Blogging Against Disablism 2017: Sight, Light, and Language


There have been many articles written on the subject of the “language of awareness,” one or two of such articles may even have been written by yours truly. there has also been some controversy in the disability community about the appropriate or accurate use of that language, as some have insisted that “people first” language is the only way to respectfully, effectively, interact with an individual who has a disability, because it places the emphasis on the human being, rather than the disability. In other words, the person being referred to is not defined by their disability, they are a person, first. There have been others, though, who have vehemently disagreed with this notion, feeling that they are, in fact, defined by their disability, and further, are proud of it.

Over the years, I’ve read so many thoughtful articles written about disability awareness and etiquette, advising any number of “do’s and don’ts” on everything from best practices for communicating with the neuro atypical to humorous missives on the importance of speaking directly to a guide dog user, rather than to the guide dog. These articles, for the most part, have done a great job tearing down stereotypes and facilitating interactions between disabled and non-disabled persons. Much of that which appears here on the Accessible Insights Blog has emphasized blindness, since I am blind as the result of a congenital, degenerative disease of the retina, called Retinitis Pigmentosa.

One of the topics I’ve always wanted to write about is the intriguing connection in the English language between eyesight and understanding. Some of my own work has explored the concepts of the soft bigotry of low expectations, the treatment of people who are blind as intellectually inferior, when, for example, a blind individual is spoken to loudly or slowly, or where there is a presumption of incompetence. Of course, it is not factually accurate to say that a person who cannot see also cannot understand, yet this myth is perpetuated, thanks in part, it seems, to the idiosyncratic nature of English. It also occurred to me that there are words related to “light,” that are associated with knowledge, cognition, and discernment.

The first such instance is the direct link between two simple words that explicitly convey comprehension: “I see.” Another example is “I saw the light.” When we ask for an explanation, we might say, “enlighten me.” When we express appreciation for gaining that knowledge, we might say, “that was quite illuminating.” When we want to impart knowledge, we might say, “let me shed some light on that subject.” If we want to expose a falsehood, we offer to “shine the bright light of truth” on something. Finally, even the rising sun can take credit for the sudden remembrance, acknowledgement, or grasp of an idea…as when we say, “it dawned on me.” Word nerd that I am, I consulted my favorite reference books pertaining to the use of language, and I discovered some interesting linguistic connections between having eyesight, and possessing understanding.

Here are more specific examples, where the word being defined can be explained by phrases analogous to eyesight:

The word perceive, as a verb, means to become aware of, or to comprehend via our senses. Often it is inferred that the perception is by sight or to have the power to perceive by sight. In another example, perceive is used with an inference to an idea, such as, “Oh, now I see.” Or, “I don’t see your point.”

To be contemporaneous with, as in, “you’ll soon see the value here.”

To imagine, or conceive of, as in, “I can see it in my mind’s eye,” or, “I don’t see him doing such a thing.”

To think about something in a particular way, to regard or consider, as in, “sorry, I just don’t see things as you do.” Or, “I don’t see the situation as being all that bad.” Or, “we just don’t see eye-to-eye.”

To make a determination, to find out something, for example, “I want to see if this works.” Or, “I think we should see if she knows how to change a tire.”

To make certain of something, such as, “see to it the door is closed,” or “see that the lights are off when you go.”

To consult with a professional, “I need to see a dentist.”

To take charge, such as, “I saw to it that the project was completed on time.”

To understand detail, as in, “he has a good eye.”

To deliberate or decide, for example, “See whether you can come tomorrow”;

To experience, as in, “he saw action in Iraq.”

To make sense of, or interpret, as in, “what’s the messaging you’re seeing here?”

Here are even more examples:

When you’re really mad, you’re “seeing red.” when you are accompanying someone to the airport, you are “seeing him off.” And, when you are sure someone is being untruthful, you might say, “I saw right through her.” Some of these examples are simply colloquial, but in the context of blindness, greater accuracy in communication can get a bit tricky, not to mention awkward.

Based on these examples, it isn’t hard to see (yikes!) how it may be possible that so much of the passive prejudice or soft bigotry we face may be unintentional, in part due to an inherent language bias that can make disablism that much easier, simply because of the words we use every day.

So, now that you’ve read to the end of my submission for BADD 2017 on the many ways in which the concept of understanding can be transmogrified by language, you can now say you’ve seen the light!

LL

Previous Blogging Against Disablism Day submissions:
2010:

You Don’t Look Blind

2011:

It’s On Aisle 5

2012:

Your Ingenious Life

Blogging Against Disablism Day 2017


Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2017

If you love to write, or read, about the experience of disability, then you will love this day. For over ten years, this global event has attracted activists, advocates, parents, and people from all walks of life, disabled or non-disabled, who blog about life from their point of view. You will read about overcoming adversity, triumph over tragedy, practical coping strategies, and learn more effective ways to interact with people who have disabilities of all sorts. It can be a little emotional, reading about the day-to-day experiences of individuals who live in places that do not have the equivalent of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), or, who do, yet suffer discrimination,, disrespect, or indignity anyway. Some of what you read may be discouraging,, depressing, or even infuriating. But you will also read stories that are heartwarming, uplifting, and even funny,, as bloggers around the world share their lives. You can read all about Blogging Against Disablism Day here, along with archives of past year’s posts:

Blogging Against Disablism Day

Use hash tag #BADD2017 when tweeting about the event. Don’t forget to go to the site to link to your own post, if you plan to participate.

LL

Blogging Against Disablism 2013: The Adversity of Anything


I was sitting across the desk from my high-school advisor, who was officiously scrutinizing the completed applications I intended to submit to the universities of my choice. She sat back, and, peering at me over her horn-rimmed, half glasses, she announced, “You may as well go to the local community college, and not bother with this. From where I sit, Miss…uh,.” she paused, distractedly shuffling through papers, trying to find my name, then continued: “Laura, is it? Because I doubt you’ll ever amount to…anything.”

Later, while attending the four-year university of my choice, and thinking ahead as to my career, I aggressively sought full-time, gainful employment. Overcoming the barriers imposed by small minds required a patience I didn’t know I possessed. Sitting in the office of a potential employer, I was asked, “Come on, now. What can you people really do? if you can’t see, how can you really do…anything?”

After being invited to speak at my City Hall to a group of officials conducting a workshop on community access, the meeting facilitator briefly interviewed each speaker as to their credentials, for the benefit of the attendees. As the only speaker on the panel who was disabled, I was advocating for reasonable accommodations as per the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Each speaker was asked about their vocation and qualifications. Upon turning to me, she said, “And what is it that you like to do with your time, dear? What is it that you do for work? Or, do you do anything?”

Sometimes, when we hear stories of people who have overcome adversity, we hear tales of epic struggles, like those we see in movies. Much of the time, though, what stands in our way can be subtler, not so much a battle as a series of slights, or the persistent pressure we might experience through chronic adverse circumstances, such as poverty or isolation. To overcome the adversity of anything, you need to know your strengths, identify allies, seek out heroes and be open to the idea that you are your best advocate.

Identify your strongest supporters. you may be disheartened to realize that this may not include family, or even close friends. While this can be devastating to anyone seeking self-sufficiency, keep in mind that your loved one’s lack of support may be due to reasons that have less to do with you or your decision to become independent. Sometimes, we become so deeply entrenched in our expected roles, especially in families or close relationships, that when we make changes, this can inadvertently cause the role of the other person to become redefined. If, for example, your spouse or loved one has become accustomed to managing certain aspects of your life, she may feel she is fulfilling a purpose. One friend confided in me, after deciding to move from the East coast to the West coast that his mother wailed, “Now, what am I supposed to do?” Sometimes, we find out the hard way that our families are not our best support system. If this is the case for you, then find support elsewhere. Seek out friends, peer counseling, outreach services, a like-minded online social network.

Find the people who are doing what you want to do, and contact them directly to learn how they overcame barriers. Don’t be intimidated. If you are rejected or dismissed, realize that is not the kind of person you want to emulate, and any advice they would offer would only be tainted by their ego, and not offered generously in the spirit of elevating others. Try to keep in mind, though, that not everyone wants to be the “poster child” for disability, and that their non-responsiveness may be due to the fact that they, too, are still finding their own way forward. Once, I wrote to a high profile entrepreneur who dominated his industry, and who shared my particular form of vision loss. Since I admired this person a great deal, I not only wrote to him, but attempted to meet with him in hope of learning how he had conquered the attitudinal barriers I knew he faced everyday, and a further hope that he might offer some sage advice. Unfortunately, I never heard a word from him, and I was deeply disappointed. Later, I learned that he carefully guarded his public persona, to the degree that he micro-managed the means by which he interacted with people, to the point that he insisted he never be seen using a white cane, and that he was always seated or situated in place first in any meeting conditions, so that he should never appear weak or disadvantaged in any way.

Consider disability-specific education or retraining. When it became necessary for me to begin using a white cane, my department of services for the blind vocational rehabilitation counselor insisted I attend a school for blind adults. at first, I refused. I was strongly independent, and in my opinion, attending a school for the blind would only define me as a person who was blind, a label I desperately wished to avoid. It took quite a bit of convincing before I agreed to go. I won’t go so far as to say I arrived kicking and screaming, but I was not exactly willing to embrace the situation. My attendance at the school for the blind completely changed my life. It is where I learned my love of advocacy, it was the genesis of my passion for educating others. It is where I learned the meaning of dignity and what it means to ascend to meet your circumstances. I expected to learn Braille, independent living and cane mobility skills. but it was what I had not expected to learn, from which I benefited the most.

Overcoming adversity doesn’t always mean that the barriers are external. Sometimes, it is the inner conflict, our personal narrative, playing on the endless loop of our subconscious, that holds us back. Those private, negative messages may have begun early in childhood, through social conditioning, parental expectations, or catalytic events. If it were true that time heals all wounds, then psychologists’ offices wouldn’t be filled with adults seeking to heal childhood hurts. Our jails wouldn’t be filled with precious human beings who couldn’t find a productive way to cope with their circumstances and manage their lives. Social media wouldn’t be a labyrinth of nonexistent personas desperately seeking to manifest the celebrity, excitement, success, or attention that is missing from their real lives. It is when we permit ourselves to be defined by the external that we are weakened, because we are then vulnerable to the vicissitudes of opinion. It is perhaps the greatest struggle in our lives that we must find out who we are, and live our lives on our own terms, with our own sense of purpose. It is only then that you will be able to overcome the adversity of anything.

About the author: Laura Legendary is a speaker, author, and educator specializing in disability awareness, accessibility, advocacy, and assistive technology. Learn more at her flagship site, Eloquent Insights, www.eloquentinsights.com. More recently, Laura has been working on a start-up enterprise, Elegant Insights Braille Creations. To read product descriptions and sign up on the mailing list, go to www.elegantinsightsjewelry.com, or find the Elegant Insights page on Facebook at www.facebook.com/Elegant.Insights.

You are welcome to leave a comment or link to your own BADD 2013 submission in the comments section. Please use the accessible contact form on the blog home page if you would like to write to me directly.

Previous BADD posts:

2010: You Don’t Look Blind

http://tinyurl.com/26dam92

2011: It’s on Aisle 5

http://tinyurl.com/d5m9egg

2012: Your Ingenius Life

http://tinyurl.com/cyp36wg

Thanks for reading, and fight on.

LL

Blogging Against Disablism: It’s On Aisle 5


It’s on Aisle 5
  Good customer service is an equal opportunity opportunity

By L. Legendary

Little else in my life could be described as more of an exercise in frustration than grocery shopping.  As a person who is legally blind, each trip is a time-consuming game of roulette, with odds on as to whether or not I’ll arrive home with what I thought I bought.  Of course, some sections of the market are easier to negotiate than others.  The produce section, for example, is no problem. It’s a tactile paradise.  I mean, really, bananas are quite distinctively shaped, so is broccoli and zucchini and a head of lettuce.  What cannot be discerned by shape can almost certainly be discerned by scent.  Orange or grapefruit? Tangerine or lemon? Each has a lovely, distinctive citrus bouquet.  No problem.

The seafood counter is also no problem.  There stands a very nice person who will tell me what is fresh, what is frozen, and what is on sale.  The only potential pitfall is the possibility that he or she could choose for me a less than desirable cut that a discriminating sighted-shopper might pass over.  A few kind words to the counter-person should make this possibility a non-issue, though.  Seafood counter?  No problem.  Deli counter?  A breeze. I can simply ask the nice person to slice up a half-pound of this, a quarter-pound of that, and which soup do you recommend today?  Gather up the bundles and move along.

These few tasks covers about one thousand square feet of what is an otherwise fifty-five thousand square foot stadium-sized obstacle course of boxes, bottles, cans and cartons, the contents of which are indeterminate.  Houston, we have a problem.

Warily, I approached the customer service counter.  In my experience, anything that identifies itself as “customer service” should be regarded with suspicion.  Usually, it turns out to be a disappointing misapplication of the term.  Awaiting the attention of a young lady behind the counter, I pasted on my “I used to work in retail, so I feel your pain” patient smile.

“What do you need, ma’am?”  The young lady called out from a distance of twenty-five feet.

Instead of yelling back, I smiled warmly and beckoned her over.  I had no way of knowing she was even talking to me.  She could have been calling out to any number of people standing nearby, so the beckoning gesture was modified to look like a friendly wave in case I was mistaken.

She walked over.  “What do you need, ma’am?”  she repeated.

Turning up the smile, I said, “I could use some assistance out on the sales floor.  I’m looking for something in particular, and I’d appreciate it if someone would walk me over and help me to locate it.”

She hesitated.  “Okay.”  She said, stretching out the word as if she were a little annoyed. Then, for the third time, “What is it you need, ma’am?”

Why, I daresay I already answered that question.  I persisted.  “I’d like some help out on the sales floor.  Could you assist me or find someone who can assist me?”

Now she was getting impatient. “What exactly are you looking for?”

Ah.  She was beginning to catch on to the fact that I wasn’t going to tell her.  Not that I was trying to be difficult, mind you, but because I knew that I wasn’t about to get the information I wanted from her by answering her question.  I didn’t want to tell her what exactly I was looking for because I was anticipating her response, which would most likely be a dismissive wave of the hand and the curt, “It’s on Aisle 5.”

Well, all I can say is that for a person who cannot see, this kind of cryptic gesture is utterly meaningless.  I’m not interested in knowing it’s on aisle five, because I have no idea where aisle five is.  Do the aisle numbers begin at the right side of the store, or left?  Do the aisle numbers begin before the semi-permanent half-aisle of chips and salsa, avocados and Roma tomatoes, or do the numbers begin after that?  Do the aisle numbers include the brand new, just-installed-since-the-last-time-I-was-there “Wine Cellar” section?

I didn’t ask her to tell me on which aisle to look.  I asked her if she could help me to locate something on the sales floor. It was a battle of wills.

I broke first.  "I’m looking for an item that is brand new. I don’t even know if you carry it. It’s a particular brand of pesto in a jar.”

“All pasta sauces are on Aisle 5,” she said with a dismissive wave of her hand, and began to walk away.

“Excuse me!”  I called out to her receding back.  “I could really use some assistance in locating the item.”  I held up my white cane, and, pointing to it, said, “I’m visually impaired.”

“Oh!”  She exclaimed, really seeing me for the first time, and whirled into motion.  Practically leaping over the counter, she called out to a nearby checker, “Hey, Vic, we have a special needs customer with a question.”  Standing at the end of a busy check stand, she whispered loudly, “She’s sight-challenged.”  Then asked of the checkout man, “Do we have Brand X pesto sauce in a jar?”

“It’s on aisle five.” He answered, without looking up from his task, then waved his hand dismissively,  in the general direction of the entire store.

Now I was getting impatient.  “Could you please find a customer service person to help me locate the item?"  I implored.  "I don’t care where it is, I’m not asking you to tell me where it is, I’m asking for someone to please assist me out on the sales floor.”  

“Well sure, ma’am, we can do that,” she said, in a tone which suggested that she was growing concerned that I was about to go ape-shit on her ass.  Then, cheerily:  “I’ll do it.”

When we arrived at aisle five, she informed me triumphantly that she saw no such brand of pesto in a jar, letting it hang out there that if I had just taken her word for it, I could have saved her the trouble of helping me.  Turning to me she said, “So are you totally blind, or what?  Because we can assign someone to help you shop if you want.  Just tell them you have a problem and they’ll try to find someone to do it.”

I almost laughed out loud.  So far, getting help had been like pulling teeth.  Her sudden magnanimity had only broken from the bonds of apathy after I pointed out my disability.  I told her that customer service was customer service, and that I should not be forced to divulge my personal medical circumstances in order to get it.  Why should I be required to explain WHY I need assistance?  Other shoppers are not required to confess to being lazy or stupid or forgetful when enlisting the assistance of a customer service representative.

Furthermore, why is it anyone’s business what precisely constitutes the scope or severity of these circumstances?  Would I, for example, have been given better or even faster service had I admitted to being “totally blind”?  No one else is expected to provide an explanation as to why they are requesting assistance, or the degree to which they need it.  Nor should I.  Feeling put on the spot, I offered up a bit of education on the subject.

Fearing that surely she was about to be the recipient of disciplinary action by her manager as the result of a complaint, she listened attentively, then pointed out that anyone would be more than happy to accompany me shopping any time I needed it.  Incredulous, I hesitated.  I felt compelled to offer a reality check.

“First of all,” I began, “very few establishments have the staffing levels to accompany me or anyone else shopping.  "Second,” I assured her, “no one is happy about it.”

“I’m not asking for special favors,” I concluded.  “I don’t need anyone to hold my hand. Good customer service is an equal opportunity . . . opportunity.”

Clearly, she didn’t get it.  “Huh?”  she said.  “I’m lost.”

I sighed.  “It’s on aisle five.”

Copyright © 2005.  All rights reserved.

Author’s note:  This article was originally written years ago, and since then, many things have changed.  I am happy to report that I now order my groceries online, and have them delivered to my door.  What a wonderful world. 

LL