My Blindness Philosophy is Better than Yours

Should a blind person use their disability to take advantage of social perks?

I briefly touched on the following story elsewhere in these pages. It has bearing on the current point though, so hang in there for a moment.

Back in college I was once traveling with a fellow blind friend on Greyhound. We happened to arrive at the gate before anyone else, but because my traveling companion was, probably still is, an ultra independent blind person, they refused to board the bus first. The bus driver was confused. Why would this person want to let other passengers skip ahead when we'd beaten everyone else to the gate? The bus driver couldn't understand my companion was refusing to get on the bus ahead of everyone else on principle. Allowing persons with disabilities to skip ahead in line is just something society expects, and my companion, following their own philosophy of independence, was not going to feed into that presumptive notion.

I have always wondered about the rationale to this way of thinking. What is it about using certain social perks directly linked to disabilities that inspire such delicate feelings of inferiority?

Perhaps we are afraid to look inept by jumping to the front of a line. That speaks to perception, and just as laws do not change minds overnight, your position in line is not likely to automatically make someone think you are any more or less capable by standing ahead or behind. Do we really believe standing in the middle of the crowd will somehow make us more a part of the people? Will that translate to making us more approachable? More datable? More employable? Your subsequent words and actions after getting in line are more likely to have an influence over someone's opinion of you as a blind individual. Making a scene to be treated as an equal does not create equality. It creates a spectacle.

Perhaps taking advantage of such social perks makes us feel less independent. That, to me, sounds like an internal conflict. It puts me in mind of Eleanor Roosevelt's admonition that "no one can make you feel inferior without your consent". This feeling of inadequacy is frustrating because we have a terrible habit of measuring our independence and abilities against an elusive yard stick. Are we more or less independent compared to the old guy next door who's been blind all his life? Are we more or less independent than the young woman up the street who just lost her sight? How much should we factor in independent living training, and to what extent do we make allowances for different disabilities and their severity?

Perhaps we feel there are people more deserving of these societal perks. Blindness does not seem as terrible as those mental or physical disabilities that hamper fine motor skills. It's a noble thought, but there's a slippery slope of disability hierarchy at play here. How is the general public supposed to leverage certain perks for some disabilities over others? How do we ourselves get away from feeling superior over other people with more acute, or visible, disabilities? We would love to think we are immune to such segregation tendencies, but the blindness community already divides itself according to how much a person can see. And in the end, none of it changes how the public perceives us. To their way of thinking, blind is still blind.

I don't know that "social perks" is the best label for the courteous gestures afforded to persons with disabilities. A perk would suggest there is a reward to be earned for having an impairment, but "privilege" sounded too much like entitlement and the word "accommodation" itself sounds too clinical. If you have a better substitute, please leave it in the Comments.

Regardless, I highlight the use of the word "perk" to draw a distinction between what is generally considered optional versus something that could be seen as a requirement. I am a blind person who happens to use a Seeing Eye dog. Does that make it right for an airline to force me to sit in the bulkhead row? Absolutely not. If I leave the dog at home and take the cane, should the flight attendant take the cane away and return it only after we land? Of course not. Does it mean I should be required to sit and wait while everyone else gets off the airplane until someone can assist me off the aircraft? Never.

There is a difference between a gesture that is seen as courtesy to customers with disabilities and a policy that dictates certain procedures based on those disabilities. The first approach could easily be taken as an attempt to make a person's life a little easier. I generally embrace attempts to help our peers. Yet the second is nothing more than a presumption of what the person needs to be able to function, and no employee handbook should ever pretend to understand all the needs and nuances associated with the vast array of disabilities out there.

However, even more disheartening than misguided company policies, is the judgment the blindness community renders over its own members. Is a blind person not good enough if they choose to seek assistance to get to an airport gate? Are they less of a competent traveler if they opt for a dog over a cane? Are they less capable if they choose to take sighted guide to get around a crowded restaurant? Sighted people are able to ask for help and view this as being efficient. If blind people ask for help though, it could be viewed as dependency. It's astounding for me to witness a certain condescension exercised over blind individuals who do not practice independence down to the letter of someone else's philosophy.

Worse, these condescending views conveniently ignore those accommodations offered to blind persons on the sole basis of their blindness. If we were going to be purists about it all, we should stop giving blind students extra time to complete school exams, because equal participation means equal competition. We should eradicate free or severely discounted access to books via services like the National Library Service and Bookshare, because blind people ought to be able to purchase and scan their own print material the same as anyone else. We should eliminate the Randolph-Sheppard program, because Randolph-Sheppard creates an unfair advantage for blind merchants on federal properties.

These examples serve to highlight the uniqueness of the situation. I do not believe, nor do I advocate, that we cease those accommodations and special programs, but we cannot possibly claim special privilege in some areas and turn our noses up to others. More to the point, we should not turn up our noses at anyone who chooses to make use of those perks.

So, where does this leave us? Well, that's just it. I don't know where it leaves you, because ultimately what works for you may not work for me and vice versa. I can tell you my independence is not threatened by asking for assistance to get from a ticket counter to an airport gate. I am not above preboarding to get a little more time to get the luggage stored and the guide dog settled, especially on Southwest Airline where there is no assigned seating. On the rare occasion when an amusement park offers a special pass to move quicker through the line, I just might take the special pass if my group can come along, and if a concert venue provides a disability section with better seating, I just might take the offer if my companions can join me.

My reasons for accepting social perks are twofold:

First, to a degree, it's about leveling the field. My friends growing up never had to worry about waiting a week or more to get a book they could enjoy from the library. Most of them will never have to buy a house according to proximity to public transit, and their jobs will rarely be affected by the accessibility of their computer software. To my way of thinking, there's a certain balance to life, and my preboarding an aircraft is hardly disruptive to people around me when my smooth day requires extra steps sighted people take for granted. I say "to a degree" because it would be dangerous to fall into a tit for tat existence where every inconvenience resulting from blindness should demand a mitigating incentive.

Second, it's about efficiency. Am I capable of independently going up and down escalators, boarding subways and navigating extended concourses to find an airport gate in a sprawling airport? Absolutely. It took time for me to develop the confidence to do so, but now that I possess it, I understand confidence is as much about doing a thing as it is about choosing when not to do a thing. As a blind person, moving to and from work can be a daily adventure. Why should I persist in proving my independence to myself on something supposedly relaxing like a vacation? I feel as though the real challenge here is understanding when you're accepting help because you're afraid to do a thing and when you're accepting help because you want a break from solving puzzles.

It's time we stop attempting to live someone else's philosophy and go about the business of enjoying our own. For a time I would cringe at the poor blind person who would stumble about in public quite literally yelling for help. I felt the impression they made would reflect poorly on me, because it's only natural for a sighted person's general views on blindness to be shaped by their encounter with a single blind individual.

If I care enough about the impression less capable people are leaving, perhaps I would do well to spend time teaching them how to become a more confident person. I should do it out of a sense of responsibility to that person's well-being, not the public's perception, because the general public is a fickle beast anyway. In some ways we never really grow out of the high school mentality. We will always find fault in the face of perfection.

By the same token, if my sense of independence is ever threatened by another blind person, I should figure out what is triggering the envy. Clearly I am worried enough about some deficiency to allow someone to shake my foundation. It might even be a good idea to get that person to teach me how they do whatever it is they're doing to make me jealous, and if they refuse, then they're probably a pretentious donkey who might be able to cross a street but can't flip a burger. Everyone has weaknesses.

Ultimately, when you hit your point of comfort, stick to it. It's not that your philosophy on life and independence can't evolve with time, but as it does, be sure you are making adjustments according to what resonates with you and not someone else. After all, your blindness philosophy is better than mine, and I'm okay with that!

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