There was a girl who didn't fall down

There was a scrawny girl with legs and arms too long for the rest of her. And those were crooked, the bones curved wrongly. Her face was almost all toothy grin and huge thick glasses.

When I catch a glimpse of her in an old picture my mind reels. That was me. I know it was but I can hardly relate anymore.

I was beyond gawky and awkward at thirteen. I had terrible posture from being nearly blind and constantly leaning forward to see things. I looked disabled and I was almost entirely socially isolated. Self-esteem wasn’t even a concept. I was in survival mode. Nothing beyond that mattered much.

Creative Commons image by Sheila Kaye Matthews

Creative Commons image by Sheila Kaye Matthews

But then there was that one day when a summer camp counselor from the Blind School took me and a few other kids out to the Columbia River where the state Special Olympics water-skiing team was training. They figured, since they had the equipment out there, they would give us the chance to just try it out.

I can still remember how they made us stand on the grass and hold our hands out in front of us with a stick. We bent our knees while one of the adults gently tugged at the stick in our hands, trying utterly futilely to give blind children an inkling of what it would feel like to water ski.

We could hear the noise the boats made and distant shouting. A few of us could see the very beginning, when a skier sitting in the water rose up and seemed to stand on the surface for a second before disappearing beyond our extremely limited visual range. Our concept of water skiing was very shaky.

“The water will push at your feet.” The instructor put his hand on my feet and then on my knees. “You have to bend your knees and lean back against it.” He put a hand at the small of my back and coaxed me to lean back. All I knew was that if I leaned back that far, I’d fall over.

“You will fall down the first time and probably lots of times,” they told us. “It’s not about staying up. It’s about getting up and trying again.”

Adults who teach blind children love cliches.

I thought about all that water. I could sort-of snow ski, so I knew how skis worked. In theory, I guessed that the skis could push against the water if I was pulled forward by the boat, and somehow I’d ski up out of the water and stand on the surface. And then I’d lean back, like they said. It just wasn’t conceivable.

“Don’t worry,” the gentle lady from the Blind School consoled me, patting my shoulder as we walked toward the river, “If it is too hard or anything, you just let go. You’ll fall right into the water like jumping off the diving board. No big deal.”

I realized when she touched me that I was shivering all over. My whole body was buzzing with a fine unconscious vibration, like the hood of a souped-up car..

I waited behind several other kids. Each one in turn stood in the water near the shore while the instructors put on their water skis and then handed them the stick at the end of the tow line. One instructor near the shore would count down and the boat’s engine would rev and then the tow line leaped forward.

Half of the time, the blind kids just let go of the stick and never even fell down. The other half of the time, the tow rope pulled them a few feet forward and they splashed head-first into the river. I tried to make out the scene but all I could get was a general impression as the instructors pleaded with the three kids in front of me not to let go of the stick the instant it jerked forward. Two of them let go anyway and the third splashed into the river.

Finally, it was my turn. The water was cold and my shivering got so bad that I thought I couldn’t possibly hang on. The instructor put my skis on and held my knocking knees for a second. I comforted myself that even if I couldn’t keep a hold of the stick, at least the first pull would show me what it felt like. They said we could try again, if we wanted.

I leaned back as far as I could and felt the skis. I gripped the stick with all my strength. I was determined that at least I would be one of those to fall in the water, not just lose the stick.

“One. Two. Three.” The boat engine revved.

The stick jerked hard and I almost lost it. My body lurched forward and I was sure I’d be in the water face first, but then the skis moved. I crouched low, the way I did on snow skis on a steep slope and I felt the slope rise under the skis.

The rope pulled hard at my hands. My knees knocked and I almost went down as the skis broke the surface of the water and the line jerked even harder. I heard a faint yell go up from the people on the shore behind me.

And then a miracle happened. The water buzzed away under my skis. I slowly stood out of my painful crouch and leaned back into the feel of support from the tow line.

“You OK?” A hoarse yell came from the boat. The shore was long gone.

I gritted my teeth and nodded hard. I was glad for the ability I knew sighted people had to see my nod without my having to unclench my teeth to yell back. I was so cold from the wind that my knees and elbows were still shaking but I was OK.

I felt the way the water was like springy, unstable ground beneath me. I felt the secure tug of the line. The boat slowly eased on a little more speed and the water felt harder under my feet.

I experimented gently rocking from side to side. I tried to dig in one side of a ski the way you do in the snow and almost fell. I lurched forward and then to one side and the boat engine sputtered and nearly cut out when whoever was watching me saw what I had done. But I regained my balance and kept going.

That first time up actually seemed to take forever. Mostly other than the thrill, all I remember is how incredibly cold I was. Finally when I didn’t think my muscles could take another second and I was shaking so hard that it must have been visible from the boat, the motor slowed and stopped in the river. I sank into the water, which felt as warm as a bath after all that cold wind.

The boat circled around and came in close so that I could take off the skis and climb up onto the back of the boat.

I barely heard what the people on the boat said, except for one thing they kept saying, “Two miles.”

I thought it had felt long but that long? I was a rural kid and I regularly walked two miles to reach a friend’s house. That was a good distance.

They took me back to shore and I got to warm up while I waited for the other kids to try again. I was worried that they wouldn’t give me many other chances because after all, I had really had a good ski, while the other kids had just fallen in the water, but within a couple of hours, I got to try again and then again. A lot of the other kids wouldn’t do it after the first few tries.

A few did get up on the skis but clearly I was different. I had never been athletic before and the whole thing confused me. I wasn’t special. Not in anything but academics at least. I was a good student but hopeless in social or physical realms, a complete social outcast and a stereotypical nerd, other than being female and growing up rural with physical chores that made for a bit of unskilled muscle.

Once a couple of the instructors came over to me while I was getting the life jacket on again for another try. One of them seemed to be showing the other one my legs. I don’t remember the exact words but apparently they theorized that the crooked, curved bones in my legs that made me run in a grotesquely flailing and inefficient manner, might have by chance given me a water-skiing advantage.

I spent not just that day but the entire week on the water and I was allowed to water ski just about as much as I could stomach. I learned to cross wakes and ski through obstacle courses. I got to go as fast as I could handle and face fear. I couldn’t recognize anyone’s face because I couldn’t see and the noise of boats made it so I usually couldn’t hear what anyone said either. I was almost entirely cut off from the human world during that time, but I didn’t really care.

It was all physical—the water, the sunshine, the cold wind, the pull of the line, my aching muscles the slap of impact when I did fall, which I did a lot once I started crossing wakes…

It was more fun than I could ever remember having and the only bad part was contemplating the end of the week and my return home to chores, boring schoolwork and mean kids at school who ostracized me.

But then at the end of the week, several adults came to me and said I could join the Oregon state women’s team and go to the National Special Olympics water-skiing competition in Florida. There was even a picture of me in the local newspaper, goofy grin and huge glasses behind a water ski dramatically posed for the camera, but the clipping was lost somewhere in the past thirty years.

I went too. It wasn’t as much fun as that week on the Columbia. There was a lot of waiting around and when I finally got to compete, the place and the skis and everything was unfamiliar and I didn’t do very well.

But that didn’t really matter.

I told myself none of it really mattered. it was “only” the Special Olympics after all. I didn’t even tell my friends at home much beyond that I got to go water-skiing. No one made a big deal about it. I got third place in some category or other but I didn’t feel like I’d won.

That wasn’t the point. The point was that engagement with the physical, that sense of being one with my body, of being physically strong and worthy.

Today when I hear about the Special Olympics facing funding threats or I hear people use the Special Olympics as a slur or a joke, I can’t help but think on that. I did other Special Olympics things as a kid. I ran track and field in the local competitions. I didn’t really like it and I didn’t win with my flailing legs, but it was good exercise. I did know how to push myself. That was good too.

But I know those two weeks of water-skiing—one on the Columbia and one in Florida—changed my entire self-concept as a teenager. I went from just surviving and fighting everyone and everything because I was rejected and wrong and hurt to nursing a ferocious desire to “show them all.”

I’m not saying the second impulse was even healthy. I was driven for the next twelve years to succeed academically and professionally. I competed for and got a scholarship to study abroad when I was sixteen. I competed for and got scholarships to go to a prestigious private college. I competed for and got a coveted place as an international stringer for a national newspaper and became a journalist in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. I traveled through more than 30 countries.

Did it start with that miraculous moment when I didn’t fall down, despite all the predictions? Time-wise, yes. It coincided with the sea change.

Psychologically it is hard to say. But I’ll stand by the Special Olympics. I’ll do whatever I can to make sure it goes on, because I think it did play a role and does play a role with a lot of kids who are beaten down and at the bottom of despair. It’s one way to rise out of that.

Note to younger self

If you could send a message back in time, what would you tell yourself as a child being bullied?

I was recently asked this question as an intellectual exercise, but I had to wonder at the deeper reasons for the question. Is there something we can learn from adult memories of bullying or retrospective advice that might provide some practical help for those in similar circumstances today.?

My experience is only mine. It is particular and specific, possibly too specific to be applicable to others. But I do know this. There are things I did not hear from adults or peers that would have helped and some things I heard a whisper of but not enough. I know there are ideas that would have helped because I eventually found these ideas myself and they helped a great deal.

But I had to invent this wheel and the chariot that rode on it. No one gave ,me the pieces. It is possible, of course, that someone tried and I didn’t listen. Or that I wouldn’t have understood these things as a child, even if someone had told me. But I don’t think so. I think these words would have helped.

So for what its worth and in case someone out there must give advice to a child facing pervasive bullying or social ostracism, here is what would have helped me: .

Yeah, the kid in red and black with unmatched socks looking hopefully toward all the kids in pastel colors, that’s me in first grade.

Yeah, the kid in red and black with unmatched socks looking hopefully toward all the kids in pastel colors, that’s me in first grade.

1. It is not you. It is them.

2. It is not you. It is them.

3. It is not you. It is them.

4. Even if there is something you could do to make them bully and ostracize you less, it would only be less. You didn’t do something to “bring it on yourself.” Adults who say that want to believe it because they don’t want to believe kids will really do this to a disabled child for no good reason. It makes them really uncomfortable about the state of the world and the nature of humanity. And they don’t want to take responsibility for making ethics education a major priority. It is not your fault. You don’t have to figure out how to be more perfect. They are the problem.

5. “Social skills” are good. You should pay attention to well-meaning adults who try to tell you how to respond in ways that will help you. BUT those adults do not know what it is like. The social skills are a band aid to an epidemic. They are not worthless but your social skills are pretty average. You can figure out how to be a little more perfect, and maybe that will help. It will definitely help you win in job interviews someday. But it is still not your fault. It is them.

6. You are being bullied and ostracized because your eyes look different, because you are physically different and because of your family background. None of those things are actually bad about you. You are not the problem. The problem is in the minds of other people, in how they were brought up to be judgmental and bigoted and in the kind of society we have. It is not you. It’s them.

7. All the constant hype about how the most important thing in life and happiness is your friends, their number and their fun-ness, is wrong. People are only saying this to help kids who don’t get good grades feel that they aren’t a failure. There are plenty of ways to be happy without a bunch of friends. Find fun by yourself and with one or two friends. Being alone is not shameful or a failure. It can be lots of fun.

8. You are inherently an introvert. Even if you didn’t have a disability and you looked just like everyone else and you came from a typical family, you wouldn’t be the life of the party or the center of a crowd of friends. Some people get their energy from being with people. Some people get their energy from being alone. You will have fun with people but you need to be alone a lot. Being alone is not shameful or sign of a failure. Being alone will help you to be energized and to have fun with your friends when you do go hang out with them. Look at the things you actually like to do. Most of your hobbies, the things your really love, are hard to do in a big group and work better alone or with one or two friends.

9. Decide to be happy, even if no one will accept you. You will one day do this and you will be much happier. No one told me this, so it took me a long time to get. Maybe you could do it earlier and be happy sooner. Build yourself a happy life. Discover the joys of creating, art, writing and nature. Find work you love, no matter how little it pays. Focus on your passions and those good people who will stand by you, even if they aren’t perfect or if they live far away. You don’t need the rest of them to be happy.

10. Bullies shame themselves. Bullies destroy their self-respect. Self-respect is crucial to happiness. Your self-respect gets battered and bruised by being bullied but at least you still have yours. Theirs is gone forever, at least any honest self-respect. They can only ever lie to themselves about being a good person. I never did stoop to their level. but there were times I wanted to.

11. Don’t worry. Those adults who tell you that you have to fight back to stop bullying, even though you’re blind or one against ten and it is clearly a stupid idea—those people are just wrong and they think bullying is something completely different from what it really is. You really are worthy. Their sickness is their own problem.

12. You will be told to be quiet a lot. The people you trust most, your family and close friends will tell you to be quiet because it is hard for them to hear what is happening to you. When people exclude you, they will tell you to be quiet. They will tell you they are excluding you BECAUSE you are not quiet enough. They want your silence. A lot of people who have a disability or other difference have been silent. It does not help. Silence can help you to survive for a moment or two. Don’t be ashamed of the times you were silent to survive but know that it is not what you have a right to. You have a right to speak the truth. You have a right to be heard.

13. Those who love you need to listen, but it is hard for them to hear when you have been hurt so much that mostly what comes out is screaming. Start with “I feel…” State the feeling first. That helps them hear. When they still don’t listen, it is not your fault. It is not your fault that you are emotional or that your words don’t come out all concise and coordinated. Keep working at expressing yourself in ways people can understand. It is helpful. But there is no perfect. Being gentler and calmer will help sometimes. Sometimes it will make them comfortable with dismissing you. Being concise will help sometimes. Sometimes it will let them make their own assumptions.

14. You are enough. It won’t go away because it is them, not you. And you can’t change them without a major change in society. But you will escape from the power of bullies someday.

As i said, this is not a universal message. Bullying comes in different forms. For some kids it is only a few times. For some the physical part is worse than the psychological part, and for others it is visa versa. This is just my message to myself. It would have helped. Now I know what I needed to hear, what could have saved me a lot of dark years, but no one knew it then.

Those who meant well, meant well. They couldn’t know but maybe someone who knows a bullied child will discover a bit of transferable truth in it. I hope so. Feel free to share.

Jokes that hurt without meaning to

This post is not about racists, homophobes, ableists, sexists and other recognized deplorables telling deplorable jokes that we can all agree are damaging and not funny.

Sorry. It’s been done. Here are some links (on people who get mad that women don’t fake laugh at sexist jokes anymore. and how bigoted jokes change who it is socially acceptable to hate), if you need a post about that. It is also a real issue.

This is the “dig a little deeper” post.

Jokes that hurt image.jpg

We—and here I mean progressive, kind, good-hearted people who don’t want to hurt anyone—need to think about what happens when we accidentally or carelessly tell a joke that hurts someone.

There’s a Facebook meme that says, “If I ever confuse ‘their’ versus ‘there’ and ‘its’ versus ‘it’s’ in the same post, you should take it as a sign that I have been kidnapped and I’m signaling for help.”

I’m a linguist, a grammar buff and an ESL teacher. I get why this is funny.

Those who know and care about the differences in words and who feel that the integrity of language matters get frustrated with the apparent lackadaisical attitude of many on social media toward the written word.

To many of us, sloppy spelling and grammar is the equivalent of going out in public with your fly down, food on your chin, morning breath, body odor and your hair not brushed for three days. It reflects poorly on the person posting a message and discredits what they have to say.

Meanwhile, to many people on social media, typing is simply a different way of talking and the faster it’s done the better.

The joke is funny because:

1. The person who posts the joke is poking some fun at her/himself for being a bit of a grammar nerd,

2. We all know a lot of people online who just don’t care whether they make those mistakes and there is a light rivalry between them and the grammar nerds.

3. Some people’s grammar and spelling is really hilarious.

Um… What? Wait just a minute there.

Number three is a problem. If poor grammar on social media is the equivalent of going out in public disheveled, then laughing at people who present poor grammar is the equivalent of ridiculing a person in public who looks disheveled.

And that person might just be homeless.

Or in the online version, they might be dyslexic, blind, an ESL learner, uneducated due to generational poverty or so stressed by difficult life circumstances that they can’t check over their posts.

Imagine if you will a similar Facebook meme stating, “If I ever start stuffing my face and turn into a fatty, you should take it to mean that I’m trapped in an abusive relationship under threat of violence and that’s how I’m signaling for help.” Imagine a really slim friend posting this.

Okay, it is no longer funny at all. We can probably all agree that this would be insensitive and cruel.

The analogy is closer to home than you may think. Obesity is often considered a product of lazy, lackadaisical habits, just as poor spelling is. But both are often actually caused by or exacerbated by factors beyond a person’s control. Both are also the focus of a lot of overt harassment and ridicule.

I cannot count the number of times someone has called me out online for mixing up a homonym, for a dropped comma or for not catching a bad autocorrect. My specific reasons for these mistakes are being 90 percent blind, using voice recognition to type and being a stressed-out parent on modest means. I’m geographically isolated enough to need social media for both work and social interaction. So I try anyway, but my online escapades are far from perfect.

I’m a professional writer and I graduated suma cum laude in linguistics, so I shouldn’t be sensitive about this

But... ridicule is hard to take, and growing up with a disability I’ve received my full measure. When I see other people ridiculed for it online, even when they are my political opponents, I feel threatened.

Okay, I’ll agree that a president really should check over his tweets. If I were president, I wouldn’t be sending out anything I hadn’t had checked by someone else. There’s having a text disability and there’s being smart about your personal strengths and weaknesses. Presidents can afford line editors and so there isn’t much excuse beyond arrogance and lack of care.

But I still don’t engage in those particular jabs at 45.

I think I did once find that grammar meme funny, years ago, when I first got on social media. I had the same problems I have now with text, but I had not yet encountered the online ridicule over it. A person’s experience of having been ridiculed about the point of the joke does matter.

I recently overreacted to such a joke and called out a friend over it. I felt bad later. I don’t want to be harsh or mean, especially when I’m pretty sure the person who posted it had the first two reasons for humor in mind, not so much the problematic third.

But it is an issue worth thinking about. I have seen my friends who are only intermediate in English be dismissed and laughed off of social media, when it took significant courage for them to speak up in a foreign language. I have been ridiculed for posting in the language of the country where I am an immigrant. It is also a second language for me and I know I make mistakes.

And this is by far not the only joke that many of us may find funny, while it hits someone else like a sucker punch. Some jokes about family relationships may really hurt people who have lost family through adoption or estrangement. Some jokes may reference something sensitive for one group that the individual telling the joke genuinely didn’t realize would be sensitive. Think bananas, jungles and “gypsy” fortune tellers for instance.

I may be experienced enough to personally avoid these, but I’ll guarantee you one thing. There is a joke out there somewhere that I will think is hilarious and either laugh at or share, which will actually hurt someone. And I can pretty much guarantee that the same is true for you.

We don’t know for sure and we’re all likely to make this mistake, no matter what our personal background is. A lot of people will take that as a reason to dismiss the whole thing and say that we should all grow thicker skins and learn to take a joke.

But we know where that leads.

If we say it is all right to tell jokes that hurt people with invisible disabilities or ESL learners, we will be that much closer to social acceptability of overtly racist jokes.

And yet laughter and humor is in desperately short supply. Our hearts cry that the solution cannot be that we walk on eggshells around sharing anything funny.

The best I have for you is this:

1. When I am hurt by such a joke or comment in the future, I will say simply, “That hurts. Here’s why.” I will go back to psychology 101 and use statements starting with “I” rather than accusing the other person of something. I invite you to join me in this resolution.

2. When that unhappy but inevitable day comes when I am told that my humor hurt someone else, I will listen and truly think it through. I will delete jokes that hurt people if it’s online. And I’ll apologize for hurting that person, even if I had no intention of doing so, even if I don’t quite think they are justified.

The experience of hurt is a fact. If it comes from me then I did the hurting. Intention is not irrelevant but it is also not everything. Neither is reasonableness. Saying, “I’m sorry my joke hurt you. Thanks for letting me know. I will try not to hurt you in the future,” costs little.

This isn’t going to solve all the problems of social media or dinner party discourse, let alone the broader world. But it can make our personal circle of social interaction more aware and safer for those who have already had their full measure of hurt.

Not all opinions are equal

I have always wanted to be for peace.

The peacemakers of today’s well-connected world cry, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion! Just scroll on past!”

And I find that I cannot be a peacemaker because all opinions are not created equal.

There are opinions about whether this or that candidate is better. There are opinions about how we should manage the city water problem. There are opinions about which health care or tax policy is best. And generally those opinions are all equal. I may disagree with one or more, but I am happy to listen and let live.

Hate is hate no matter its shape ableism meme.jpg

It’s when an opinion is hate against a person or group of people due to circumstances beyond their control that it is no longer an opinion, or at least no longer equal.

Many pundits blame social media for the angry divides of today’s society. And I can see why. Social media is where a lot of arguments happen.

But social media is designed to send us what we like. The algorithms of the various sites don’t send us everything available but rather place us in bubbles of mostly those who agree with us. We only encounter a fraction of the differing opinions out there.

Social media doesn’t set out to create conflict. Quite the opposite. But technology has become a great leveler.

I think it is more that relatively cheap and portable technology has given voices to everyone and blurred lines of geography. It makes the saying, “Injustice somewhere is injustice everywhere,” more palpable.

The fact is that the world was NOT less divided thirty years ago or a hundred years ago. It was more divided.

But privileged people didn’t know about most of it and those experiencing the most injustice had only each other to talk to about their exploitation. The world was more segregated and groups deemed unsightly either stayed out of sight or were put out of sight.

Today the world is not any more divided than it was, but we know about more divides than we used to. Opinions and the actions they engendered which harmed less privileged groups were not often challenged because the harmed groups had no voice and no access to the places where the privileged relaxed and talked.

Now that social media is that place and technology has allowed almost everyone in, we are confronted by those we have opinions about. And they talk back..

I grew up in remote, rural Eastern Oregon, an area that voted 70 percent for Trump in 2016 and which was almost entirely white when I was a child.

When my mom first arrived in the area to homestead with my father, she saw a black family at a gas station in the tiny town of Elgin. She went up to them gladly. Black people had taken her in when she had to leave home at seventeen and she was overjoyed to see their faces. But the father told her they were leaving because of the rampant racism and ostracism in the area.

They left and that was that. No more “divide” in the community.

When I heard racist jokes at school as a child, I didn’t call them out the way I do on Facebook. I kept my head down because as a kid with a disability, I got plenty of bullying as it was. It wasn’t a “divide” because I had no voice, no possibility of standing up, and People of Color were simply elsewhere.

Now we see a divide. Before we could pretend it didn’t exist because those who were vulnerable hid it to survive or were so far removed from us that we never saw or heard from them.

Opening up, people who were shut away walking out in public, the formerly silenced having a voice—these things are not divisive. It is not the “evil” of social media that creates the strife.

It is bigotry and judgementalism. It has always been there. Now it is being challenged.

I welcome differences of opinion when they are not about judging and mistreating others. It is really that simple. Not all opinions are equal. You are entitled to your opinion so long as it does not incite hatred or judgment against others for characteristics they did not choose… or even for things they did choose in so far as they have no bearing on anyone beyond themselves.

Ridiculing a person with a disability, accusing them of “faking” or declaring what you think they should not be allowed to do or have responsibility for is not an “opinion.” It’s an attack for the purpose of silencing and dismissing people.

I am fine with discussing health care policy and climate policy and immigration control and medical ethics with varied viewpoints. What is not open for discussion and what will get comments deleted without warning are those opinions which specifically judge and attack people for reasons that are innate to them.

People standing up to judgement, on the other hand, are welcome. Our voices only sound strident or hot-tempered because they are rusty from too much silence.

Fair warning.

Exclusion: The abled-privilege knapsack

Shutting down "the privilege Olympics"  should not be code for "screw the disabled"

You too are wearing an invisible knapsack. 

In 1988, Peggy McIntosh explained white privilege in terms of an invisible knapsack filled with unearned benefits and assets that white people carry with them almost entirely regardless of class, economic status, citizenship or other conditions.

It's a good analogy. I am now much more aware of my knapsack of white privilege and I can observe the effects of its contents on a daily basis. 

I have never seen a similar analogy used to describe abled privilege, but it is time someone did. In the last few years the necessity of acknowledging abled privilege has been shoved in my face ever more frequently. Even in social justice circles where such things are typically read, people with disabilities are continually being marginalized and silenced.

Creative Commons image by Woodleywonderworks

Creative Commons image by Woodleywonderworks

It is worth noting from the beginning that people carrying the white-privilege knapsack but not the abled-privilege knapsack or visa versa might well enjoy some of the benefits of the one they do hold, but there are assets in both of these knapsacks that are very difficult to enjoy if you don't have the corresponding assets in the other knapsack.

So, as a white woman brought up to be aware of white privilege, I can pick out instances of white privilege that I enjoy. These are not so much unearned privileges as they are privileges earned by every human but accorded only to those who are white--the privilege of driving or walking without a well-founded fear of being accosted by law enforcement for trivial or non-existant reasons or the privilege of relaxing into a social situation in which my race and culture is in the majority most of the time.

Having children who are not white has taught me even more about my own privilege and a few privileges I gave up by being part of a racially mixed family, such as losing the ability to shelter my children from the societal realities of racism and the very real dangers they face because of it. 

However, there are some assets in the white knapsack that I have pulled out broken or severely dented because of my disability. Unlike most white people, I am beset daily by the assumptions and prejudices of others, both unconscious and conscious. I rarely to through a day without being yelled at in public and someone pushes my "difference" in my face at every turn. 

I was once told explicitly that I was denied a job that I was qualified for because of my disability and I have wondered about the reasons behind many other rejections. I have faced social isolation, rejecting neighbors and hostile school teachers as well as accusations of stealing in stores.

I do not claim that it is the same as what people of color face. In fact, I know it is not the same. But people of color who are not disabled do also enjoy privileges that I cannot.

Please note that this inventory has very little to do with the actual health problems people with disabilities may have. It has everything to do with society’s reaction to and ultimate rejection of us. The benefits of privilege represent the minimum of respect earned by every human being from birth and this is true of abled privilege as well. It is our right to be treated with respect and dignity, to have opportunities and to be judged by our actions rather than by attributes we cannot choose.

So, here is an inventory of the abled-privilege knapsack with some prompts drawn from McIntosh's essay and the writings of Emestine Hayes.

Creative Commons image by Honza Soukup

Creative Commons image by Honza Soukup

If you are temporarily abled, you are wearing an invisible knapsack and in it you will find:

  • You can, if you wish, arrange to be in the company of people who view your physical body and neurological setup as normal and acceptable pretty much all the time.

  • You can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper or open a random Google search and see people of your shape or appearance widely represented.

  • You can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people that look vaguely like you.

  • Your body shape is reflected in media, movies, books, magazines, online and in most people's imagination as good and capable, even if sometimes not perfect. As a result, while you may have insecurities or anxieties about your looks, they are not a barrier to social interaction.

  • Beauty, handsomeness, masculinity and femininity are personified by people of your general appearance and body shape. 

  • You can be fairly sure of having your voice heard in a group, even if most of the group has different abilities, body shape and speech from yours.

  • Authority most often rests in people who look like, speak like and perceive the world like you.

  • You do not need to make an in-depth study of the social habits and customary communication methods of your immediate neighbors in order to avoid daily conflicts of misunderstanding and unintended offense. 

  • You can criticize the government and talk about how difficult it is to access basic services without being seen as a moocher, a whiner, ungrateful or a burden. 

  • You can go home from most meetings of organizations you belong to and social gatherings you attend feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, rejected, unwanted, unheard, barred at a distance, or dismissed.

  • You can attire yourself, if you choose, in a way that most people in your community seeing you and hearing you speak will assume that you are capable, responsible and trustworthy until proven otherwise. If you happen to belong to a group where this is not always true, a community of people who do look and sound like you and where you would be respected and trusted does exist somewhere in the world. Even if you don't live there, the knowledge that such a community exists bolsters your courage and self-confidence and in most cases you could move to such a community if outside pressure became too intense.

  • People make eye-contact with you and you are able to make eye contact with them. People make small-talk with you and you are able to make small talk with them. This initial social contact often leads to social connections, builds bridges and defuses potential conflicts. 

  • While you may have been teased at school, your chances of suffering from extreme bullying or complete social isolation in childhood are dramatically reduced. Your chances of suffering from PTSD and other acquired barriers to communication with others are significantly reduced.

  • Teachers at schools and universities almost always look like, speak like and perceive the world like you do.

  • The vast majority of students and teachers all through the education system sense the world, communicate and access textual materials in the same way that you do.

  • The entire education system is custom made and designed with scientific precision to benefit your type of brain and calibrated to meet the needs of your particular senses.

  • The language and writing system of your culture was designed by and for people who communicate and perceive language in the same ways that you do.

  • Public buildings, including schools, were built using models of your body, to make them comfortable and easily accessible to you.

  • You have probably not been called a burden. You were not called a burden to your school while you pursued your education.

  • If you are denied employment for which you are qualified, you can be pretty sure it isn't because of an attribute you did not choose and which does not affect your job performance.

  • If you are given an award, you can be pretty sure it is something you deserved rather than a publicity stunt by the patron of the award. 

  • You can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having co-workers on the job suspect that you got it because of disability hiring incentives.

  • If your day, week, or year is going badly, you need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it is disability related.

  • You can choose public accommodations without fearing that you cannot enter or will be treated with disrespect in the places you have chosen.

  • When you plan social engagements, your way of getting to and into the venue is the same as that of most of your friends and you don't need to strategize, beg for assistance from friends or go to extreme expense to get to or enter the social venues your peers take for granted. 

  • You can always ensure that your living, schooling, work and or social environment will be among people you can communicate with and among which you will be considered "normal" if you desire.

  • You can always find a living, schooling, work or social venue that you can physically access and fully participate in locally if you desire. 

  • If you should need to move, you can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing which you can afford and which you can personally enter and use fully and from which you can get to schools and places of employment.

  • You can be pretty sure that your neighbors in such a location will view you as a full adult, if you are over 18 years old. .

  • You can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that you will be able to access merchandise and that a reasonable portion of it will fit you and be usable by you.

  • Whether you use checks, credit cards or cash, you can count on not being infantilized, shamed or dismissed by cashiers and other people you interact with in public..

  • You can arrange to protect yourself from harm most of the time.

  • You are twenty percent more likely to finish high school than a person with a disability who has similar intelligence. You are twice as likely to finish college.

  • You are at least three times as likely to have any sort of job than a person with a disability and much more likely to have a job that is of some interest to you, that provides some social prestige, that pays your bills and in which you can progress for a career.

  • You are half as likely to be hungry as a disabled person. 

  • You are a third as likely to be a victim of sexual assault and half as likely to be a victim of violent crime as a person with a disability from a similar social or economic group and geographical area. You are half as likely to be a victim of domestic violence.

  • You are twice as likely to have family and friends nearby or who you can contact in an emergency. You are likely to have a circle of friends to enjoy leisure time with and to network with for mutual benefit.

  • You are twice as likely to have a long-term relationship. You are many times more likely to have children.

  • You can swear or dress in second-hand clothes or not answer letters without having people automatically assume these choices indicate low intelligence, shaky mental state or poverty.

  • You can be temporarily out of work or sick without being called a burden or assumed to be unemployable.

  • You can do well in a challenging situation without being called "an inspiration" or used to further the religious or social agendas of others without your consent.

  • With education and credentials, you could become an an acknowledged expert on people who look, speak and perceive the world differently from you and you would not be asked why you did not choose to study your own group.

I am sure I have missed some. It's a large knapsack after all. 

This is one of those posts that will inevitably draw flack. It isn't that I don't care. I have simply decided that the amount of verbal shrapnel I'm getting in "progressive" circles these days for being an uppity person with a disability has reached a point where the potential flack from this post won't be a significant change. 

So let me lay it out there. I am sick of the dismissal of people with disabilities in activist circles. I am sick of being told, "you are white so you need to practice being silent for a while," when I have been silenced, dismissed and sidelined my entire life.

I am sick to exhaustion of being excluded, rejected and sidelined in supposedly progressive groups because I didn't take an insult or bullying in silence and answered back withotu profanity, without insults but nonetheless with unpalatable truth. . 

I get what people of color, indigenous people, speakers of languages other than English and people living in absolute poverty are talking about when it comes to wanting those with privilege to stop yammering about their perspective on society, their perspective on history, their perspective on underrepresented people and their perspective on social justice long enough to listen to the perspectives of those less heard.

I get it because while I have the privileges in the white-privilege knapsack, the English-speaker's knapsack and the resources-beyond-bare-survival knapsack, these are usually not enough to be heard without abled privilege. 

This is not "the Privilege Olympics." It is not a matter of whose usurped privilege is worse. It is almost always so different that it cannot be compared. Still mentioning "the Privilege Olympics" or equivalent is routinely used to dismiss and marginalize people with disabilities in activist circles.

We have huge, life-threatening threats to people of color. The crises for people of color are so extreme in some places that there can be no other priorities or even distractions.

Many of us, myself included, have agreed to this, stepped back and ceded precedence because while there are life-threatening and devastating issues for people with disabilities as well, the numbers seem to indicate that our problems are at least statistically less severe. We activists with disabilities have often felt that we can wait a little while and trust that our progressive activist communities would do their best to include us in the meantime. 

But that trust has been misplaced. 

Not once but again and again. Not only do people with disabilities encounter a lot of social exclusion, bullying and discrimination in society at large, we encounter much the same atmosphere inside social justice organizations and groups claiming to be against bigotry and hate. 

My experiences and the experiences of those I have spoken with are clear. People with disabilities are welcome in these groups primarily as mascots or symbols. We are not respected for in our fields of expertise and study. We are often silenced and rarely given a voice. 

I've been told that my voice and experience are not welcome in progressive and social justice groups on multiple occasions. Usually this was not specifically because of my disability but rather because of my race. I was told that as a white person I am privileged and my role is not to speak. As a blind person, however, given that no other people with disabilities were present or given a voice, I felt that our voice was needed. 

I have been rejected quickly from several groups when my politely phrased protestations against being silenced were regarded as going against group authority. I never used profanity or insults against others in my responses. I did not talk over others but only refused to be entirely silent.

For that reason, this inventory of the abled-privilege backpack is necessary. I welcome any additions that others may find while rummaging through it. 

Do the blind understand what the sighted see?

Being an out-outspoken visually impaired blogger and author has one annoying side effect. I get asked the darnedest questions. 

The latest one was this zinger, "How do blind people know they are blind?" Taken at face value it's ridiculous and my first inclination was to give it a flippant, humorous reply that would put the assumption that blind people are stupid in it's place. But the inquirer followed up with a bit of explanation and I saw a deeper question in the botched phrasing.

How do little blind children know they are different from sighted children? How do blind people know about what sighted people experience through sight? Those aren’t such silly questions, so I let them have it.

When I was a baby and they found out that I was almost entirely blind, my parents decided that they would act like it wasn’t true or at the very least didn’t matter. We lived on 20 acres in remote, rural mountains in Oregon. We built our own cabin, grew a lot of our own food and rode long distances to a small school on yellow buses that made it up the gravel road most of the year.

Creative Commons image by Neticola Sny

Creative Commons image by Neticola Sny

I had two rambunctious brothers and my dad was always building something. There were hand tools, boards and debris scattered all around the cabin and beyond that there were the woods and the rocky high prairie. Many days in our middle childhood, we spent the whole day outside and didn’t come back until evening. We’d eat miner’s lettuce and camus roots or sit down under a pastured cow and drink milk right out of the udder.

I don’t remember realizing that my eyes were different. It seems like it was a fact that was always there. I could see some but very little. I ran after my brothers. I was a loud, complaining child and I was always yelling, “Wait for me.” They didn’t. I learned to keep up.

I don’t know when or how but I discovered that if I picked up pebbles and threw them ahead of me, I could run faster and avoid most scrapes. There were irrigation ditches in the lower areas that my brothers would jump across and run on without slowing down. I threw my pebbles, listened for how far I had to throw before they stopped dropping into the bottom of the ditch and then I jumped too.

I was slower sometimes. But not on a bike. I could see enough to make out the basic contours of the road and our gravel road was so rarely frequented that a car came along once in a few hours. And when one did, my brothers and I would not only scramble to the side but well off of the road, skittish as the deer.

So I had a bike, just like my brothers. One brother is two years older than me and one is four years younger. My older brother once rode his bike five miles to the tiny down of Summerville, population 250. I copied him the next day, insistent that he wouldn’t outdo me.

Then a few months later, I decided I would ride ten miles to the town of Imbler which was bigger. My brother laughed. But I got up in the morning and packed water and food. That was one of the first times I remember my mother showing any concern about what I did from a safety standpoint. She wasn’t entirely thrilled with the idea but didn’t seem to forbid it. My older brother jumped up from his place by the woodpile and grabbed his bike and rode off fast. I scrambled onto my bike and followed. He wasn’t going to beat me. We eventually agreed to cross the city-limits line together.

I wore huge thick, coke-bottle-bottom glasses to slightly improve my vision. Think of it this way: without the glasses I saw about five percent of what most people see. With them it was closer to eight or ten percent. My family obviously didn’t have much money and the glasses were worth an entire month’s income.

I lost them, of course. I hated the glasses for one thing. As a toddler I threw them away willfully. Later I lost them a couple of times because i put them down. The glasses were so heavy they carved red sores into my face. But by the time I was old enough to remember, I knew I had to have them and I didn’t resent them.

Whenever my family rode in a car, they were constantly pointing out deer, hawks and eagles as we drove along the country roads. I listened from the time I was a baby and there must have come a time when I realized that they were seeing things I wasn’t. I wanted to see those things too but there was never a moment when I asked to see.

Sometimes my mom tried to describe something like that to me, but I knew what a deer and an eagle looked like. I could see them up close in picture books. Of course, what I saw even there was indistinct and lacking in detail. I just didn’t know it.

I remember one conversation in the car in particular. My mother was talking about the new leaves on a tree with my older brother. I think they were discussing whether or not the leaves were healthy. This was at some small distance. I could see only fuzzy green blobs on the sides of the road where the trees were. I imagined that my family could see those blobs better. They could see their exact shapes and maybe some branches in them, like I could in a picture book. But I stopped my mom in the middle of the conversation and demanded that she not jump to conclusions about the health of the tree unless she examined it close up.

“You can’t possibly see the individual leaves, let alone what spots are on them,” I said.

There was silence for a moment. And then she told me somewhat sternly, somewhat in awe, that in fact she could. She said she saw each leaf, individually, etched against the background, each twig, each blade of grass. I thought about that for a long time afterwards. I couldn’t imagine. It seemed like it would hurt to have to absorb that much detail. The image i tried to imagine was so sharp it was painful.

I knew about blurry and sharp because I had the glasses. When I took my glasses off the world looked blurry. When I put them on the world looked sharp and clear and brand new. I was still seeing a world that was blurred beyond recognition for sighted people. If a sighted person suddenly saw what I see even with the best correction, it is unlikely they could walk even a few steps. It would be blurry, disorienting, distorted and lacking in all depth perception.

But to me, that was the best and clearest image I could imagine. I asked my parents how things could be clearer. They said they just are and that what I saw was actually still blurry.

I didn’t entirely believe them until I was nine years old. That was the year I first tried on contact lenses. Because they were closer to my retina the contact lenses could correct my vision a little bit more. I will never forget the moment I first blinked my eyes open in a doctor’s office and looked at the opposite wall. I had been to that office countless times during my childhood. My parents may not have wanted to pay much attention to my vision impairment, but they didn’t neglect my care.

I knew that wall all too well. It was green. Or it was supposed to be green, a kind of muddy, unpleasant green. But when I blinked my eyes open with the contact lenses in I saw for the first time that the green wall was actually a much brighter green. The muddy impression I got was caused by the fact that there were thin orange and purple stripes on the wallpaper. I had always seen it as one muddy color.

In that moment, I knew my mom was telling the truth.

Therefore, if there was ever one single moment when I realized how different my vision was all at once it was probably then. I got the contact lenses and could see a tiny bit better. Again the world seemed ultra crisp to me. Only going back to my old glasses at times made me realize that what I had thought was clear before had not been.

Creative Commons image by Mike Behnken

Creative Commons image by Mike Behnken

The older I got the more I realized how much other people could see that I couldn’t. They saw the blackboard at school and every detail on it. They saw details on people’s faces that allowed them to tell instantly which person was which, even if the people were the same height and gender and had about the same kind of hair. I could never see the details of faces and had a hard time understanding how people could recognize others so quickly and easily.

Later as an adult, I read about the special, neurological functions of the human brain, in which the exact specifications of human faces are prioritized so much that sighted people can tell minute differences not only individual to individual but in the same individual, the tiniest flicker of emotions or thoughts crossing a face.

I memorize who is who by painstakingly adding up what details I can get and cataloging them, like this: short, thin lady with the bouncy blond hair who has a tinkling laugh = Jane. Sighted people remember dozens of faces in that amount of time with their facial-recognition priority function. 

This isn’t just sight, it is specially enhanced sight made possible by the adaptations of our brains. Human touch and human voices are important to the brain, but there is nothing apparently with quite the power of eye contact. Looking into another person’s eyes is, according to science, profoundly important to humans. It supports social, psychological and neurological development.

Studies have documented the huge health problems experienced by babies in institutions, who do not receive enough human contact and no single, secure bond with a special caretaker. And one of the most important treatments for these problems is eye contact.

I have never known real eye contact, not the kind that imparts all those neurological benefits. My brain had to make do with the human touch and voice inputs, which can be enough if a child does grow up in a loving family. But not having known about eye contact from an early age, I did not behave “correctly” around sighted people. I didn’t look at people while they talked when I was a teenager. I would study my hands or stare off while listening.

No one really understood this or realized the difference. They just felt that I was rude and aloof. Those words were used a lot about me, though I was anything but aloof and desperately eager to please others. It was only when specialized teachers explained eye contact to me and trained me to try to aim my eyes at their eyes and pretend to make eye contact that things improved.

The exercise in faked eye contact is still exhausting for me because my eyes move erratically and it takes a lot of effort for me to get them to hold still and try to look like I am making eye contact. But like any other social courtesy it is worth doing, to show respect to the person I am talking to and to avoid conflicts.

Now after many years of study, I have a better idea of what normal sight is probably like. I have pressed my face close to video screens and watched expressions cross the faces of actors. I probably can’t see every detail, but I can have some idea of what other people’s expressions look like. I can see distant natural features and animals that I would otherwise not know in the same way--by looking close at photographs and using a magnifying glass. It isn’t the same of course. But there isn’t much else I feel the lack of.

I have experienced some amazingly beautiful sights and scenes in my life. Once as a young adult I had the opportunity to travel alone in Nepal. I went high up in the foothills of the Himalayas to a remote mountain-top village to deliver a letter from a Nepali friend to his wife and children.

I was still very good at navigating natural environments, camping out alone and all that, given that I grew up doing it. I slept outside the cabin of my friend’s family in my sleeping bag and in the morning I went out to the edge of a massive cliff to take in the sunrise and cook a cup of hot chocolate over my tiny alcohol-tab stove.

Before dawn the whole world was silver and blue. I could make out hazy ridge lines in front of me, jagged streaks of indigo against the silver, tapering down to the rose tinted mist above the plains of India to the south. To the north there were shining white peaks against an azure sky.

Then shivering streaks of gold, peach and pink began tracing out from the east like a painter’s brush bleeding into fabric. I watched in awe as the sun, emerged onto the horizon, like a jewel rising out of viscous honey. The light from it truly seemed to pour like slow liquid. Gold, rose and peach splashed over the ridges, turning the indigo lines to flame. The valleys and canyons were still dark and the mist that curled up out of them shown with color and light.

I am sure there are many details I missed. I missed the birds soaring in the canyon below me. I missed the leaves on the vines growing on the cliffs. I missed the detailed sparkling contours of the Himalayan peaks far to the north, that I could barely make out as white shining gods.

But what I saw was no less beautiful. And combined with what I heard and felt and tasted and smelled in that little village in a time and place in history when there were still little villages built with stone and branches with no electricity and no mail service… well, I experienced plenty.

I felt the rough grain of the wood under my hands, investigated the geology of the rocks, listened as the children taught me Nepali from their tattered school notebooks, ate the meager rice and lentils of the village, spiced with both sharp hunger and whatever the mothers put in it. And I never wanted for more.

I knew that I was visually impaired the way anyone knows their basic characteristics. You know your arms and legs and hair and senses. You learn your body, particularly if you live a physical and rugged life as a child. Later the tests of doctors told me exactly how different my eyes are. That is something no one could know without science and measurement. I had the good fortune of not knowing for the first several years of my life how the world would view me as different and lesser because of this minor physical difference.

Because my parents chose not to pay much attention to it, I gained an active, healthy body and great mobility skills and I lost a lot of early understanding of the social cues I was missing. It was a blessing and a curse. My mother now often regrets not paying more attention, not realizing how different the social experience of a blind person is, the lack of recognizing faces and expressions, the lack of eye contact.

And I agree that if I had the raising of a blind child, I would talk about that. I would train them in social courtesy and try to bring those key experiences in. But I would also let that child run wild too, as much as any child gets that these days.

I would never let understanding sight or what part of it was lost become a major topic or obsession. Because it is just one thing, one piece of life experience. And the others can and do make up for it more than society believes.

Political correctness, dismantling the English language or reclaiming basic decency

Donald Trump--with the help of a few like-minded fellows--has unleashed an on-going tidal wave of racist, able-ist and sexist muck by giving bigots a socially powerful role model. This may allow us to see who has been secretly resentful of modern realities, such as black people are no longer their slaves, disabled people appear outside cages and women can vote. But I'm not even sure that qualifies as a bright side.

At the same time, it feels like many of us are doing the equivalent of using Trump's famous paper towels to clean up Puerto Rico, dabbing up droplets that somehow splashed all the way to our homes in distant states. I'm going to get some flak for this from people I really do agree with on everything that matters, but there are times "political correctness" has become ineffective, has been hijacked by people with an oppressive agenda or has become a game piece for social jockeying. 

Author portrait.jpg

The term "politically incorrect" implies that the use of a word or idiom is a problem only because it is incorrect from the standpoint of politics, i.e. it wouldn't be a good idea to say that if you want to be popular. This is the reservoir that stored up all the resentment which fuels the tidal wave of openly bigoted remarks both in public and in private.

The irony is that the people who are now claiming not to be politically correct actually were the only ones being politically correct in the first place. They were refraining from saying things they truly believed in order to be socially acceptable.

By contrast, many of us were never politically correct. We didn't use the N-word because we felt it is disgusting and demeaning both to Black people and to anyone who uses it. We didn't use the R-word because it is filthy, and much more than an F-bomb, it actually does real harm to children in schools all over the English-speaking world. 

It isn't political correctness that should keep a person from using insulting, disgusting, demeaning, hate-filled and violence-inciting terms and idioms. It's basic decency. 

So let's call it what it is. When the use of indecent and bullying terms is labeled "politically incorrect," an implication is made that this isn't actually ethically wrong, just politically unpopular.

When I realized as a young person that the verb "to gyp someone" is a slur against Romani people, it was not difficult for me to remember not to use it ever again. It immediately took on such a disturbing connotation that I simply stopped, even though it was common slang used in the rural area where I grew up.

I learned some years ago about the origins of the rhyme "Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Mo"  in the slave trade and it only took reading about it once to make it very uncomfortable to me. It is not the disapproval of others that makes me cringe and redirect children in my ESL classes who start singing it, but rather my own understanding of the facts and my sense that it assaults the self-respect of anyone who knows its history. 

There is such a backlash against the concept of taking care not to harm those most often excluded with thoughtless words that it has become politically correct to insist that one is not politically correct. Put another way, political correctness is merely a term for what is believed to be widely supported.

This backlash comes, unsurprisingly, from some of the same sources as the current tidal wave of bigoted rhetoric. I recently ran across a list of mostly fake "politically correct" terms on the website of the far-right British National Party. The list was not presented as humor but rather as information to help readers avoid conflicts, and therefore implied that these terms were truly advocated in mainstream society. Mixed in with real examples of polite language, the list gave rise to many claims about how ridiculous the movement for inclusive language is. 

Among listings suggesting a person use "gay" instead of "homosexual", "sex worker" instead of "prostitute" or "homeless person" instead of "tramp," there are fictitious listings advising readers to use "ethically disoriented" instead of "dishonest" or "nasally disturbing" Instead of "smelly." The point is to manipulate far-right readers to believe an exaggerated and patently ridiculous version of inclusive language.

Unfortunately, this manipulation is made easier by some activists for social justice who don't differentiate between confusion, customary idiom and even honest ignorance on the one hand and blatantly harmful, hateful and bigoted terms on the other. If we equate a person not knowing whether another prefers the term "Black"  or "African American"  with intentionally racist slurs, we cheapen the experience of those who encounter the real deal. If we equate a deaf person being called "hearing impaired" when they prefer "deaf" with the R-word, we make it much less likely that disability activists will be taken seriously.

It is reasonable for a group to request that society refer to them by particular terms and refrain from others. Trying to comply is good manners, but not complying is the equivalent of neglecting please and thank you. It's rude if you know better, but it isn't the same as being a morally degenerate bigot.

Not everyone has equal access to information and social interaction. And groups are not homogeneous in their requests. Trying to politely use the terms a group requests is admirable and difficult. If a person uses a term we dislike but their intent is obviously not insulting or demeaning, that should be handled in a much different way than the use of intentional insults. 

To cane or not to cane.jpg

The case of "blind"

I was recently asked to personally weigh in on one of these terms on a public forum. That was, of course, about the word "blind." While most deaf people and their organizations today have been very clear that they prefer the world "deaf" and do not like the term "hearing impaired," many blind people swing the other way, saying they don't like the word "blind" and would prefer the term, "visually impaired." 

In my view, abled people can be forgiven for being confused about this. I appreciate those who try to politely use the preferred terms of whichever group they are talking to. And I beg everyone involved not to make this into either the privilege olympics or a verbal fight. I appreciate our need to define our own identities, but let's not forget the fact that thirty years ago, when I was growing up, we were all mostly just referred to with the R-word. 

I was born legally blind and I have been active in disability rights organizations and efforts since I first learned to read nearly forty years ago. I have been a vehement advocate for the integration of people with disabilities in schools and for non-discrimination in employment. 

I have also been the target of just about every insult and slur against people with disabilities that exists in at least four languages. A stronger reaction to such insults, you won't find.

We don't need to stop pushing for respect just because we've rid ourselves of the worst insults. We can and should progress to defining positive identities for ourselves. However, what we are experiencing just now across the United States and around the world is a reminder that the bulwark against hate and bigotry is a barricade that must always be guarded.

There will never come a time when we can say, "The N-word and the R-word and their ilk are dead and buried. We can now turn to more subtle exclusionary terms and bury them the same way."

That is because they are a different species. "Retard" was used as a vicious insult. Several other terms were also used to put people with disabilities in institutions, sterilize us, deny us education and kill us. Those words, like the N-word and similarly vicious racial slurs are not even in the same dictionary as "blind" and "hearing impaired," which aren't and weren't widely used as insults and which have regular definitions.  

Sometimes "blind" is used as an idiom meaning stupid and ignorant. (Examples: “That politician is just a blind idiot.” "He was blind drunk.") There is no context here meaning something related to senses, just to intellect. This tends to equate blindness with intellectual deficits. If someone is stupid or ignorant or uneducated, call them one of those words, if you must. It isn’t cool or necessary to insult people with physical or developmental disabilities by comparing bigots, the willfully ignorant or bullies to us. Even if these idioms are often unconscious, they can be harmful over the long-term and it is reasonable to ask that they be avoided.

However, I can't personally support calls for the word "blind" to be discontinued in general in favor of "visually impaired." Some partially sighted people, especially those who have not been visually impaired their whole lives, really do object to the word "blind" and if I know that about them, I will try to refrain from using it around them out of personal courtesy and respect.

But it's a word with a definition that has not been profaned by common use as an insult. When it is used with technical accuracy, it has my support. And attempts to draw an equivalence between such a term and much more grievous abuses of language are unhelpful and potentially harmful. 

That's just the opinion of one visually impaired person. Due to my very poor sight--less than ten percent of the "norm"--I'm on that line where I could be called "visually impaired" or I could be called "blind." I often use the term "legally blind" if the point of the conversation has to do with official status as a person with a disability, rather than someone who wears corrective lenses but is not disabled. 

But if someone refers to me as "that blind lady who does herbs" or something of the like, I'm not offended and I don't see any reason to correct them any more than if they had said, "that blonde lady who does herbs." Both are technical descriptions and if someone in the conversation doesn't know my name, they are simply choosing the easiest way to identify me. 

The use of a term like "blind" all depends on the context, tone and intent both when using the word according to the dictionary definition and in idioms

I don't get on anyone’s case about using expressions like, “The blind decisions of the CEO drove the company into the ground.” It’s an idiom and the focus is more on the decision being "short-sighted" or lacking in long-range information, rather than on it just being stupid or unaware. Blind people are not stupid or unaware. We do, however, often lack visual information.

In a sentence like, “the blind obedience of the cult followers is creepy,” the idiom means that the followers don’t consider anything external and act ultra focused, as if they had blinders on like horse going through a tunnel. And yes, "blinders" is another thing that is just a word. I'm not going to stop saying "blackboard" or "whiteboard" if that is the actual color of the board. And I'm not going to stop saying "blinders," "blindfold" or "blinds" on a window. These are not demeaning and don't make people subconsciously think less of any group. 

If someone loses their glasses and laughs about being “blind as a bat” or gets new glasses and moans, “I’m going blind.” I’ll probably slap them on the back and chuckle, “Don’t worry. You’re in good company," even if their glasses are really nothing to moan about. The ability to laugh at one's self is a key survival skill.

But there are situations where the tone or context is hostile. I’ve had people say “I’m going blind,” as an excuse to deny me a seat close to the presenter at a workshop, when they just wear glasses that fully compensate for their minor vision impairment. I can’t count the times someone has lashed out with, “Are you blind or something?” when I failed to recognize their face or read an instructional sign.

I'm fine with the word "blind," in appropriate idioms, in factual description and even in good humor. I am also fine with "visually impaired." I am fine with the word "disabled." I prefer terms that demystify and inform without being insulting. 

I dislike euphemisms. I do not like the term "visually challenged," except in good humor. Vision isn't that much of a challenge. I just don't have that much of it. A challenge implies that if I just tried harder, I might be able to see more. Not gonna happen.

I also don't like the term "handicapped," which comes from a racing practice in which superior horses had to carry heavier weights. I know the term was used to denote people with disabilities as a way to imply that some higher power chose better people to deal with the difficulties of disability. I find the connotation unhelpful because it implies a justification or reasoning, rather than just the factual lack of a certain sense or attribute which is the fact.

I have always felt that actual disabilities are not the primary problem we face, but social stigma, reasoning and machinations around them. Let's keep terminology to the facts and keep society's interpretations out of it as much as possible. Those who argue that their issue with society is not a "dis-ability" because they don't lack any particular ability but rather have a different way of functioning are welcome to avoid the term "disability" and I'll still advocate for their rights to be respected as simply different. 

But not all visually impaired people agree with me. Some truly prefer the softer, euphemistic terms. To me they imply that visual impairment or blindness is something too horrible to say right out or conversely a challenge that I should just overcome on my own without society adapting at all. To me it is neither. It is a lack of a specific sense. It doesn't define the whole person, any more than some other single characteristic, but it is a piece of information that matters enough to be mentioned.

It is my hope that those asking for inclusive language changes can be kind, tolerant and inclusive when asking for them and not assume those who don't know mean harm. I also hope that time will change our language to be more inclusive and technically correct, rather than euphemistic.

We don't need to soften facts. We need to open-minds to the reality that those facts are not a curse.

No comparison: Privilege is a big deal

It's one of the first warm days of spring. The kids are playing together for once, instead of tormenting each other, and I'm taking full advantage of the moment, turning the soil in garden beds and planting peas and carrots as fast as I can.

Then I hear a horrible screeching from the empty lot next door. There are words in it, though barely.. "Get out... like rats... this is ours." 

There's more but that's enough. It's an adult voice yelling but it is followed by the shrieking laughter and pounding feet of children, fleeing from the sounds of it.

I put down the shovel and strip off my work gloves. But I don't have to search far to find the kids. They are breathless and covered with fresh black dirt. I pry the story out of them. The neighbor lady from down the hill, someone who wants nothing to do with us, yelled at them for playing in the empty lot. 

"She said it's hers but it's not!" my nine-year-old daughter fumes.

Creative Commons image courtesy of Stefan Lins

Creative Commons image courtesy of Stefan Lins

She's right in that the lot belongs to an absentee landlord and local law supports  recreational use of unfenced land. I pry further though and learn that the children discovered a nice tall dirt pile in the empty lot and they were "sledding"  down it.

Thus the condition of their clothes... and no doubt the reaction of the neighbor.

I explain that the dirt pile probably does belong to the neighbor, even if it's in the empty lot. The kids are unrepentant. They don't understand about the need to keep a load of dirt in it's pile, not spread all around and packed into the sand and weeds. My daughter refers to the neighbor lady in distinctly disrespectful terms. I reprimand her but part of me is also livid inside.

Rats? That's what I heard the lady shriek at them and my stomach is roiling--not with anger so much as with fear.

The kids also don't understand the potential consequences of getting into trouble with the neighbors in this little town, which is already not particularly friendly to children with olive skin and dark-lashed, "striking" eyes. The kids from our street--otherwise all particularly pale white--roam around freely and I've never heard the them scolded by a neighbor,. But my kids seem to run up against hostility on a regular basis. I don't think my kids are exactly angels, but this was the first time I'd heard of them doing something harmful off of our property..

Having a mixed family has enlightened me about many realities I did not used to understand, such as the heightened risk of trouble kids of color run and the fears of their parents.

Most white people don't grok "white privilege" because it is a term that encompasses things that we not only take for granted but feel are merely the way life is. If you go to a coffee shop in clean clothes with money in your pocket and wait for a friend, nothing negative will happen. You go golfing and you just golf. You walk down the street, shop, get in your car and talk to your kid's teacher and it's all placid and uneventful. If you're a kid and you slide down a dirt pile, you might get told off but that will be the end of it. 

To white people this seems like life as usual, simply enjoying the experience of a peaceful and prosperous society. The hitch is that this experience of peace should be for everyone.

After nine years, I know that it isn't.

There was the time my son pushed another kid and nearly got expelled from preschool, even though the teachers agreed that sort of thing happens every day among the boys and my son is no worse than any of the others. He did get banned from school once over ant bites on his knee and the resulting concerns over contagion from "dirty people." My daughter came home at four years old crying because people called her "black" and she was terrified that meant she was going to turn the color black. How was she to know that olive-skinned Roma are sometimes called "black" in lily-white Central Europe?

So I give the kids a lecture I never got from my parents, my voice low and deadly serious. "You treat adults with respect! Period! Do you hear me? You listen and speak respectfully to adults. I don't care if you think the lady is wrong. You apologize and walk away. That's it."

I never needed that lecture, even though I was a wild kid who chased the neighbors cows. I was white. Now I feel like I'm channeling the father in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. 

On the weekend my Nigerian friend from the city comes over and confides in me the struggles of dealing with white teachers in the Czech schools. Her youngest son is under constant attack because a teacher insists he is "dirty"  and doesn't have "basic hygiene habits." 

She's honestly confused. Sure, he sometimes has to be reminded to wash his hands. He's only five. But he willingly goes to wash if told and he's quiet and respectful to a fault, which I envy. 

But I know the Central European short-hand. Whenever they want to question the presence of a child of color in the classroom they default to concerns over "basic hygiene habits." It's like a code phrase. 

Creative Commons image courtesy of C. Thomas Anderson

Creative Commons image courtesy of C. Thomas Anderson

This year we are more and more aware of the entitlement and privilege that fuels injustice. It is good to see awareness growing. More and more people are seeing privilege and entitlement for what it is--the driving force of deeper injustice. 

The weekend is over and the kids are back in school. On Monday afternoon I get on my electric scooter, which helps me get around since I can neither drive nor walk long distances due to disability. This is how I pick up my kids from school and do the shopping The scooter can move at a walking pace and stop instantly. It works well, even on the narrow sidewalks in our small town. 

The kids walk downtown next to me, except when we have to go single file in the narrowest spots. My daughter has a dance class on the town square. My son and I go into the delicatessen next door to get him a sandwich. The nice man behind the counter greets us in English. We chat back and forth. His English is really quite good.

Then another man--fifty-ish--walks in and stands at the counter. Before our acquaintance can ask what he wants, the newcomer says loudly to the cashier, "Why don't you tell that lady there to get off the sidewalks?"  

My heart starts pounding. Again I am not offended, so much as terrified. This is what I have feared, since a few angry people started yelling at me on the street. I have been so careful, making sure to yield to anyone on foot. The sidewalks are narrow here after all and I'm not certain about the legalities of my situation, since my mobility device isn't actually a wheelchair.

The man behind the counter looks stunned, his eyes wide.

"Please, sir,"  I say to the belligerent customer in as conciliatory a voice as I can muster. "Please let me explain. I'm legally blind. I can't go in traffic. And I can't drive a car." 

The man turns toward me a bit. "I know," he grunts.

"We live on the edge of town. It's two kilometers to get to the pediatrician or the post office," I stammer.

"I know where you live." His voice is gruff and unforgiving.

"I have problems with the bones in my legs and I can't walk all that way. That's why I ride that scooter," I explain.

"I know."  

"I'm very careful. It doesn't hurt anyone." 

His tone has become a bit less confrontational at least. "I know all that. I just think you shouldn't take up the sidewalk." 

"I'm very careful. I always let other people go first if the sidewalk is narrow." 

"Whatever."  He has managed to make a purchase during our discussion and he walks out. 

But the fear is still there. I know my situation is precarious. The local police could forbid me to use the scooter on the sidewalk, since it isn't officially a wheelchair and I can technically walk. I just can't walk two kilometers without significant pain. If these grouchy people complain to the police or if I make a tiny mistake, the consequences could be severe. 

I understand now that it is the same for my kids, even without a disability. Where white kids would get away with a scolding, they could be reported to the police or expelled from school. The stakes are higher and the stress is chronic.