I’m Too Often a Zoo Animal

I’m too often a zoo animal, and I don’t believe in zoos.

I’m too often a zoo animal because blind people are needlessly, regularly excluded from society. Here are some examples of what I mean when I say blind people are needlessly, regularly excluded from society.

Politics

  • I have been following politics since 1988. I have never heard a debate question asked about people with disabilities.
  • I have never been to a political event that wasn’t specifically about disability where a question about disability was asked.
  • I have never been to a political event that was accessible to me as a blind person.
  • I’m not aware of a single Congressional office ever having on staff someone who focused on accessibility and outreach to the disability community.
  • In recent years, some campaigns have published platforms on disability. Betto O’Rourke, who has a sister with a disability, is the only candidate I have ever heard mention his platform for people with disabilities at an event having nothing to do with disability.

Books, Movies, and Television

  • People with disabilities are rarely portrayed in books, movies, or on television.
  • Blind people are portrayed even less than are people with mobility disabilities.
  • Almost every time a person with a disability appears in a book, movie, or television show, their character has been created by someone without a disability.
  • In movies and on television, people with disabilities rarely play characters with disabilities.
  • All of this leads to characters with disabilities almost always being caricatures of disability and portraying stereotypes accepted by too many without disabilities.

The Working World

  • Roughly 70 percent of blind people are unemployed.
  • People with disabilities are significantly unemployed when compared to people without disabilities.
  • Many people with disabilities are under employed or they work in the disability field. While there is certainly nothing wrong with working in the disability field, society must evolve to the point where people with disabilities are working in all fields and at every level.
  • I’m not aware of a person with a visible disability running a major corporation.
  • People with visible disabilities are almost never in management positions.
  • People with visible disabilities are almost never on boards of directors.

My Life

  • From the time I started first grade in Winchester, Massachusetts to the time I graduated from high school, I was always the only blind person in my school.
  • I believe I was always the only person with a visible disability too.
  • No one in my family is blind.
  • I never had a blind teacher or professor.
  • I don’t believe any of my teachers or professors had visible disabilities..
  • When I was in law school, I was the only blind person.
  • When I worked for the American Bar Association, I was its only blind employee.
  • As far as anyone can tell, I’m the only blind person to ever work for the city of Portland, Oregon.
  • Portland has a workforce of roughly six thousand. I believe five of us have visible disabilities.

Summing this up

I shared the above because I have spent far too much of my life being a zoo animal. Rarely, have I been in situations with even one other person who navigates the world quite like I navigate the world. Rarely, have I been in situations where I felt truly included. Rarely, have I been in situations where I felt like anyone saw the strengths in me I have learned to see in myself. Rarely, have I been in situations where the obvious difference of blindness that exists between me an almost everyone else has been seen as even okay. Rarely have I been in situations where I felt like others saw me as someone who is much more than my blindness. Rarely, have I been in situations where I felt like I could be myself without the fear of others using their assumptions to judge me in ways I know I shouldn’t be judged. Rarely, have I been in situations where I didn’t feel like I had to be an ambassador for all blind people and blindness.

After reading that, you may believe I’m disappointed in my life. Maybe you think I’m unhappy. Those, too, would be wrong assumptions.

There are times when I’m incredibly frustrated. There are times when the pain is hard to face. There are times when I yearn to be better understood. There are times when I long to simply blend in to my surroundings. There are times when I wish many conversations didn’t begin with someone asking about a guide dog, asking if I need help, or otherwise wondering about blindness. There are times when knowing I will have to ask for accommodations keeps me from doing things I want to do.

There are times when I’m glad my perspective is unique. There are times when I appreciate the strength discrimination and a lack of accessibility has built in me. There are times I want to educate others about the differences I bring. There are times I am thrilled to be freed from the burdens sometimes associated with trying to be largely accepted.

I’m glad I’m blind. I wouldn’t choose sight if choosing sight was a choice. Even though I’m aware of my weaknesses and most of the work I should be doing, I like who I am and who I will work to become.

But I don’t want to be a zoo animal most of the time. I want society to start embracing its responsibilities under the law. I wish more people felt a moral responsibility to build a world around universal design. I hope to someday feel like more people see the me few have ever seen.

But I can’t will those things to happen. So, I hope some of you will learn from this that you can do more to make society more inclusive of people with disabilities. The more you do, the less I will feel like a zoo animal when I must regularly educate.

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