For the month of July, I mentored a high school student interested in a job in the field of accessibility. While I really enjoyed the experience, I found myself regularly thinking about the lack of mentors for blind children. As someone who was born blind, this is a topic I have been thinking about for nearly my entire life.
Yesterday, the program through the Oregon Commission for the Blind that matched me with the student ended for the summer with a ceremony. Of the professionals providing a young blind student a chance to get work experience, I was the only one who was blind. Of the roughly 10 job coaches working with the blind students in their work experiences, I believe only one was blind.
As a child, I knew very few blind adults who worked. All of the instructors who taught me how to live as a blind person were sighted. Speaking from personal experience, I can say the lack of blind mentors does more to reinforce the idea that blind people will have difficulty working, succeeding, and raising families than maybe all of the sighted people in the field of blindness “rehabilitation” understand.
Something to Understand
Before continuing my thoughts, I need to share a story. Before considering the thoughts under the next heading, please read and really think about what is in this section.
At the program’s completion, I’m required to submit a form describing my experiences with the student I mentored. As I write this, I haven’t submitted the form because the form I was given by the Oregon Commission for the Blind is inaccessible to me as a blind person. Sure, I could guess where the different pieces of information are to be entered, but I–because I’m blind–am the only person required to complete the form who must guess as to where the different pieces of information should be placed.
The sighted people working for the agency dedicated to helping, in this case, children learn to adapt to the world as blind people sent me a form inaccessible to me as a blind person. Worse, they had no idea that the form was inaccessible or how to make it accessible.
Sadly, the experience demonstrated that sighted people who have been trained to teach blind people to navigate a world inaccessible to them, sighted people who are paid to help blind people learn to navigate a world inaccessible to them, don’t have basic knowledge of what is or isn’t accessible.
Continuing Wider Thoughts
From the time we are young, the sighted people teaching us frame our experiences, challenges, and even our future prospects as obstacles and possibilities. They reinforce the idea that blindness, not rampant discrimination, is the problem we must overcome.
As an adult who has graduated from law school and found employment as a blind person, I know the problems I face aren’t the result of my blindness. I’m not inspirational for overcoming challenges to accomplish more than many blind people have. I’m not special because I have made something of my life in spite of blindness.
Sadly, I’m unique because I haven’t allowed rampant discrimination and oppression to beat me. I’m different because I know what could make me inspirational is the reality that I understand how little respect most sighted people actually have for me–and I don’t care about letting them know I know how little respect for me they have.
Before you consider me angry and dismiss me as being radical and/or unreasonable remind yourself of the inaccessible form the state agency for the blind wants me to complete about my experiences mentoring a blind student.
I don’t doubt that that many sighted people in the field of blindness “rehabilitation” mean well. But the truth is blind people can’t achieve in a sighted world until they understand how oppressive the sighted world is to them. They must accept that sighted people will try and force them to be inspirational whenever they accomplish anything because sighted people, as the majority, need us to be inspirational. Our inspiring them by overcoming something they fear absolves them from the responsibility of considering how their implicit and explicit biases against us and their intentional or unintentional discrimination against us are the real barriers robbing us of our futures by too often snuffing out our potential.
Concluding Personal Thoughts
It hurt my heart to write this post. I wish I didn’t believe what I have written. I wish I didn’t know how few people in my life truly believe in me and see me as their equal. I wish I didn’t know the futures of those nine students are bleak because sighted society will make just about everything unnecessarily hard for all of those children.
I wrote this post not to shame people or to make people feel guilty. I’m truly hopeful that someone somewhere will read it and consider how they can change their views and what actions they can take to make the world a more accessible, inclusive place.
Sadly, I’m afraid this post will be dismissed by most of those who read it as the rantings of an angry, resentful person. So let me say that I’m not angry or resentful. It’s only that I’m feeling happier and better about things than I have maybe ever felt that encouraged me to take this risk.
The truth is I don’t want to see sighted society and most sighted people as oppressive. I don’t want to feel the pain of near constant discrimination.
But I’m done being silent about reality. I owe it to all the blind children feeling alone, misunderstood, and too often hopeless to speak the truth.
Successful blind people inspire me as a blind person because I know all the shame and humiliation the sighted world has forced them to endure to become successful. They inspire me because I can relate to the fear of failure when you know you must regularly prove yourself to almost everyone around you. I know how much it hurts to know most of your mistakes are seen as reflections of your imagined incompetence–not merely simple mistakes.
I know how alone you feel when you realize very few people will ever let you be yourself without judging you for not doing things as they believe they should be done.
Thankfully, I now also know the freedom of deciding to live as I want as often as I can regardless of what anyone thinks.
I’m just beginning to consider the consequences of refusing as often as possible to conform to a world bent on oppressing me and unwilling to accept my unwillingness to conform to its expectations for me.