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.

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. 

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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. 

Make a scene: From bystander to assertive witness

At dusk on Monday evening, I set out for the ESL class I teach a mile and half from home. I rode the diminutive two-wheeled electric scooter that I use to get into town, puttering around the corner by the store run by a Vietnamese family.

I can't drive a car or ride a bike in traffic because I'm legally blind. I can see well enough to navigate safely at walking speed on the sidewalk but not much more. And due to a joint and bone condition I can't walk more than half a mile without intense pain that lasts two days. So the scooter is the best way for me to get around.

Creative Commons image by Arimeq of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Arimeq of Flickr.com

As I passed the store an angry shout stopped me. "Get off the sidewalk, you stupid cow! You get in the road, right now!" A man was screaming at me in a harsh, ragged voice from a house across the street. 

I knew even then that most people would say I should ignore him and keep going. But as soon as the words hit home, I couldn't hear or see, even as well as I normally can. I recognized the symptoms of a PTSD trigger and struggled to fight the wave of dizziness and disorientation. That meant first I had to stop to avoid running into a lamppost.

"I'm calling the police! You should be arrested, you pig! Get off the sidewalk with that scooter!" The man was still yelling. And I had heard the same thing from another man just last week. In this small town, rumor travels fast and there seems to be an epidemic of people accosting me about my mobility device. 

To be clear, I have been very careful in the year since I've had this scooter. I've never come close to bumping a pedestrian, even though many of our sidewalks are no more than a foot wide. A wheelchair or a standard disability scooter with three or four wheels could not navigate on the sidewalks here and the few people who use such devices travel in traffic. But the traffic is also very bad, crowded and fast. It isn't safe for a person who can't see well. I have small children who still need an adult to accompany them to school. I have no real choice about whether I use the scooter or where I use it.

I have been afraid that people would judge me harshly and so I have made an effort to yield to anyone else on the sidewalk and to go extra slow around dogs and small children. Yet finally my fears have been realized and s group of people are lobbying the city to forbid me to use any wheeled mobility device on the sidewalks. 

"Do you want me to come down there and push you into the road!" The belligerent man threatened. 

I know what my husband and my friends would say. "Just ignore them. Mainly, don't make a scene. Whatever you do, just don't make a scene."

"I can't ride in traffic. I'm visually impaired," I finally called over to the man.

"Then stay the f--k home!" he fumed. "I'm dialing the police right now!"

"Fine. I'll show them my disability ID," I told him and moved slowly, shakily away.

I couldn't exactly make out the figures of people in front of the store several feet away or the figure of the man yelling at me. But I could hear by the shuffling of shoes on pavement that there were witnesses. By their quiet shuffling, I figured they were embarrassed and also hoping to avoid "a scene."

Creative Commons image from Aidan Jones

Creative Commons image from Aidan Jones

I have made a scene too many times in my life. I have been told over and over again not to make a scene--by my mother, by my husband, by my friends. Mostly I try not to, but there are times when a scene is just what is needed.

For the first 20-odd years of my life I experienced extreme social ostracism and isolation, which resulted in a kind of long-term PTSD, which is different from most PTSD because it doesn't stem from one traumatic incident but from repeated threats over the long term.

The result is that when I am threatened with social isolation, my brain shuts down. I cannot think clearly and talk my way out of the difficulty. Instead my brain can only do fight of flight. And that often means I scream back at whoever is harassing or threatening me and sometimes at anyone at all, if the attacker has managed to make him/herself scarce. The result tends to be more social isolation. Who wants to be around someone who is always making a scene after all?

In this case, I managed to fight the PTSD symptoms. I have been working on that. After 20 years of trying, I can finally respond relatively calmly... sometimes.

But the thing that stands out to me most painfully in the entire incident is not the belligerent man, but the bystanders.

I cannot count the number of times, I have been harassed, belittled, demeaned or even physically attacked in public due to my disabilities and bystanders have been silent or even made excuses for the abuse. I have been told I should not be allowed to have children, because clearly a visually impaired person cannot be safe with children and I watched with helpless horror as a group sat around discussing how valid that prejudice might be, while I was told to be quiet and allow others their say about my validity as a parent.

I have made many scenes, but I have also waited, hoped and prayed someone else would make a scene first.

When I saw the video of Sam Carter, the lead singer of the heavy metal band Arcitects, stopping a concert and making a scene (including quite a few F-bombs) because he just saw someone sexually harass and grope an unwilling woman in the crowd right in front of him, I started sobbing. The same thing happened when I read the story about waiter Michael Garcia who told a diner he could no longer serve him after the man said loudly "Special needs children need to be special someplace else" in a Houston restaurant where a five-year-old boy with Down Syndrome was eating with his family. 

These are rare and famous incidents. It is unfortunate that they are famous because they are rare.

There are a few more incidents like this though that weren't caught on video. Some years ago, I was riding a street car in Prague when I noticed a white man who was clearly intoxicated harassing two young, dark-skinned children. There have always been issues with pickpocketting on the street cars and dark-skinned people are often blamed. But these children were standing away from other people and wearing school backpacks.

I went up to the man and tried to put myself between him and the children. I told him to stop. He pushed me roughly out of the way with astonishing strength. I turned to the other passengers on the street car, who were sitting quietly with their faces averted. I asked them to help and then turned back toward the man who was pushing the children physically toward the exit. The street car stopped with a jolt at a station and the doors opened. 

I told the man I would call the police and demanded that he stop harassing the children, who were clearly younger than 10 or 12. Instead he grabbed the backs of their necks and threw them out of the street car. The driver, apparently wishing to avoid a scene, slammed the doors quickly and started the street car moving again. I did call the police and they said there was nothing they could do after the fact unless the street car driver was willing to get involved, which he was not. 

Often making a scene does not stop the harassment or abuse and thus many people tell me it is useless and a worthless waste of energy.

Creative Commons image by Tamara Craiu

Creative Commons image by Tamara Craiu

I can't speak for those children because I was never able to locate them again, but I for one would not feel it was useless if a bystander had stood with me against the threatening man harassing me on Monday night. 

It is easy to say we are against racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia and all the rest. It is not easy to stand up and make a scene, to call a stop to harassment, ostracism or prejudice. It is in many situations damn scary.

I have been a bystander and I have sometimes stood up and sometimes things have happened too fast. I was confused, was afraid or had my own PTSD to deal with. I have wished I had been quick enough to say something or simply show by where i positioned my body that a vulnerable person did not stand alone. Sometimes I have managed to do it.

Once when I was a college student and I was first able to go out to a bar for a drink, I stood at a bar waiting to be served behind a group of three Black women with British accents. The bar tender was serving drinks to people in front of them but then he skipped them and asked for my order. I was shocked. I had talked to the girls and knew they were waiting to order. I slammed my fist on the counter and demanded that he serve them immediately. (This was even before I'd had any drinks, mind you.)

Certainly, there can be times when making a scene actually embarrasses the person you are trying to defend or the person is so triggered by past trauma that they do not realize you are trying to help and they lash out against you. But I for one am certain that some attempt to stand with the vulnerable is better than no attempt. We are not perfect but we can stand up for our tribe. And if our tribe is multi-hued and many splendered, then this is what we must do.

A friend told me about a recent incident in which she was out with a friend who has a condition that causes her eyes to move strangely. A child came up to her in a store and said, "Your face is ugly and you have weird eyes." The woman threw down her shopping and ran out of the store crying. 

I do understand. I have been told many times that my face is not appealing and my eyes appear strange. I have overheard conversations and simply watched as groups of people turned away and excluded me. When you live with a vision impairment or other condition that makes your face different from those around you, it is a common enough problem.

My friend went to the child's mother and told her what had happened. The mother replied that the child's words were simply true and not harassment. My friend objected and asked her to teach her child not to comment on people's bodies or... well, she would have mentioned skin color, except the mother and child happened to be black and she assumed they already knew that.

We are all fallible and small children do say things that are insensitive without understanding.  I have heard the understandable anger of black people when a small white child commented loudly that someone's skin "looks like chocolate." They rightly say white parents should teach their children to refrain from making stereotyping comments. The same applies to all people when it comes to commenting on disabilities and body differences. It isn't necessary to shame children over insensitive comments but it is necessary for witnesses to say something.

What is important is not that we never make a mistake or that a child or even an adult never speaks or acts out of ignorance. What is important is that when you know better. you stand by those who are vulnerable. Stand up and if necessary you should indeed make a scene.

Slogging through to gratitude

What does the abortion debate have to do with gratitude? They both strike at the core of what type of spirituality you practice, for one thing.

You are probably as sick of the argument as I am. It rages on with passion, hate, violence and self-righteousness on both sides, though the facts surrounding the issue haven't changed in thirty years.

It isn't just about being "pro-life" or "pro-choice" depending on one's religion. There's the disability rights angle. There's adoption. There's overpopulation and environmental crisis. It is an issue with tendrils reaching deep and wide.

I'm a person with a significant physical disability. I can easily imagine the sheer rage experienced by those who live with disabilities that are widely considered "abortable," in that many people think a child would be better off dead than living "that way." 

I'm also an adoptive parent of two children who never went home from the maternity ward. Their birth mothers did have reasonable access to abortion as a possibility in a country with universal health care, but they did not make that choice. 

I might well have some strong opinions on this issue, but I find that I am not firmly on one side or the other.

I am a woman. Yes, I think women and all people should be allowed to make their own choices. I become irritated when men dictate what women should do with their lives. I know women who were raped and then shamed for it--assumptions made about them. I have a capacity for feminist fury.

But I am not pro-choice at all cost, even so. I don't think there is a clear line between unborn and alive. 

I'm not pro-life or pro-abortion in this. It is more that I am anti-back-alley-abortion. On the surface, it's as simple as that. I don't think abortion is any great thing. Overpopulation is a serious issue, but still if we respect any life we should respect all life. 

Yet I know the results of anti-abortion laws. Throughout history and geography they do not generally result in fewer abortions but rather in more risky abortions and more deaths from infection and accident. That's my primary stand on the issue in terms of society, laws and politics.

In terms of ethics... well, it does come down to religion for me as it does for many people, except my ethics are different from those preached by that brand of Christianity that is so sure of its single, universal "truth.".

In the most recent debate I witnessed on this issue, a woman was lecturing on scripture and the "fact" that God is the only one who can choose to give life or to take life away. She said that makes abortion wrong, no matter what, and makes the pro-choice stance immoral.

This was at least a calm and rational argument. The comments were kindly but firmly put--an assumption that everyone must agree with the scriptures running through the text. The only question open to debate was the interpretation of those scriptures.

But what if you don't accept the most basic premise. How so God is the only one who can take life away? What did you eat for breakfast this morning? If it contained meat or even eggs then you clearly participated in taking life away.

And what about wheat or vegetables? I'm looking at you, vegetarians on moral grounds. How can you prove that those lives--the lives of plants--are different and that you can take away those lives so that you might live but not another kind of life? I know there are lines in those scriptures taken to mean that humans are above the rest of nature, but again I do not accept those scriptures as proof. You must find something beyond human constructs to insist that humans are above all others.

I do understand that if one's religion takes the stand that God is something outside of you, not within each living being, then the issue of abortion becomes highly divisive. However, we have to accept that not everyone shares our religion and if they don't, then it makes no sense for them to be bound by the same scriptures.

My religion mandates that I have to work every day to ensure that I take no more life than I truly need, that I am not a force for needless death and destruction. I have to be conscious about the fact that other beings have to die in order for me to eat, have shelter, stay warm, read, use the internet and so forth. I have to try to give back in kind. 

And I have to give thanks, consciously and openly.

That's the law of my religion. Very few people follow this law and if I respected only people who do or insisted that all people must abide by it, I would be made ridiculous. I accept that it isn't the law of someone else's religion.

For me God or the Gods are not entirely separate from us. They also don't force anything upon us. In the end, every decision of ethical value is fully in our hands. If we had no choice we would also have no ethical responsibility. We are not forced to have a child by some external will of God and so we are truly responsible.

By being alive we make choices, including the choice to continue living. We choose and we must accept in every moment of our lives that we have come to the situation we are in through a combination of circumstances and our choices to accept or reject those circumstances.

All possibilities may not have been open to us. The poor have fewer choices than the rich. Money equals the ability to choose what to do with that wealth after all. But in the end, even the poorest has made choices. And morality is most basically about our acceptance of that.

We choose to take life in order to eat and thus to continue to live. This choice is made easy for us because we psychologically feel that the lives of those beings we eat are not the same as our own life. It is harder when the life is an unborn child and the need is not just to slake momentary hunger but rather the need to choose one's path in life. It is harder but both take away life.

Choose well and know that there is a cost.

You do not eat without the deaths of others. Only arrogance can claim that those lives--even the lives of radishes--are less important than your own. You accept this. You eat anyway and you try to live without needlessly taking life. That is all. You have no need to judge the choices of others in this question, which is ultimately between each private person and their gods.

Learning interconnection: Where did we go wrong in trying to eradicate racism through education?

"She's kind of brown!" my daughter's friend from first-grade giggles, holding her hands over her mouth. 

My daughter giggles along with her, but covers her drawing with her hand. I'm glad to see my daughter adding realistic skin tones to her drawings, but also frustrated at how quickly she is getting an embarrassing reaction from peers. What are the chances she's going to draw a brown-skinned figure the next time she draws with a friend?

We live in the Czech Republic where political correctness and multicultural education has never been a societal or political priority. Until recently, I had difficulty explaining the confused and even outright racist comments of many Czechs when writing for American readers. Even last summer, comments on my posts about racist or ableist problems in the Czech Republic were met with shocked disbelief. 

But this past winter that has changed for painful reasons.

Creative Commons image by Guilherme Jofili

Creative Commons image by Guilherme Jofili

Jewish landmarks have been vandalized in the US. The winning presidential candidate called Mexicans "rapists and criminals" and publicly mocked a disabled journalist. The numbers of people killed by white supremacist vigilantes because they are or were mistaken to be of Middle Eastern background grows every other day. And of course, there hasn't been this open a display of racism against African Americans or Native Americans in decades.

We are no longer shocked by what used to be almost unthinkable. We thought our system of multicultural education was enough, that general social norms had shifted and that racism, ableism and faith-based discrimination was fading, if not entirely gone.

We've been rather rudely awakened to reality as Americans. The situation begs the question. If racism is still so alive and well in the US after so many years of celebrating Black History Month. teaching a unit on the Holocaust and a chapter on Native American history in elementary school, where did we go wrong and what should we do differently in the future?

I have thought a lot about these issues for the past ten years because I have been living in a country where racism is much closer to the surface and I am the adoptive mother of children who are among the primary targets. Their situation is like being an Arab Muslim in America. I worked as a journalist for years before I adopted children and I knew very well what I was getting into. I had seen Romani children harassed in schools, segregated by teachers and sometimes physically attacked.  I had seen them bravely and cheerily go off to first grade only to be beaten down and in complete despair by third grade. 

I knew that if I made my family this way, I would have to deal with the issues daily. I would have to educate teachers, schools, other parents and even my children's classmates. I have now begun that work, talking to teachers and volunteering to do multicultural education in the schools. The situation is so tense that I am lucky to be allowed to broach these subjects in a classroom at all. 

I know that my efforts are too little alone, but my experience has given me some understanding of what can actually change attitudes. Here then is my recommendation from the trenches on what can and should be done to provide real diversity education: I call this model "interconnection education."

Creative Commons image by Oregon Department of Transportation

Creative Commons image by Oregon Department of Transportation

  • Start in preschool. This is the time for multicultural exposure programs. Use holidays and events from various faiths and peoples to create a lively and fun multicultural curriculum that will serve students well both in understanding the society they live in and in future history and geography courses that are crucial to general education and responsible citizenship.
  • Require teacher training in bullying-prevention, understanding the roots of prejudice and cultural sensitivity from preschool on up. In designing such programs both the perspectives of people of color and of those who have experienced a shift in understanding from isolation to diversity must be heard in order to design programs that are both sensitive to vulnerable groups and accessible to those without much experience in multiculturalism. A moralistic "we are multicultural because we're not bad racists" approach may silence prejudice temporarily, but it will not erase it from the classroom or from society. Teachers must be the first to understand how interconnection works and why we take these issues seriously is a matter of self-preservation.
  • When conflicts arise between children over sensitive cultural, racial or faith-based issues, avoid an immediate punitive reaction and call parents from all involved sides in to discuss the issues with involved children and trained teachers present. Be staunch in support of vulnerable groups in these situations, but ensure that complaints by parents and students of majority groups are addressed fully rather than being quashed and swept under the carpet without discussion. We will not solve prejudice by labeling those who have less cultural experience as bad and further isolating them.
  • Many holidays are primarily religious and so they are a difficult point in non-religious, diverse schools. There is always the issue of holiday programs in elementary school. We want our children to experience community holidays and yet it is logistically difficult to include the holidays of all groups. One way to ensure a better balance is to focus on a given holiday fully for a day and move on to another the next day, rather than spending weeks on majority holidays. Another way is to have a general seasonal holiday program and assign students or small groups to learn about and reflect a holiday from a particular culture through art, costumes, food and song that can be shared with the rest of the class.
  • While holidays extend beyond the individual and thus must be dealt with by the group in some way, individual differences that point to culture, race or faith must be allowed expression by individuals. There have been extensive arguments about the wearing of garments required by one's faith in public schools. One argument is that allowing, for instance, Islamic head coverings for girls promotes the oppression of women. If other parts of the program are open and diverse, it must be noted that whereas it is possible that a girl might be pressured to wear religious clothing by a family, being included in a diverse school would certainly provide greater multicultural education than a requirement to conform to a dress code would. I still see no reason for the restriction and significant harm can come from imposing it. In many other cases, the wearing of identity-specific jewelry or other symbols is simply a means of ensuring confidence and should be encouraged rather than discouraged. 
  • In elementary school and high school, diversity education need not be a separate program. It should be an integral part of language arts, social studies, history and geography programs. If we hope to have a democratic and multi-racial society and if we hope to weather the currents of international relations as a nation, the next generations must have an understanding of history and geography that is balanced. rather than focused through the lens of immigrants to our nation from one particular continent and their struggle for freedom from Britain. Each piece of the puzzle that is history and geography should be set in its context. History is not about blame or victimhood, but rather about an understanding of social, economic,religious and political currents that affect us today. Historians from a wide variety of backgrounds MUST have real and active input. A balanced account of history would require significant changes in history textbooks and teacher education. But it is crucial. Without that our current troubles will recur. 
  • In each of these tactics it is crucial that we recognize the need for identity concepts for all students, not only those from backgrounds outside the majority of a given community. A healthy sense of one's own cultural roots and appreciation for one's traditions as specific rather than "the way everyone does it" is the best defense against resentment of other groups. Students should recognize specific origins within larger continental or racial backgrounds. Africa is not one culture, any more than Europe is. People of European descent differ in cultural perspective, just as various groups from Africa differ. An understanding of culture as the complex ecosystem in which the various parts move and affect one another will go a long way toward practical understanding in the social sciences as well as diversity education. In music, language and art, students should be encouraged to combine cultural influences consciously rather than by automatic cultural appropriation and learn about the natural mixing and divergence processes of human history. 

Clearly these methods and strategies are far beyond our current capabilities. We must have clear-eyed goals. We can also use the concepts of this type of "interconnection education" even on the smallest scale. 

One of my current projects in this direction is the Children's Wheel of the Year series. This is a set of books aimed at families in the earth-based or Neopagan traditions. This is the fastest growing religious group in the United States and Europe and in many areas has more adherents than more widely recognized groups such as Buddhists. This is also a group struggling internally with racial and historical tensions. 

The stories in the Children's Wheel of the Year series are first and foremost engaging and fun for children. High quality educational materials are those that encourage learning through genuine interest. Secondly, they provide a realistic, modern view of how families in the swiftly growing earth-centered religions may celebrate eight major holidays. Each holiday embodies important cultural and ethical values that are important to the adventure story of the book. 

Throughout these stories there runs a common thread of interconnected diversity. While the stories focus on one particular faith, they are inclusive and irrepressible in the joy of connections to others and supporting others in their own strong and unique identities. The Children's Wheel of the Year attempts to provide a model for addressing specifics within an overall interconnected diversity program.

The story Shanna and the Pentacle specifically addresses the issues of multicultural and diversity education in the schools, while focusing on a practical issue many earth-based families report encountering in the United States--namely the banning in some schools of pentacle jewelry. While this story addresses a difficulty encountered by one group and the responsible methods children and adults can use to solve such difficulties, it does so while bringing the reader closer to the perspectives of other cultures in the story, emphasizing the need for mutual support. 

Our need is clear. We must foster an interconnected openness and the strength of diverse identities in our society and in our schools. No matter which group we belong to, we need this and our safety depends upon it. If any group is marginalized or denied expression of their identity, we know it is only a matter of time before that same marginalization and denial is visited upon others. 

Blind humor: Living with a sighted person

I break from work in the afternoon and go downstairs to brew tea for me and my mother. The electric kettle sputters and pops with a comfortable, homey sound.

I reach up to the second shelf and snag a couple of pottery mugs. My thumb and ring finger go around the handles and my forefinger and middle finger each go inside a mug. It's a quick grab and a secure grip. 

Image of Arie Farnam with long light-colored hair unbound and eyes closed as she looks into a fire at night

Image of Arie Farnam with long light-colored hair unbound and eyes closed as she looks into a fire at night

The mugs clink as I set them on the counter but then I feel the grime and stickiness on the inside and I pick them back up again.

"We need to check the spinning arm in the dish washer again," I tell my mom, as she comes in from her painting work.

"Whatever," she says with emphasis. "They look clean to me."

We've had this conversation a thousand times and I try not to bristle. I try to remind myself that it isn't exactly that she doesn't believe me. It's just a different way of looking at the world.

"There are fairly large chunks of greasy gunk inside the cups," I tell her, while I scrub and then add soap and scrub some more to get the super-heated dishwasher sludge off of the inside of the mugs.

"I believe you," she says. "It's just that if it looks clean visually, I don't care." 

I bite back a retort about how bacteria don't care what she can see and put the newly washed mugs out to pour the tea. 

This wasn't a crucial or dramatic incident nor was it the straw that broke my back. But it was telling and clear. I suddenly realized that there is an art to getting along when we see the world differently. And so, I started mulling over a list of tips for blind and partially sighted people who live with a sighted family member or roommate. 

Some of the common issues can be humorous, but I do mostly mean what I say.

Image of a red tea kettle blowing clouds of steam - Creative Commons image by Benjamin Lehman 

Image of a red tea kettle blowing clouds of steam - Creative Commons image by Benjamin Lehman 

Tips for living with a sighted person:

  1. As noted above, dish washing and other things requiring attention to invisible hygiene are not their strong suit. When I pick up a mug or a spoon, my hands automatically inspect it, I suppose just the way a sighted person's eyes do. But my hands detect a lot of crud that a sighted person's eyes don't. Sighted people are, however, excellent at dusting shelves, vacuuming and mopping floors. Divide up household tasks based on each person's strengths to minimize the need to correct and the incidence of food poisoning. 
  2. Try not to lose patience with their vague sense of location and statements such as "It's over there." Remind them gently to use specific words, and set a good example by giving them cues they can follow when directing them to find objects. This generally means referencing a significant physical object that they can see when you are giving them directions. Don't say for instance, "Your keys are at four o'clock three feet ahead of you," because they will often find this too technical and confusing. Instead say, "Your keys are behind the coffee pot." I know it may feel counter intuitive, but this can ease communication.
  3. It is a generalization but also often true that many sighted people have poor organizational and memory skills. Due to their reliance on visual cues they haven't exercised the muscles of memory and categorization. This is a common sticking point in household conflicts because sighted people have difficulty using organization systems for clothing, cooking utensils, spices, paperwork or household clutter correctly. Again patience is needed. Explain the need for the organization systems that keep your home running and which keep them from having to do all the housework and cooking without your help. Then remind gently and avoid a critical or irritated tone as much as possible.
  4. While floor clutter is related to the point above, it deserves its own point because of the potential safety hazards. Your home is one place where you can move around freely and quickly. Floor clutter destroys your sense of home and makes the daily routine difficult and even dangerous. Sighted people, particularly children, create floor clutter without even noticing. Believe me when I say that it is not specifically intended to hurt you. It is just more of their difficulty with organization and location concepts. Place a large box in an out of the way corner and then unceremoniously dump any and all items found loose on the floor into that box. When someone is looking for lost items, mention the box and patiently repeat guidance on organization and safety. 
  5. Be clear about personal space. Though it may be fashionable today to have a relaxed atmosphere around belongings and space, your time has better uses than searching for the scissors your family member or roommate put "right back" on your desk... two feet from where you keep them. Don't let this one slide. But as usual, exercise patience. It is genuinely difficult for sighted people to grop how exact they must be in returning things they have borrowed from you or moved while in your personal space. Generally it is good to enforce a rule that your things are not to be touched or moved at all. Have your own pair of scissors and all other handy household items. Then enforce a hard and fast rule that yours can only be borrowed in cases of emergency and then must be returned to your hands, rather than to the place the sighted individual believes is correct. 
  6. Childcare deserves a couple of special notes. First off, it's clear that children can create a lot of clutter and chaos. This is their natural state. Get child locks on everything and put everything up high for as long as possible. Then as children get older, use the same principles applied to sighted adults with an extra dose of patience. Sighted children are actually more likely than sighted adults to fully adapt to your home and abide by the house rules, because if they are growing up with you, they are more likely to learn the same skills you do and accept them as normal.
  7. On sharing childcare with a sighted adult: With small children safety is your top priority, but you've heard the phrase, "out of sight out of mind." Sighted people really mean it and especially when it comes to children. Some particularly annoying sighted people will question your ability to "watch" children and keep them safe from visible hazards. (Sarcasm and irony are much more helpful, not to mention legal, than aiming your fist at the place where their noise is coming from. But I digress.) Society and the media has trained them to believe that they, not you, are better equipped to keep children safe. Don't buy into this or your children may suffer from preventable accidents. Just because a sighted person is present, don't assume they are paying full attention. If you hear a match strike, batteries clatter or a chewing sound from a toddler who isn't supposed to be eating, always investigate. The child might well be hiding under the table or just around a corner and a sighted adult may not notice because they don't pay much attention to sounds. I can't tell you how many times I have relieved a child of choking hazards when sighted adults hadn't noticed, not to mention the three times I've pulled a drowning child out of water before sighted people reacted. The general rule is to keep alert at all times with small children.

I have written this with the hope of bringing awareness to the issues. I don't wish to give offense to anyone

There are many articles in the online and print media detailing what it is like to live with a family member with a disability. Some are meant to educate the general population and others offer necessary practical tips for families. I'm not against these articles. I do believe there are particular issues for people living with a person with a disability and good advice that can be exchanged with others with a similar living situation.

However, I couldn't resist telling how it is from the other side of the equation.

I wish you all luck and harmony in your homes.