When I was in college, I had one of those moments of revelation that impacted me for the rest of my life:
I was beating my way along a street with my white cane, when I heard the words, “Either you will overcome this disability or it will overcome you.” My decision was made in that instant.
For years, I understood that this had to do with blindness, but it is only more recently that I have caught the deeper meaning. Not seeing is simply a matter of methodology; having a solid identity as a whole person in the face of all the social struggle is quite another thing.
Experiences that insist I am less than a person come from all directions: Family members who avoid me to the point that they’ll get up and leave if I try to start a conversation with them; parents who don’t want me near their children because they’re afraid I’ll hurt them; admiration over normal life activities, such as getting up and dressed in the morning; people who don’t include me in casual conversation at a gathering; those who talk down to me in a voice that is much louder than necessary, or talk about me when I’m standing right there with them… Many are more subtle and less related to what others do: Being in a large group, unable to tell what is going on; having to ask for rides or help when “normal” people don’t have to do that…
The most important message is the one I give myself. Experiences can tell me one thing; what I believe is another. This requires that I get time away from circumstances for reminders. I really am the expert when it comes to me; what others think is secondary at best. I can tell when I need time away: I begin to feel the weight of being an “other.” I also become discouraged or upset at people; then I tend to “bite.”
Through the years, I have learned to guard the treasure that is me. I have resigned from being the “public educator” I have been told I am. Instead, I share the important parts of my life with people I come to trust. I am not out to change the world; only those individuals who matter to me. Some of the people, by the way, with whom I don’t share are family members who prove to be unsafe to me. They don’t want to know; I don’t try to inform. That may sound harsh; but instead, I find that I honor them when I refrain from trying to engage them.
So who am I? A person, woman, family member, friend, neighbor and citizen. I have a flourishing garden. I’m a musician. I love to go to coffee with friends…oh, and I can’t see. People who really want to know me are welcome. I’ll be courteous and respectful to the rest.
Others may have disabilities or conditions that can be hidden; mine is right out there for all to see. I don’t know that this makes much of a difference: They still wrestle with the same issues. My advice? Choose the truth that really fits you; after all, you’re the one who has to live with it. When you find yourself feeling weary, discouraged and sensitive, get some time away to regroup. You get to choose: Will you be a “public educator,” trying to teach and inform the world about your disability? Or will you share with those who are closest to you and leave the rest to learn as they are able?