Last week, the below video was shared in honor of World Down Syndrome Day. it is narrated by a young woman named AnnaRose, who has Down Syndrome, and the activities depicted are portrayed by an actress named Olivia Wilde, who does not. Only at the end of the video does one see AnnaRose herself, when she says |This is How I see myself. How do you see me?”
There seems to be two minds regarding this video, and in my opinion both are right. One is that it is important to look beyond the disability of Down Syndrome and embrace AnnaRose as a sister, daughter, or friend. On the Youtube video page, we learn that AnnaRose is a student, an employee, and an athlete. Her life is ordinary in many ways, so the hope is that you look beyond her disability and view her through the lens of humanity. She sees herself following her dreams, especially if they are impossible. She sees herself living an “important, meaningful, beautiful life”, and after all, isn’t that what we all want for ourselves?
The other train of thought is more about the visual depiction of AnnaRose’s life, her dreams and her goals. She says she wants to meet someone to share her life with, to be a sister, daughter, friend, to laugh until she can’t breathe, and to cry sometimes. But the video is acted by an actress who doesn’t live with Down Syndrome. This has left many disability activists with the sinking feeling that AnnaRose’s disability, and therefore a part of her identity, is being erased. In a world where disability is either fodder for inspirational feel-good stories or a means of discriminatory treatment, many people with disabilities want the public to see them openly living lives with Down Syndrome, or using a wheelchair, or accompanied by a service dog. Erasing disability is like erasing a part of one’s identity.
I first saw this video a week ago when it was first published, and honestly, it’s left me so conflicted. In my opinion, both schools of thought are absolutely right, and yet…
I am a woman with a disability. As such, I face many reactions from the general public. I’ve heard the sickly sweet tones of service staff talking to me like I’m a child. I’ve been told that it’s amazing and courageous that I’ve held over ten years of nearly continuous employment, heard the gasps of concerned protectiveness when I mention I enjoy running with my guide dog, or felt the need to fill the stunned silence when I mention that I have started up my own jewelry design business. Conversely, I’ve been told how sorry people are that I can’t see, that my husband is a good man for “taking care of me“, or that there’s no possible way that I can fit in in an office setting despite my work history proving otherwise. It would be a lie if I said these comments and impressions don’t affect me, because they do, no matter how I try and fight it. Not only do they affect how I see myself, they ultimately affect my livelihood and ability to be autonomous and self-sufficient. So, in a way, I want people to look past my disability, to allow me to make mistakes or succeed on my own merits as a woman, not just settle for “good enough” because of the perception that I can’t do any better because I have a proverbial scarlet D for Disabled tattooed on my forehead.
And yet, I have no desire to hide my disability. This is partly because it’s not possible for me, but it’s also because I feel like I need to live the best life I can – a vibrant, complex, nuanced, full life with blindness – in order to be happy and to embrace all of who I am. The comments and questions and seemingly constant advocacy aren’t ever going to go away, so as I see it, I have two choices: I can run and hide and let everyone else fight battles for me, or I can prove again and again that there is nothing shameful about being blind, and in fact it has its own advantages. To ignore my blindness completely is to ignore the one thing in my life that has made me as strong as I am while simultaneously bringing me to my knees. You wouldn’t expect a parent or spouse to hide the existance of their child or partner, and yet parenthood and committed relationships often change the lens in which we view the world. So why should anyone hide their disability just to make you more comfortable?
I want you to see more than just my blindness, to view me as a friend, an employee, an athlete, an entrepreneur, a customer… a human being. Talk to me, and anyone with a disability, as though your comments were directed back at yourself; realize that we are more than just people whose eyes don’t work or who don’t hear well or are unable to walk at all or without significant pain. We share your humanity, enjoy some of your hobbies, have opinions about religion or politics, have hopes and dreams and desires for our lives. But you don’t need to tiptoe around us, either. Don’t ignore our disability; it is still a part of who we are. In ignoring it, you are in effect not acknowledging the discrimination that we face and the pain and anger that engenders, and can’t truly get to know the completeness of our lives by truly celebrating our successes or picking us up when we’re feeling down.
Do you see me as a woman, with dreams for the future and hopes for tomorrow? A woman who likes watching hockey, loves running, and makes pretty beaded things? A woman who drinks too much coffee, loves the sound of a recent snowfall, and sings at the top of her lungs when no one’s around to hear her? That’s great! You see a big part of who I am. Do you see a woman whose eyes don’t work right, who puts labels on her canned goods in her pantry, who navigates the world with a guide dog by her side? A woman who is happy and content with her life, blindness and all, who wants to kick down doors and break down barriers? That’s another part of who I am. You can’t separate one from the other, and yet in a way I need you to. If all you can see is what doesn’t work (my eyes), then you’re missing out on a wicked Scrabble game, a loyal employee, or someone who will cause you to rethink your view of the world. And if you act like my blindness isn’t there, or is scary and uncomfortable, you’re ignoring a true reality of my existence. Put the pieces together, take them apart. See me completely, because I can’t envision myself as one person without the other keeping me company.