As a young woman with a passion for – amongst other things – make up, fashion and all things aesthetic, the all too frequent exclamation: “But… You don’t look blind!” has graced my ears on more than a few occasions. Although the incidence of this preposterous, narrow-minded (what feels like) accusation has decreased dramatically over the past couple of years – this can probably be attributed to my inability to focus or control my eyes any longer – its prevalence hasn’t faded altogether. This statement, along with a plethora of others such as, “You can’t be blind if you do your own make up.” and, “You’re not blind – you don’t wear sunglasses.” frustrate me beyond belief, and are therefore the inspiration behind today’s post – is there a right way to be blind? And, if so, am I wrong? Does the validity of my existence depend entirely on ableist perceptions, systematic stereotypes and media-perpetuated misconceptions? Then, if I am defined by these things, are the idiosyncrasies belonging to millions of other disabled individuals worldwide also discounted? Are we nothing more than our various illnesses, impairments or conditions?
On television, in newspapers and even in literature, blind people are portrayed in one of two ways – there is either the classic, grumpy old man wearing dark glasses, ill-fitting, mismatched clothing and slamming his cane angrily down onto the floor every two seconds, or the – slightly more modern – badass superhero with vastly overdeveloped senses (case in point: Daredevil) which more than compensate for their vision loss (because obviously a pre-requisite for being blind is unmatched talent!). Unfortunately, neither of these depictions fall even remotely close to reality; we can cook, clean, raise children, shop, study, work and even – now you might want to sit down for this one, it’s truly shocking – travel independently. We cannot, however, identify you by smell – unless you haven’t showered in a few weeks, that is – engage in extreme parkour without training or shoot lasers from our eyes, no matter how cool that would be.
For anyone with a disability, actively educating members of the public is essentially part and parcel of the deal; almost every day we educate, equivocate and emancipate on behalf of our community, just like millions of women, ethnic minorities and LGBTQ+ people do for theirs. Similarly to every oppressed group, the disability community as a whole strives for equality, inclusivity and diversity: we are so, so much more than our blindness, our deafness, our crutches or our wheelchairs; we are more than our invisible illnesses, more than our service animals, more than our walkers and talkers and canes.
That being said, however, our disabilities are a huge part of our day-to-day lives, and it’s okay to acknowledge that. Don’t tiptoe around us just because we can’t see or hear or walk or talk or a combination of those (or perhaps other thing(s) entirely). There absolutely is not a ‘right’ way to be blind (or disabled in general): you wouldn’t expect every abled person to be exactly the same, so why are you surprised by discrepancies between people in minority groups, whether that is – as we’re discussing today – those with disabilities, or whether it’s ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ humans or anyone else who doesn’t see themselves constantly represented everywhere?
I suppose this post was borne out of frustration and an almost visceral desire to be accepted – when people tell me that, ‘I don’t look blind’, not only do I feel ostracised by wider society, but as though I’m being separated from the visually impaired community, too. The vast majority of people may think that this is a compliment, that I would be happy to hear how well I ‘pass’ for someone who isn’t disabled, but that simply isn’t the reality. When one person tells another that they ‘don’t look disabled’, they’re suggesting that looking disabled is inherently a negative thing, which is not only a complete falsehood, but also supports the widely subscribed to notion of disability itself being something horrendous, a fate to which even death is preferable (see this article). Now, although I still feel a small, flickering flame of irritation in my chest when I think about people trying to police how I express my blindness, it would appear that writing this has given me a little more clarity: if one seeks to educate, it is so, so important to be calm, coherent and persuasive as opposed to defensive, brittle and angry, no matter how ignorant one’s opponent is (this is, of course, different in emotionally, physically or sexually abusive situations, from which it is absolutely necessary to escape if or when possible).
Whether you’re a young boy who enjoys studying Computer Science at school, a person in their thirties with a love of cats or – like me – a young woman with a passion for – amongst other things – make up, fashion and all things aesthetic, there are no rules to which you must adhere regarding the presentation of your blindness (or other disability). You are necessary; you are autonomous; you deserve better than to feel segregated and ashamed and confused. You deserve to feel beautiful, you deserve to own your disability; you deserve to do that in whatever way makes you happy, and if people can’t accept that then they’re not worthy of your time, energy or emotional distress – that’s all there is to it.
Thank you always,