Ableism is a difficult beast for me to try and tackle, because frankly, it’s one that I easily fall into myself. One of my most difficult habits to conquer is my tendency to express my disappointment in something gone wrong by calling it “lame.” The fact is, ableism is probably the most socially accepted form of prejudice, because ableist language and behavior is so intrinsically built in to our culture.
Still, as I become more aware of ableism against myself that I’d always ignored or excused, I’ve started to become more aware of ableism as a whole. Now I am, in most ways, an able-bodied person, so I obviously cannot speak for PWDs (people with disabilities) as a whole. But I can share my own stories, and hope that maybe it gives a little insight to how ableism can be far more insidious than most people realize. So right now, I’m going to talk about my vision.
I’ve spoken to many people about one of my biggest pet peeves: People who wear glasses without lenses. So, you think glasses look cool, but you don’t need them because you have 20/20 vision? Cool. Appreciate them on people who do need to wear them. Do not appropriate the tools of my disability to make a fashion statement.
Many people have visual problems that require them to wear glasses, and most I know are at least irked by this trend. It’s insulting, even if you can’t quite pinpoint why. For those of us who are actually stuck with disabilities that prevent us from tossing our aids in a corner when we’re bored and going about our lives without them, it’s insulting to watch able-bodied people pick them up and put them back as they please. These are not fashion statements; they are tools that we make as fun and cute as possible to make up for the fact that we roll out of bed in the morning unable to see beyond our noses until we plunk them on and go about our days hopefully–if we’re lucky–now corrected to your level of basic human ability.
But hey, not all of us are even that lucky. This would be my very personal example: I am legally blind from strabismic amblyopia. I’m glad that the impact this has had on my life is relatively minimal, but it’s certainly not nonexistent. I can’t get a driver’s license without a medical waiver. I can’t read street signs until it’s too late to turn. I can’t read small-print books, and all but large-print give me migraines from eyestrain. But still, I’m very functional.
On top of my “invisible disability,” I’m also farsighted. While my right eye can be corrected to nearly normal, my left is pretty much a lost cause. I have a stronger left prescription, as I’m more farsighted in that eye, but as it’s also the one virtually lost to amblyopia, it’s almost a futile effort. To give you an idea of my vision, picture a road, as a normally-sighted person would see it while driving:
Now, here is how that road appears through my right eye, with glasses:
It’s a little fuzzier, and the tint is different. (I have a mild, odd sort of colorblindness–my right eye sees things with a yellow tint, my left with a pink tint.) Now, here’s how that road appears through my left eye, with glasses:
Except…worse. Because my photoshop skills just aren’t good enough to design a gif with completely black splotches floating over the image, blocking out whole sections of the picture, only ever allowing you to see a fraction of the road at any one time. Oh, and I also have limited right peripheral vision, and virtually none to my left. I have to make sure I cover all my problems, here.
Why am I detailing this so much? Well, several reasons, all of them fucking insulting:
1) I have had people tell me that I do not have strabismus. “But you don’t have a lazy eye; they’re both looking right at me!” No. First, not all cases of strabismus involve a constantly turned eye. Intermittent strabismus is not always visible; sometimes the turned eye looks completely normal. Here is a photograph of me when I was 3 and a half:
Totally normal-looking child, right? Well here was me just a short time later:
It’s one of the few photos in existence that displays my disability. Digital cameras weren’t around when I was a child, and film was expensive, so photos were not very common. Usually, they were only snapped after, “Say cheese!” when I’d have the opportunity to subconsciously focus my vision, and bring my eyes straight. Only when relaxed (as the second, candid photo demonstrates) did my eye appear crooked.
Second, childhood strabismus can be cosmetically corrected–that is, it will no longer be visible in an adult–though the effects of it (amblyopia) may not be repaired at all. My eye no longer travels, because I trained the musculature of my eye through years of patch-therapy. So I now have the ability to keep my eye straight even when relaxed, but the underlying cause was not fixed, because it was not caught until I was too old to repair much of the damage.
2) People constantly assume that because I wear glasses, my vision is corrected to 20/20. Glasses cannot correct all vision problems. There are no visual apparatuses that can correct strabismic amblyopia; this is simply something I will have to live with for the rest of my life. I accept this, and mostly it doesn’t bother me anymore…until someone challenges it, claims I’m “faking” my disability, or that it can’t be as serious as it is, because I’m generally very high-functioning. Never, ever tell someone that they are “faking” an invisible disability just because of your faulty assumptions. You cannot know what is going on inside of their body, and it is absolutely not your place to tell someone else that you know more about their body than they do. You’d be wrong.
3) I have had people tell me that they wish they’d had to wear an eye patch. This is offensive for the same reason normally-visioned people wearing glasses is offensive, though these folks tend to take it a step further, and make it even more hurtful. No, wearing an eye patch wasn’t like being a super-cool child pirate. It made my life a living hell. Aside from all the teasing (as one would expect), there was also the constant embarrassment of being forced to function with a nearly blind eye so I could have a tiny glimmer of hope at making it function. I stood inches from the blackboard in school to try and read what teachers had written. I ran into furniture, walls, doors. I got booed off the baseball diamond in gym class because I simply couldn’t see the ball. I watched small children hide behind their mothers when they saw me in public, crying in horror about why I only had one eye.
But most importantly, that eye patch was not about fun for me because it was a constant physical reminder of my abnormality, of my body’s failure to simply function. It made me feel broken, useless, sub-par. No, I did not revel in it. No, it did not make me feel unique and special. No, it was not fun. At all. Just because you think it’s fun to tool around Wal-Mart in a wheelchair doesn’t mean you’d enjoy it if you weren’t able to get up and walk out when you’re done. Do not tell someone with a disability that you envy their gear. It’s not just rude, it’s cruel.
4. I have had people mock me for not being able to see normally. It’s completely socially acceptable for people to laugh at me, deride me, insult me if I don’t see the road I needed to turn onto, or if I can’t find an item I’m looking for on a store shelf when it’s right in front of me. I don’t find this funny. I’ve honestly been driven to tears by my inability to see things when I need to. It’s not funny. If I want to laugh at myself, that’s my right; that right does not extend to others. You do not mock someone’s disability, period.
In the end, the most important thing for anyone to remember is how to respect others. I don’t believe that most people do the things I’ve listed because they’re trying to be purposefully cruel, but rather because they’re ignorant to how hurtful they really are being. So first and foremost, in ableism as with any other prejudice, remember that when someone tells you they are hurt or offended by something you are saying or doing, try to examine how you may be unintentionally allowing your privilege to affect your behavior. Able-bodied privilege is a very real thing, and it’s something I am becoming more and more likely to call out.