Author: Fiona Woods
We’ve all been there, or somewhere like it. You are sitting at a cafe and the people at the table next to you start talking. “You shoulda seen Davo! Mate, he was so blind he couldn’t find the door!” When you leave soon after, you wonder if they will notice that you are holding a white cane. What’s more, you are trying to slip away in case they do somehow become embarrassed.
Another day you are at a junior football match. “What’s wrong with you umpire? Are you blind?” This although they have sat next to you now for several seasons and realise that you, the only blind person they have ever met, are not totally incompetent.
Then you start to reflect that all this time they have been observing you interacting with your children, pretending you can follow what’s happening in the game, and they have found you out. Perhaps you are totally incompetent!
Ableism is discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities. It characterises people as defined by their disabilities, and as inferior to the non-disabled. These are examples of ableism. Perhaps they will seem trifling to you, not worth making a fuss or getting upset about. You may not find these words or sayings at all offensive; you may even use them yourself. But to me, and many other people who are blind or vision impaired, they are hurtful and the attitudes that underlie them damaging.
First, these statements tell me that I am laughable, incapable of sound judgement, and not deserving of respect. Second, they reflect assumptions about our abilities. They inform decisions or conclusions people will reach when a person who is blind applies for a job, or if their son brings home a blind girlfriend, or if they themselves later lose their sight.
Here is a more blatant example. I recently visited an ophthalmologist with my son. They suggested that my children might like to consult a genetics counsellor in the future, as our eye condition is hereditary. They said that if my children were considering IVF, “they might as well choose the ones that don’t have the gene.”
I absolutely agree that genetic counselling could be helpful and that prospective parents have the right to avoid passing on unwanted characteristics such as cancer. What shocked me was the casual way the ophthalmologist proposed that my son and I might as well not have been selected. There was no intention to make us feel invalid, but this medical professional, who must deal with patients living with genetic conditions on a daily basis hadn’t questioned these assumptions about the value of our lives as compared to those of people without disability.
Ableism can lead to derogatory terms being linked to people with particular conditions. A quick search for idioms including the word “blind” produced the following sayings: “having a blind spot”, “being blind-sided”, “flying blind”, “as blind as a bat”, “blind leading the blind”, “to rob one blind”, “blind Freddy”, “swear blind”, “turn a blind eye to”. All of these sayings equate blindness with ignorance and a lack of ability to judge or even to know what is going on. Paradoxically, love and justice are also often depicted as blind.
My personal bugbear is eye-opener, as in “that is a real eye-opener”. This seems to have replaced “the light bulb moment”, which could be experienced by anyone, when the electricity was switched on or when the particular neuron was stimulated in the brain. Blind people, however, can never have their eyes opened and will never be enlightened.
I grew up knowing nothing about ableism, although I learned about sexism and racism from school, the media, and the entertainment industry, often by observing it in practice. At my mainstream school, I was discouraged from using a cane, as it would draw attention to me. Apparently me whacking my Perkins brailler into other girls’ legs and using a sighted guide around the grounds did not do this.
Until my twenties, I would have told you that I had never experienced discrimination. A friend at university asked me how many job offers I had had from big law firms. I said I had had three interviews and one offer. I had disclosed my blindness in my applications. My friend said that was outrageous and that I should have had multiple offers. My response was not outrage and a quest for redress, but the certainty that my friend must have misinterpreted my marks and overestimated my abilities.
Soon after this, I began to teach myself about the history of blindness activism, mostly as it evolved in the USA. I started to ask myself why I was so often treated differently. Why had it been considered appropriate to play “blind man’s bluff” at parties I had attended as a child? Why should it be so remarkable that there were three blind mice? And why were there so many jokes about blind men?
I joined BCA and started to learn about systemic advocacy. Blind people, or at least the members of BCA I have encountered, do not speak about ableism much. If the discriminatory mindset is discussed at all, it is likely to be in the context of totally blind people discriminating against those who are vision impaired, or people growing up blind compared with those who lost their sight later in life.
In the broader disability community, however, discussions about ableism are prevalent and vehement. About three years ago, I decided to join Facebook. I started to follow several disability advocates. Some of the posts and articles I have read since have helped me to understand and interpret attitudes and language which have made me feel diminished for so long.
Ableism has its own academic discourse. There are many others, hopefully among my readers, who are better qualified to discuss its history and concepts. However, each of us, as a person with a disability, knows the sounds and feelings of ableism. Each of you has experienced it, although you may not recognise it as such. You’re at a dinner party and one of the other guests says to you, “I was wondering when you would get that on your fork”. Your cousin, who has known you all his life, posts that “blind Freddy would have known that would happen.” A colleague says they would rather take out their eyeballs and soak them in acid than come to another Zoom meeting. All of these things have happened to me this year.
I have been planning to write an article on the topic of ableism for some time. I have finally been compelled to do so by Chrissy Brincat’s article “The Stranger on the Bus”, which appeared in the April 2020 edition of Blind Citizens News. Chrissy is perfectly entitled to respond to any stranger as she wishes, and I thank her for writing the article and giving us all something to think about.
Depending on how any of us were feeling that day, some of us might refuse to answer; many of us would choose the path of least resistance and give some monosyllabic replies; we wouldn’t even dream of lying! Like Chrissy, many of us would think good manners required us to answer politely, perhaps even more so if we were women. But if we acknowledge ableism, we might ask “what gives the stranger the right to ask such questions?
Would you ask questions about medical history and life circumstances of a sighted person you sat next to? How dare you judge the blind person for how they answer?” How many of us would confront the inquisitor with their ableist attitude?
BCA has a proud history of bringing about change for Australians who are blind or vision impaired. Check out the website for “forty years of achievement”, or Jonathan Craig’s article “The 25 Year Battle for #Tv4All” in the July 2020 edition of Blind Citizens News. BCA has won its reputation because its constitution requires it, among other things, to promote positive community attitudes.
We approach governments, the media, service providers and the community with a willingness to consult and collaborate. It’s hard to make progress by alienating people and accusing them of prejudices they don’t know they have. On the other hand, major change is rarely brought about because someone asks nicely. The Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements and the Disability Royal Commission demonstrate that.
As a director of BCA, I am bound to preserve its hard-won position of balance and respect. Last year, I was chided for using the phrase “maintain the rage”. I regret any implication that I accept violence as legitimate or normal. The fact remains though that what motivates me, and possibly some of the many other BCA volunteers, is a small, bitter flame of anger for the way people who are blind or vision impaired are treated and spoken about, and the way that makes us feel about ourselves.
When any acquaintance or stranger I meet feels entitled to satisfy their curiosity by asking me endless questions about my life, they tell me that people like me are childlike and a fit subject for the entertainment of others. They leave me with the problem of how to react. If I say I feel they are being rude or insensitive, they will tell me that I have taken it the wrong way and that they meant no offence. They might tell me to quit taking myself so seriously and just get over it. People who know me might pay me the ultimate “compliment” of saying I’m so good they forget that I am blind!
All of the words and phrases I mentioned earlier characterise blindness as failure and other weaknesses. Many of you do not object to these terms. Many of you will think it is going too far to construe them as ableist. They are only words! When I was growing up, there were girl colours and boy colours, there was Gayfl, there were headmasters and headmistresses (though not many of the latter), policemen and policewomen, names reserved for black dogs.
People complained it was a lot of fuss about nothing when they were asked to change, but the world has not stopped because we did. No-one is injured if we call the leader of a school the principal, or if we find a new name for our tasty cheese. We should do what we can to use words which do not marginalise anyone. In acknowledging the hidden messages in our words, and choosing more carefully, we have made further inclusion possible. If we talk about flight attendants and firies, we can include not only men and women, but also people who do not identify with a particular gender.
BCA is gradually updating its publications to ensure, as far as possible, that our language does not intentionally exclude anyone. I think it is time people who are blind or vision impaired started to expect the same respect from the rest of the community. If we start to educate people, we can all join together to change the way they speak, and therefore think, about us.
I’m not saying we should treat sighted people as the enemy. I imagine most of you, like me, have sighted friends and family whose love and support are essential to us. We don’t want them to feel nervous or frightened they will upset us every time they open their mouths. But why should their feelings be more important than mine?
I recently explained to some friends how the phrase “eye-opener” makes me feel. One person could not see my problem. Another said they have never thought about it that way, but, at any rate, it was in common parlance. Another said she was sorry not to have realised how insensitive it was, and that she would try not to use it again, not just in my presence but at all. If people can abandon words and phrases that equate lack of sight with lack of capacity, perhaps they will start to consider us as employees, family members, friends and equal participants in society.
I am not saying I want BCA to throw away years of hard work and suddenly become some strident campaigner for politically correct language. I believe there is a place in it for members who want to identify and discuss ableist language, behaviour, and attitudes. We have recently had discussions about the ways in which our blindness or vision impairment can impact our mental health, and about how we can be affected by the judgements of other people in our community. I believe BCA is mature enough to conduct a nuanced investigation of ableism as it affects people who are blind or vision impaired.
The next time someone uses a phrase that makes you feel uncomfortable or starts asking you questions you feel they would not ask a sighted person, ask yourself whether the squeamish reaction you are feeling is because of your own inadequacies or because of the other person’s belief that able-bodied people are superior. Unfortunately, many of us have been treated this way so often we believe that’s actually true. We may have internalised the ableism, and it can take years of hard psychological work to reach a place where we truly feel, rather than just say, that we are as good as anyone else.
When someone else’s actions make you feel that you’re not, try challenging them about their attitudes. This can be exhausting and unrewarding. Even if you decide to say nothing, whether because you do not like confrontation or because today is just not the right day for you, acknowledge to yourself that you are experiencing ableism and that you are entitled to feel the way you feel about it. You might feel hurt, ashamed, rejected or angry and there is nothing wrong with that. If we persist in making it our role to put the non-disabled person at ease, we also have to persist in telling ourselves that we would only deserve to be treated with respect if we were a better blind person, or not blind at all. The result is that our voice is silenced. I believe if we are more honest about how ableism makes us feel, if we identify and describe it for each other, we will grow in our ability to confront it, and hopefully reduce its impact on all of our lives.