As a blind person living and working in this wonderful country I have come to the conclusion that the Internet has quickly become one of the greatest tools I have the fortune to use. It gives me access to many things previously only available to those who can see. With the Internet I can conduct extensive research, go shopping independently, communicate with friends and colleagues, and even take the occasional survey in order to inform some unnamed and mysterious pollster about my opinions on this or that.
Earlier today I decided to put a little adventure in my life and answer an invitation to take an online survey. In this case I knew the source of the survey and was expecting it. In the course of answering the numerous questions on a wide variety of subjects I was asked my employment status. I was asked to check the box most relevant to my situation. The choices I was given included “employed,” “concerned about my employment status,” “have a family member who is unemployed,” “unemployed,” and “retired or disabled.” “Ding ding ding” went the alarm bells in my head! “Retired or disabled”? What a strange choice to offer. I am sure that the creator of the survey had the best of intentions, but in that one choice he or she promulgated the long-standing inequality faced by disabled people and once again promoted the perception that disabled people could not really be employed.
As a disabled person or, if you will, a person with a disability, I encounter daily misconceptions and incorrect perceptions about my blindness. For example, when I am using my guide dog people often ask me questions such as “how does your dog know where it is going” or “how did your dog know to make that last left or right turn”? The perception is that the dog does everything and that I just tag along for the ride. When I use my white cane instead of a guide dog people seem to think that I’m even worse off and are always asking if they can “help” me especially when in the course of walking my cane encounters an obstacle. In reality, the cane is supposed to find obstacles and objects and then I determined how to go around or avoid them. However, sighted people interpret my cane locating an object as me bumping into it which in fact is hardly the case.
I understand these misconceptions because from birth, children in our society are taught to see without getting any real instruction about how to use their other senses as alternatives to sight. We do not teach children real inclusiveness where disabilities are concerned. Our children grow up to believe that if they could not see they would not be able to function.
For many years the Gallup polling organization has conducted surveys which show that one of the top five fears in our country is the fear of blindness. To a slightly lesser degree, so-called able-bodied people fear most any disability according to Gallup surveys. Certainly we all feel afraid of the possibility that we might lose something that we deem important in our lives. Losing a sense or”ability” would constitute a dramatic change in the way any of us live. However, there’s a difference between the fear of losing an ability and the perception that without it we could not live a “normal life.”
When people ask me if I need assistance while walking down the street I know for the most part they have the best of intentions. The fact is, like any of us, sometimes I even need assistance. Each one of us needs help and assistance from time to time. For example, someone simply walking to their car while carrying a number of bags or packages can always use an extra hand or two. There is the occasional person who will offer assistance to an individual laden down with stuff they are caring to their car. Far be it from me to condemn someone who offers me assistance because the person asking to help might very well be the one who would lend an extra hand to the person carrying all those packages.
The fact is, however, that many people offer assistance to persons with a disability because they do not know that disability does not mean lack of ability or competence. For my part, it is important that I respond appropriately to offers of help. It does no one any good to react in anger to offers of assistance. An invitation to help is at least an opportunity to educate just a bit. I must admit that sometimes the role of constant educator does get a bit trying. Nevertheless it is important to me to be patient, and sometimes even bite my tongue while attempting to change someone’s incorrect perception about what I can and cannot do.
I am often asked if I believe that blind and other disabled persons are better off today than in the past. In some ways I believe that we are. For example for me as a blind person Braille is easier and cheaper to produce. Technology offers me a plethora of ways to access information, travel more independently than ever, and in general live life with less difficulty than before those technological marvels were made available to me.
On the other hand, are we more socially integrated into society than we were 50, 20, or even 10 years ago? I think not, or at least I do not believe that we are significantly better off from a true social integration standpoint. The survey I took this morning is a perfect example of the lack of integration we face. Rather than offering an option of “retired or disabled” a more appropriate choice of words would’ve been “retired or unable to work”. Being unable to work opens up a whole realm of possibilities including temporary injury, illness, a family situation, and yes even a possibility of a severe disability which specifically keeps someone from working.
I will know that I am truly integrated into society when people regard me as amazing because of some amazing thing that I do rather than because I do the same things that they do except that I happened to be blind. I will know that I’m a real first-class citizen when I can walk into restaurants with friends and the wait staff asked me for my order rather than asking my sighted colleagues “what does he want?” I will know that I have arrived when I can go to meetings and conventions where all the materials given to sighted people are available to me in Braille or another accessible form.
In 2008 we elected a new president of the United States who ran on a platform of change and hope. President-elect Obama’s platform included statements reflecting his concern about improving the status of persons with disabilities in this country. I hope he follows through on the views he expressed on his website during the campaign concerning disabled people.
True and full integration is not easy. It starts with desire and it continues with education. I invite your comments and thoughts on the discussion. Only through enlightened and frank talk can we come to a better understanding of ourselves and each other and eventually attain a real inclusive world.