sign of strength or “maturity” or “perspective.” It’s also assumed to be the “healthier” option, because being offended means you’re “holding a grudge” or something equally ridiculous.

Of course, even if being Not Offended were healthier, that wouldn’t really matter because it’s not a choice. While we can choose whether and how to act upon our feelings, we can rarely choose which ones to have. It’s not really your choice whether to be upset by something or not, and I believe the technical term for considering yourself superior to others because of things they can’t control is Being A Dick. (If you’d like to change the feelings that you automatically have in response to things, you could try therapy, but that’s not available to everyone and the stigma associated with it is still significant. So at best you’re shaming people for not going to therapy.)

To some people, being offended also means you’re wasting your time nitpicking people’s language as opposed to working on Real Issues, which is an argument I often come across but have yet to see proof for. Is there actually an activist out there who does nothing but police people’s jokes and language? If you run across someone who criticizes your jokes or language, how do you know they don’t do anything but that with their life? You don’t.

None of this means that you have to be offended by something just because others are. For instance, I have no problem with casual usage of the word “crazy,” but many other people with mental illnesses do. I understand why they do, but for some reason hearing that word thrown around just doesn’t provoke any emotional reaction from me. I also occasionally use that word to describe myself. However, I never use it to describe other people, and I try to avoid using it casually in public because I’m mindful of the fact that others find it offensive. (Also, it’s just such an imprecise and lazy word to use.)

But I would be wrong if I said that because I’m not offended by the word “crazy,” nobody else should be, either. I would be wrong if I considered myself more mature or healthier than those who find that word offensive.

Speaking of imprecise word choice, “offensive” and “offended” are prime examples. When people speak dismissively about those who get “offended” by “politically incorrect” jokes or comments, they make it sound like those of us who dislike such jokes and comments are just choosing to take righteous offense because we’re so sanctimonious and more-liberal-than-thou. While that might be how it works for some people, for many others it’s a very different sort of emotion that it evokes. These comments hurt. They make people feel pigeonholed and objectified. They make them feel like the butt of a joke they never asked to be the butt of.

It’s telling, I think, that whenever I see discussions about how “being offended” is a waste of time/a sign of immaturity/not compatible with Real Activism/a “character flaw,” I never see any compassionate advice for those who find themselves inordinately upset by bigoted comments. All I see, really, is self-indulgent gloating about the virtues of Not Being Offended.

Nobody’s taking your freeze peach away. If you’d like to offend people, go for it. But prepare to face criticism for that choice. Personally, I’d like to live in a world where if someone hurts someone else with an ill-considered comment that serves no actual purpose, they’ll apologize and seriously consider not making such comments in the future rather than lording their Thick Skin and Maturity over the person they’ve accidentally hurt.

Microaggressions can actually have pervasive negative effects on people, and research backs this up. They activate stereotype threat, which is a process in which people underperform based on stereotypes about their race or gender when those stereotypes are made salient for them.

If you’ve managed to overcome that, good for you! Now stop looking down on those who haven’t.

Argumentum Ad Third World: Or, “Think of the Starving Children in Africa” Redux

One way you know you’ve won an argument about social justice is when your opponent says something like, “YEAH WELL you don’t see people in the Third World whining about their preferred pronouns/racist Halloween costumes/the use of the word ‘retard’!”

There is a pervasive idea out there that people in the Third World only have Big Terrible Problems like poverty and genocide, and people in industrialized countries only have Stupid Silly Problems like getting toilet paper stuck on the bottom of their shoe or having to wait in traffic or whatever. There are, apparently, no problems between those two extremes in severity, and no problems are worth talking about besides the Big Terrible Problems.

“I wonder how many people identify as genderqueer in Somalia,” one Tumblr user declaimed. “Oh, wait. I forgot. Those people have actual problems.” Another made a list of “social justice issues that are extremely important” and “social justice issues that Tumblr users think are extremely important.” The former list contained poverty, human trafficking, human rights violations, and genocide. The latter contained white privilege, cultural appropriation, and gender pronouns.

A particularly egregious example of this was a recent cartoon in the Daily Northwestern, which was published in the wake of continuing conversations about racism on our campus:

The argument, of course, is simple: Look at you silly “social justice activists,” bitching about “racism” at Northwestern while people are dying on the South Side of Chicago.

While I will never understand privileged NU students’ utter fascination and obsession with Chicago’s South Side, I do understand where this argument comes from. It comes from the idea that these two types of oppression–poverty and murder versus microaggressions like racist costumes–are different not only quantitatively, but qualitatively. They are not different amounts of oppression; they are different types of oppression.

But really, they’re not. All oppression stems from the idea that some groups of people are worth less than others, that some people deserve fewer rights and less respect than others. All oppression relies on silence and ignorance to continue, and all oppression is based on the notion that the feelings of oppressors are more important than the rights, autonomy, and dignity of the oppressed.

As I mentioned when I wrote about transitioning from conservatism to progressivism, one of the main reasons I have the political ideology that I have is that I believe that psychological, sociological, and political phenomena are all interconnected. There is a connection between the white dude who calls Obama a “dumb n*****” and the bank that refuses to give a loan to a Black family. There is a connection between the person who shudders and crosses to the other side of the street upon seeing a Black man, and the cop who shoots and kills that Black man without provocation. There is a connection between the man who refers to rape victims as “lying bitches” and the man who rapes.

And the connection is this: all of these things continue because our culture prescribes ways for people to “be” and punishes those who don’t follow them, even though these ways to “be” involve factors that we can’t choose, such as race, gender, class, and sexual orientation. And then, Western societies impose these ways of “being” onto other cultures, whether through media, colonialism, or military interventions.

That doesn’t mean that all forms of oppression are equal, but it does mean that discussing which oppressions are “worse” than others is pretty pointless.  Besides, people in Third World countries definitely have problems that are less severe than poverty and genocide. To suggest that they do not is to suggest that they aren’t fully human, because, guess what–humans have all kinds of problems, whether they’re rich or poor or somewhere in between.

Oh, and by the way–unless you are actively working towards ending poverty, genocide, human trafficking, and so on, you lose all legitimacy when you make this argument. When I hear people who really don’t give a crap about social justice using argumentum ad Third World, I know that they’re not arguing in good faith. They’re just using this well-known derailing tactic.

And, in fact, most writers and activists I know who do work on large, global issues like poverty and genocide are also the ones who are most passionate about fighting microaggressions, because they understand that these things are all interconnected.

After all, even these “big” problems start when people allow themselves to view entire groups of people as “Other.”

There are many different ways to do activism, and they have varying levels of effectiveness depending on who does them and how. Some people are great at raising money. Others want to go build houses, teach, or grow food. Some work within political systems. Others educate their peers about how not to be a complete asshole to people of color, LGBT folks, and other marginalized groups. Some write. Others speak. Others make art. Some want to work in African villages. Others want to work in American cities.

You can argue about the effectiveness of one type of activism over another, but you can’t–at least, not in good faith–sit on your ass and demand that we focus on nothing but poverty and genocide.