As many of you know, I am a person who just happens to be blind. For some, it is not immediately obvious that I am, in fact, totally blind and not just visually impaired. Whenever I am out and about walking with my guide dog Vaughn, I am usually asked if I am training the dog to become a service animal for someone else. When I am using my ID cane, people either don’t see me coming or outright turn a blind eye to the blind guy coming at them. I have traveled by train and plane with Vaughn only to hear someone say, “I did not even know there was a dog here”. This response is usually offered by the person or persons I had been talking with or at least interacting minimally with during my travels. I would have thought that after 15 years of seeing the way I do that it would be obvious to the casual observer that I am blind even though I am usually told “but you don’t look blind”, whatever that means. I am always at the ready to assure them that I am in fact blind, but my personal favorite response tends to be “what does a blind person look like to you?” I am not lying and am always thinking about how my peers who actually have a true invisible disability feel when people judge them for looking “normal” and accuse them of faking it.
Now, once we get past the initial banter of “You fooled me because you look right at me when you are speaking” or “I really would have never known until you told me.” Then they usually go into “help” mode and assume I need assistance crossing a street I crossed thousands of times, or assistance collecting my luggage from the overhead compartments. At times I could always use an extra set of eyes to get out of an airport or to a bathroom at a restaurant. Now, that being said, I am very self-sufficient, but almost always take people up on their kind and well-intended offer of assistance. If not for being easier, but for the next person coming up behind me who actually needs help or assistance and may or may not have a visible disability. I appreciate these random acts of kindness so much, not only for the assistance given to me at that moment but also because it restores my faith in the kindness of humanity.
Now, not everyone is comfortable being independent, or may not even be able to admit they need help. There are people with disabilities, visible or not, who would appreciate, and while it may not seem obvious, most certainly need assistance, or help, but more importantly, acceptance from their fellow man or woman. Unfortunately, not every person with a disability as defined under the Americans with Disability Act “ADA” use a service animal, an assistive device, or something that immediately identifies them as being a person with a disability. Instead, they are forced into silence and shame because self-identifying as a person with a disability has not proven to be helpful in assimilating or integrating oneself into our social or corporate cultures. If you don’t believe me, just read up on the slings and arrows that Richard Branson had to endure as he journeyed through life with the invisible disability of dyslexia. This is the same invisible disability that Jon Hermus, co-host of The AccessAbility Works podcast, has and talks about on episode 2 of our show.
Disabilities that are not immediately apparent, are considered “invisible” or “hidden”. These “umbrella” terms capture an entire spectrum of hidden disabilities or challenges that are primarily neurological in nature. In short, these diagnosed conditions are not apparent to the casual observer. These conditions often include persons living with traumatic brain injuries, dyslexia, autoimmune deficiencies, ADHD, and even diabetes. According to DisabledWorld.com, 96 percent of people with invisible disabilities show no outward signs of an obvious disability like any degree of paralysis or blindness. Many invisible disabilities can hinder a person’s quality of life, A.K.A., be a total pain in the ass for someone just trying to live their lives. They have to endure the judgments and condemnations of ill-educated and ill-informed individuals accusing their peers of faking it, or not really having a disability at all. It just makes managing and living with any diagnosis a heavy lift due more to the ‘dis’ labeling that society insists putting on all of us that are not “normal”.
Because of this stigma, many of my well-educated, adept peers are reluctant to self-identify as being a person with a disability. Can you blame them? Having to endure the imposed sense of low expectations and marginalization forced upon them by society, I can absolutely appreciate the hesitation nearly everyone has with self-identifying when all we can be sure of is pity, marginalization, and judgments.
This translates into having to overcome problems and work through issues that complicate our ability to interact in the workplace, in school, and life in general. Your co-worker, teacher, student, or the person standing in line in front of you may have an invisible disability so think twice, or even three times before you cast disparaging remarks or silently judge someone. So the next time you see someone who seems to be “normal” but moves slowly or is more contemplative in responding, take time to consider they may have an invisible disability and try not to make them the subject of ridicule and verbal abuse.
These types of disparaging thoughts or hurtful comments have an unfortunate side effect. People with invisible disabilities are likely to avoid putting themselves in situations where they must engage with or explain themselves to neighbors, colleagues, or strangers. They often isolate themselves, cutting off social interactions and interactions with friends, family, and colleagues. Self-isolating can lead to severe anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues that inhibit a person’s recovery or transition dealing with their diagnosis or worse, lead to thoughts of suicide.
Is this who we are as a society? Do we want to put others down who are already dealing with challenges that would have the “normal” person curling up in a fetal position terrified of trying of leading a “normal” life? Why do we impose this on others who are not like us or “normal”? Ignorance is not an excuse for the way we treat others on the ability spectrum. Being clueless is not an excuse for the poor treatment of others and in the current climate hindering the human condition, do we really want to be that person who makes life more difficult for our fellow man who just happens to have a disability?
Imagine for a moment if you can, constantly explaining or justifying the whys and hows of your needs for interacting with sign language, or that you need time to respond, or time to consume and digest materials at a different pace than the “normal” person. Then layer into that daily experience the judgments and disparaging remarks made about you being “stupid”, “slow”, “retarded”, or “useless”. Ask yourself, is it me that has the problem or is it the person with the disability that has the problem? Having a disability, whether visible or invisible, is not for the faint of heart. If you agree with me, what are you going to do to shift the social paradigm on ability to ensure people with a disability are judged by their abilities when given access to the tools they need to succeed in life? How will you allow their unique abilities to shine and in turn allow them to independently create infinite possibilities for themselves and others?
Now, unless you are a heartless SOB, you would never think to intentionally disrespect or verbally abuse those of us with a visible disability. Most people normally demonstrate sympathy, but it would be best, in my opinion, to express compassionate empathy. “There but for the Grace of God go I” seems to be ringing in this heathen’s ear. Would a “normal” person say something like, “Hey blind guy, how come you’re taking so long to count your change?!” or “Hey, lady in the wheelchair, you are taking up so much room in the elevator.” Yet somehow, it’s fair game or excusable to do that if the person’s disability is not obvious for the world to see. Again, just ask Sir Richard Branson how he felt being called “stupid” or “retarded”. Should we all be obliged to wear a sign alerting the insensitive and ignorant to our underlying conditions just to get their respect? Or is it better, and more humane, to offer respect without question or hesitation first?
I have a solution: A liberal dose of compassionate empathy regardless of a person’s ability. You never know what shitty situation a person is dealing with that day, year, or their whole life. Do you really want to be the guy that makes a person’s bad day worse? Instead of being catty, judgmental, dismissive, or even mean to people in society just take a moment to be kind and understanding that some struggles and challenges are not readily apparent.
In addition to guiding organizations of all sizes in the removal of digital barriers for those of us with a disability, My Blind Spot also facilitates awareness and appreciation for authentic inclusion of Ability alongside Race, Gender, Orientation, and Religion in both our social and corporate cultures. People who happen to have a disability are your friends, members of your family, and most definitely your colleagues and peers. Don’t our friends, colleagues, and loved ones deserve respect and aren’t they entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness without being segregated or marginalized? We are all part of the greater mosaic that is America and deserve barrier-free access to be the best we can be without the need for overcoming hurdles and barriers of ignorance, fear, or condemnation because of who we are.
By Albert J. Rizzi, M.Ed.