As I was crossing the street today, a boy walking with his father beside me suddenly cried in excitement, "Look! Look, she's using a ... she's blind!" He was young, maybe five, and his father (or, at least I assume it was his father) responded with, "Mm-hmm," and went on to shush him and drop back behind me.
I tried not to smile. I like when young children see me doing everyday things like carrying grocery bags across the street. Many adults seem to think this is an amazing, miraculous feat rather than an everyday occurrence. Maybe, by seeing a person who is blind doing such everyday things at a young age, children will grow up believing I (and anyone else) are just as capable as they are. I began wondering at how negative attitudes towards people and their capabilities are formed throughout life, and thought back to my own experiences.
I was born different.
Some of my first memories are from when I was four or five years old. There's not much—snatches here and there, scenes of the house we lived in at the time. But nowhere in those memories is anything about feeling different. Nowhere is there any time where I was told "you can't" or where I felt inferior.
As a five-year-old I used to play Legos with my brothers in the playroom. We'd sit on the floor, Tupperware containers full of the colourful blocks scattered throughout the room, building our various structures. I used to plunge my hand into a container of blocks and burrow through the pieces, feeling for the right shape. When I found one, I'd grab it and bring my hand up close to my eyes. If it was the right colour, I'd use it. If it wasn't, I'd toss it back into the container and begin the burrowing search again.
It wasn't until later that I realized no one else did this. My brothers and our friends sometimes had to move pieces around with their hands to expose those underneath, but they searched with their eyes. Sometimes, they were faster. But sometimes I was faster. And, in the end, we build equally as well and how we went about finding the pieces we needed—with our hands or with our eyes—didn't matter.
It was around the time I started school that I became deficient.
Suddenly, I entered an environment that was almost exclusively visual and that I had little control over. I couldn't see what was written on the board even from the front row. I couldn't read any of the print materials unless they were enlarged and I squinted and got so close my nose brushed the page. When we crowded onto the carpet each morning for calendar and weather activities I couldn't see anything the teacher was doing.
Suddenly, I needed all sorts of special aids to help me access the visual part of the world. I had a paraprofessional in the room to read from the board, enlarge handouts to a size I could see, and describe what was going on when the teacher did presentations. My desk was cluttered with a slant board, magnifiers, a task lamp, and large print books. Later an entire table in the corner of the room was commandeered to house a computer, printer, and video magnifier (this being the early '90s when such things weren't common in classrooms). A teacher of the visually impaired came in several times a week to teach me how to use magnifiers and monoculars, assistive technologies, and braille.
Still, with these aids I was just as capable as any of my classmates. I never heard the words "you can't" spoken by any child or adult around me. Sure, I needed to do some things in a different way, but I could still do them in the end. My classmates, I believe, always saw me as just "one of the gang" and not really any different from them, except I couldn't see well. They went through great lengths to include me in activities, such as calling out my name in physical education when a ball was sailing in my direction, and yelling "Good try!" when I invariably missed (or flinched out of the way of the flying object I couldn't see).
I did not realize until many years later how hard my parents fought for me during my school years. When I wanted to participate in baseball in grade three they made it happen—even though it wasn't the same league that all my friends had joined (that league refused) and I ended up hating it in the end (they also did not let me quit ... I had to finish the season). But at least I got to try it. I participated in gymnastics and downhill skiing, swimming and piano, skating and art, track and field and acting. The worst injury I received was getting knocked unconscious (and breaking my nose!) when I ran headlong into a classmate at full speed as we were playing Freeze Tag. That, and many more minor injuries, were totally worth it for the experience of having an un-sheltered childhood. What other legally blind child played baseball? What other legally blind child started racing across the playground with their peers as soon as they exited the school doors (granted, I knew the school grounds well!).
It was when I started college that I became disabled.
Suddenly, to my surprise, the aura of blindness followed me everywhere. I wasn't just dealing with needing accommodations for my visual impairment—I had to face the attitudes of other people, too. I wasn't surround by people who had known me for years, people who considered my visual impairment to be just one aspect among many of who I was as a person. Suddenly, it was all new people—many of whom saw first and foremost the "blind student." Some of whom did not have a positive attitude about the capabilities of someone with a visual impairment, either. I had more than one professor over the years suggest that I drop their course for various reasons (usually before they met me and learned that my blindness wasn't such a big deal after all). Yet, I had other professors who, despite very challenging courses, embraced the challenge of making their curriculum accessible and were open to working with me to find a way through, even if it wasn't easy.
How do people develop a positive attitude in one instance but a negative attitude in another? How important are early experiences? Seeing someone with a visual impairment crossing a street with a white cane versus seeing them being guided by someone. Seeing someone portrayed in a movie as capable rather than helpless. Hearing people talk about lawyers and doctors and teachers who just happen to have disabilities rather than about how people with disabilities need help and charity because they aren't as capable.
For me, the experiences and attitudes I was exposed to growing up made a huge difference in my own attitude today. My disability was never ignored—but it was never used as an excuse or a reason for why I couldn't do something. I could do anything—I just might have to do some things a little differently. And that was okay!
How can we—all of us, whether we have a disability or not—help to foster positive attitudes of disability ... deficiency ... difference at an early age in life? So that children will grow up to be parents, teachers, and employers who truly believe that all people, regardless of their ability or disability, are capable ... they just might have to do some things a little differently.