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Expectations. Everyone has them. From the one that says your dream vacation will be… well… dreamy, to the one that your friends and family will be there for you. Usually, life follows this script, at least most of the time… but what if it doesn’t? What if your dream vacation ends up going just sideways enough that you have hilarious stories to tell for years to come? Or what if you needed someone you thought would always be there and they devastated you by being distant or unavailable?
What if you spent your life dealing with not only your expectations about how your life should go but other peoples’ vocal perceptions of it?
I am a 31-year-old married woman with a solid work history, a jewelry design business, a love of running, and a huge mental vocabulary of words to pull out at a moment’s notice… Oh, and I’m blind.
I can just hear your thought [processes, because I’ve heard them vocalized in my presence (if not at me, around me).
Whoa! But you… you can work? Make things? Run? Play Scrabble? But… but…. you’re… you’re blind!
Um… yeah? So? You make little adaptations to your life every day, from changing the way your cell phone’s wallpaper looks to rearranging your kitchen so you can find things more easily. My life is a bit more linear than yours, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do anything I wish to pursue (except, maybe, drive a car, but the technology is coming). The fact that you expect my life to be a certain way because you just don’t know isn’t hurtful in and of itself, but refusing to listen and be educated to change your perceptions… that IS damaging.
And I am not alone. Many people with visible physical disabilities are nearly constantly bombarded with the idea that because they do things differently they can’t be done at all. People who use wheelchairs are frequently publicly asked if they can enjoy an active intimate life. Many friends who are deaf or hard of hearing or have non-speaking autism are treated like they can’t understand information or directions because they cannot hear and/or communicate differently than the general public (ASL, interpreters, written communication). Many people with chronic pain are told they aren’t eating healthy enough or doing enough yoga or “thinking positively” enough. We can educate only so much; if the general public expects sob stories and the drudgery of disability – like in a movie I won’t name that’s being released this week – it directly affects our ability to make a living (if our disability permits) and undermines our autonomy and dignity (if our disability doesn’t).
I’ve walked into many job interviews where my blindness overshadows my work history and experience. With one exception, all jobs in that work history have been incredibly accommodating and have been true partnerships between employer and employee from day one. I don’t mind educating companies, interviewers, or even the general public if they honestly want to know how I do things productively, that my life isn’t drudgery, and take away with them the fact that I’m really no different from anyone else. But when it directly affects my ability to make a living or live an independent, autonomous life, that I do mind. If someone tells you that you have done something that hurts them, it should empower you to discover if there’s any truth in it. If so, it’s important to make changes to validate the lived experience of the person who’s been hurt. For many in the disability community, that isn’t happening.

So I’m not what you expect of someone who is blind. I am confident, independent, a quick learner who works with her hands and moves quickly on her feet. Even if I weren’t, so what? People with disabilities intersect all manner of age, race, gender, belief system, political affiliation, personality traits, motivation, hobbies, interests… and some of us have physical challenges that are much less of a barrier to independent, autonomous living than the perceptions that surround us. If I – or anyone else – is not what you expect… Does that make me super awesome? Sure, my ego would like to think that. But doesn’t it reflect less on me and my “awesomeness” than on you and your own prejudgments?

So next time you reorganize your kitchen to make things easier to access, or change the brightness setting on your cell phone screen, or get map directions to somewhere you’ve never been… you’d feel awfully patronized if I told you it’s awesome that you prepare so well or do things that make your life easier. So, do me a favor, don’t do it to me or my friends in the disability community. Our physical “limitations” are nothing compared to the pity, the discrimination, and the “expectations” the general public has about our lives. Leave your expectations at the door, and listen to what we are really and truly saying. Many of us love our lives and are trying to tell you; many of you just won’t listen. Many thanks to those of you who do.

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