As a professional woman, I often receive praise for overcoming my disability:
“I admire how you don’t let blindness get in your way.”
“You are where you are because you overcame your vision loss.”
“You show that with hard work, anyone can overcome a disability.”
“You’re an inspiration because you don’t let blindness stop you from living your life.”
I am an English teacher. I can’t let these statements go unexamined.
I am a poet. I won’t leave lies unexposed.
Overcoming a Disability vs. Living with a Disability
Overcoming means that the problem itself is no longer a problem. According to the dictionary on my computer, to overcome means “to defeat (an opponent or obstacle), to prevail, to succeed in dealing with a problem or difficulty.” The idea of overcoming is so common in conversations about disability that we, the disabled, regularly use the term overcoming narrative to describe a story where a disabled character is healed, where the disability itself is removed. This is the kind of story where the blind person learns to see and the wheelchair user stands up at the end. Many people view these stories as triumphant: Look how the mind achieves victory over the body!
But living with a disability defies overcoming.
When you live with a disaiblity that cannot be cured – a chronic illness, sensory impairment, learning difference – your daily life is about adapting and planning, not about overcoming. You brainstorm workarounds, backup plans, lifelines. You know who you can call as emergency support when your strategies fail — or more likely, when someone responsible for providing accommodations drops the ball.
Ever since I was little, I have been surrounded by loving parents, teachers, and friends who have helped me brainstorm these workarounds so I can live happily as a blind person. Here are some of my favorites:
- Mom labeled all the household appliances with puffy paint so I could wash clothes, cook on the stove, and run the dishwasher by feeling the settings I couldn’t read.
- My mobility teacher taught me to walk with a white cane so I could travel safely and confidently.
- My vision teacher taught me braille so I could label spices, makeup, and other personal items that are hard to identify visually.
- My parents and friends helped me find kitchen utensils in bright colors that would contrast with whatever I was cooking. I have bright purple oven mitts and bright red cutting boards. This helps me see what I”m handling in the kitchen.
- My friends have helped me experiment with dark sunglasses and hats so that I can work in environments that are too bright for me. I wear my sunglasses constantly and keep a pair in every purse I use.
My blindness is still a significant part of daily life. I cannot drive a car, read most menus in restaurants, read many labels at the grocery store. I cannot identify people by sight unless they speak first. I cannot see to navigate safely in most environments. I cannot read many of the apps on my phone. I cannot identify paper money without help. I cannot paint my own fingernails or toenails. Bright lights and background noise are hard for me to handle. This is not a complete list. To list any more cannots is incredibly depressing.
I am happy in my life and I have found ways to complete daily tasks. But I have not overcome my blindness. It is not a foe I have learned to defeat or a barrier I have crossed once and for all. I can’t plan and prepare exhaustively enough to remove every visual complication from my daily life.
Overcome the Lies: Reveal the Truth
Several factors are being mixed up here: success, sameness, and inspiration.
Most of the time, people do not see what I am struggling with, or they see me in an environment where I am comfortable. They call this vision of me success. They see a blind woman who doesn’t appear to be wrestling with visual tasks, so they assume that I have “overcome” the blindness. They do not realize all the work I have done behind the scenes, the advice I have asked, the trial runs I have made with friends and family.
Most people have a limited repertoire of disabled characters in their daily life. I am often the first blind person they have seen aside from TV — and usually the first disabled person they have talked to. They don’t have an extensive framework of examples to draw on.
When I was in guide dog training, a volunteer approached me and said, “You must have SOME vision.” I asked why she thought so, and she continued, “Because you walk so confidently. How could you walk so well if you were completely blind?” By assuming that sight is needed to walk confidently, this woman was exposing her very narrow definitions of confidence as well as her limited range of examples. Perhaps she had never seen a completely blind person walk confidently. I have.
Our bodies are designed to flourish, to make the best use of the resources we have. “Success” is often confused with “sameness”: We label someone as successful when they have achieved the goals we have achieved. In this mindset, difference stands in the way of success — The woman thinks, “If I would be scared to walk forward without sight, how could any completely blind person walk confidently?” This is logical, but terribly unimaginative.
You do not know how you will do something unless you are actually doing it.
I can plan how I will cross a crowded room with my guide dog, but my experience may or may not match my best plans. Sometimes the task is much more difficult — a person crosses my path, distracts my dog, or steps out in front of me. Sometimes the task is much easier than I could have hoped for — my dog smoothly guides me around outstretched legs, bypasses the table of appetizers and curious strangers, and helps me find a chair. Whether a task goes poorly or well, I have more information to work with for my next endeavor.
And inspiration? Inspiration is when we are completely blown away by what seems like an impossible reality. We see someone doing the impossible, and we feel excited! We want to talk about the indomitable human spirit and the drive to work and create. These are all admirable traits. I love to be inspired and to inspire. I don’t like to meet people who are too jaded to be inspired by daily life.
The problem is that disabled people are not expected to flourish. So when we do flourish in our daily lives, it is seen as remarkable — rather than a reality we can all work toward. Inspiration is too much of a fluke, and it’s too individualistic. Inspiration doesn’t call to mind a community of hardworking people with and without disabilities. It’s a solitary beacon – one disabled person who has overcome their issues to shine forth.
Because you cannot inspire and falter. If you have inspired others, you are not allowed to have difficulties, bad days, frustrations. Your job becomes inspiration. You become the blind girl who doesn’t act blind — and what a relief! If she doesn’t act blind, then we don’t have to appreciate how she might be different, to anticipate what she might need.
We will all flourish at different thresholds and in different environments. Disability does not disqualify a person from flourishing, from enjoying life. Not every disabled person needs to have a career, but they do need a community that respects their right to belong.
We need to make room in our minds for different kinds of flourishing. We need more pictures, more stories, more templates for how humans can live in bodies and minds different from our own. We need imagination and empathy — the eagerness to inspire others by how we welcome a range of abilities.