Monday, February 11, 2013

When People Tell Me Ableism Doesn't Exist

I don't consider my disability a major part of my life. It's just a Thing. It's a thing that changes how I go about my life, but not the quality of life itself. I live an exceedingly normal life - I have friends, I go to movies, I take improv classes sometimes, I live in New York and take the subway and do all the things people my age do. Most of the time, I forget that I even have a disability. Yes, some tasks are different for me (I use magnification on my laptop, I walk with a cane) but those things don't make life for me any different than life for another 21-year-old.

Except in how others react to me.

I've talked occasionally about my frustrations with ableism and stereotypes and misleading points of view. I've talked about how it makes me crazy when people assume I need help crossing the street (true story - blind people often cross streets more safely than sighted people, because we pay extra attention). It rubs me the wrong way when people's first questions about me are about my disability and not me as a person. And the worst - I loathe when people invade my personal space (touching me, grabbing me) because they want to "help" without my permission.

These are all forms of ableism, whether people like to think of it that way or not. It might all be well meaning, but the underlying assumption is that a disabled person (in my case, a blind person) cannot do normal things on their own or that they ARE their disability and not real people.

Recently, someone told me that ableism doesn't exist.  That all of these things I mention are well-meaning. That they aren't really ableist at all and that I am overreacting to them.

But even well-meaning people can be ableist.  And if these little actions aren't enough to prove that, then hopefully this will be.

This is a story I haven't shared in a long time, mostly because I was bitter, angry, and still raw from it, despite it happening when I was sixteen.  I won't name the people involved, even though I should because all of them should be held accountable for thier attitudes towards me and other disabled students. Because the horrible thing is, the people i"m about to discuss actually worked at a school for the blind. Their JOBS were to work with kids with disabilities, and while they may have been well-meaning, they were horrible perpetrators of ableism.

A little background:
I went to mainstream schools from the day I started kindergarten, and despite having a school system that wasn't always great at getting me the assistive technology I needed, I was happy there. I thrived, even. I always had great grades and did all the same school work as my peers.  But in high school, it dawned on me that I needed some training in mobility (i. e. I needed to learn to use a cane) so I started going to the closest school for the blind to take "short courses" - basically, I'd go there, stay in a dorm for two weeks, do all of my normal school work with a few tutors, and get trained in cane techniques and city travel (I'm from a small town with no bus system, so that was something I had to learn to do, too.)

I enjoyed short course a lot, even though I missed my high school. What I didn't enjoy were the attitudes of some of the administration I worked with. Not everyone - my mobility teacher was excellent, I adored my dorm parents, I had a great time with two of my three short course tutors (who were teachers, actually).  But this affection doesn't extend to everyone at the school for the blind.

It should be known that I have always been extremely ambitious. I've known since I was eight that I wanted to leave my hometown and go to school far away. I've known I wanted to be a writer (or an actor, either one) since I was nine. I've had big dreams for myself, and I saw no reason why I shouldn't chase them. I had good grades, I was focused, I was motivated - I didn't think twice about my disability even playing a factor. Because it doesn't. It shouldn't. Not in chasing goals. (You know, unless your goal is to be a NASCAR driver - that might have been hard with my vision, but I digress.)

While I was at the school, I mentioned to one of my short course teachers that I wanted to go to Ithaca College (I was a junior and already researching places to apply).  Her reaction was not what I'd expected. Immediately she started telling me to be more "realistic."  She wanted me to apply in-state. She knew I had a high GPA and that I had good ACT scores, but my dream was "unrealistic." Not my dream of going into an artistic field, just of going to college where I wanted to.

Later, she suggested I should have a meeting with the guidance counselor at school, just to discuss my future. Why not? So I talked with him, and he spent the whole meeting telling me why I shouldn't go away to college. He brought up my parents finances (something he knew NOTHING about) and then told me I should stay in state because I'd get more support from the Office for the Blind (a government entity that helps blind individuals in the sate of KY). He acted like I was utterly ridiculous for even considering attending at highly ranked private school that - in actuality - I was extremely likely to be accepted to based on my academics.

During that particular stent of short course, I'd also been considering transferring to the school for the blind in order to get the best mobility training I could (it hadn't been offered at my school). So I'd had a meeting with the short course teacher who had discouraged me, the guidance counselor, and the principal. Long story short, they spent the whole meeting telling me I "couldn't" go  away to college and that I needed to be more "realistic."

I left the office sobbing, convinced they were right.

Thank God for the dorm parent I had at the time. She saw me sobbing, pulled me into her room, and listened to what had happened. She gave me great advice which ultimately amounted to "don't listen to those people."  So I didn't.

Later, I learned a lot about the guidance counselor at the school for the blind. I wasn't the first one to have that situation. He'd told a class valedictorian that he "couldn't handle college." He suggested to another student that he'd be better off working on his parents farm than going to school. Disclaimer: these things were all heard second hand, but based on my experience, I have little doubt as t their validity.

When I got back to my public school, my guidance counselor asked me to come see her. She informed me that the counselor for school for the blind had called her and told her she "had to tell me" that I couldn't go to the colleges I wanted. When she'd told him she wouldn't do that, he'd yelled at her and hung up the phone. He'd also called my Office for the Blind counselor (who legally cannot give him information on me without my consent) and tried to ask her questions about my situation and encourage her to do the same (re: discourage me.)

There are a lot of questions as to why the people at this school - whose whole purpose is to HELP kids with disabilities - would act this way to a student.  Would a guidance counselor at a public school tell a student with a 3.5 GPA they shouldn't apply to a good (but not Ivy League) college? Tell them they couldn't "handle" it? Tell them to stay close to home? I have my doubts. In the case of these individuals, they should have been helping to ENCOURAGE and BETTER and BUILD THE CONFIDENCE of students who have probably been told they "can't" all their lives.

But that's not what they were doing.

I like to believe the best in people, so I'm going to say that the people I dealt with meant well. I think they genuinely believed it was in my best interest to stay in Kentucky, close to my family, and attend a public school I might be able to "handle" better.  I'm sure they thought they were looking out for the blind kids they worked with.  But instead, they were just bringing them down.

That is ableism. True, horrible, real ableism. Well meant? Maybe. But it comes from a place of believing these kids aren't capable of doing the things most people their age do.

I never went back to the school for the blind after that. Instead, my school got me a mobility teacher, and I learned all the things I needed to about traveling in a city by visiting nearby cities. And I did apply to Ithaca, where I was accepted.  I went for two years. Then I moved to New York City. And now I"m a writer, doing what I've always dreamed of.

And you know what? None of that has anything to do with my disability. I didn't overcome anything. I didn't do anything "inspirational." I just did what I loved, went to a college I wanted, and moved to a city far away from home where I am very happy.

Believe me, it's crossed my mind - wanting to go back to the school for the blind and show the administration there just what I've been up to despite their greatest attempts to "help" me. But I don't think most of the people involved even work there anymore. Which is for the best. I don't want to see them, really. I think it would be too upsetting.

So why am I sharing this very, very long story with you? Because I needed to tell it, for one. I needed to expose these attitudes once and for all. And for another, because ableism - well meaning or not - is ableism none the less. Just as well-meaning people can do and say racist things or anti-feminist things. Good people do ableist things, and that's not excuse. Because whether it's telling someone they're dreams are "unrealistic" due to thier disability or assuming you should "help" a person with a disability when they haven't asked or calling a disabled person "inspirational" for doing the things everyone else does - it all comes from the same problematic mind set - that people who have disabilities are not equal to the rest of the world, they are less capable.

I hate this mindset. I deal with this mindset on a daily basis. Which is why I waited so long to even talk about being blind on this blog - I didn't want anyone to see me any differently because I just can't see as well. But sadly, some people do. Some people see the disability, not the person, and that makes me sad. Sad and angry.

Ableism exists, and while it's a problem most people will never face, it's still a problem our society as a whole really needs to address.


Cassi Haggard said...

I drive by that school often and this makes me want to go shout at someone. Glad you didn't listen. Glad that people couldn't "help" you out of your dreams.

Gabrielle Prendergast said...

I definitely think there is "ableism" and I think the people at that school clearly had pockets of stale air instead of brains. But I wanted to add that I have had almost nothing but bad experiences with guidance counsellors. From the ones who discouraged me from going to fashion school because it was "expensive" (how did they know what I could afford) to the one I heard of who encouraged a girl with an interest in agriculture to "marry a farmer", to the one, when asked for applicants for a intern position at a nearby travel program organisation said 'our students can't afford your programs' (uh, we wanted to GIVE them a job not sell them a program). This causes me to conclude: those who can, do. Those who can't teach. Those who can't teach, teach gym and those who can't teach gym are guidance counsellors.

jessiedevine said...

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itsamoosemedia said...

Ugh! I'd be pissed at them too! Their attempts to keep you from going to IC just boggles my mind. And makes me want to punch them. Mostly the latter. I'm very glad you didn't listen to them!

(this is Becca :) )

Leonora said...

Hi Kody! I am blind too, and I have had a fair share of ableist teachers. I know what you mean. It's quite sad that people do not see the person. I am aspiring to be a writer one day, and would be very put off if people dwouldn't see the person instead of the disability. I think it was good of you to tell this story though. It informs people how hurtful it can be when someone has an ableist behavior! Thank you for being the wonderful person and writer you are! Regardless of any disability.

Anonymous said...

I can so relate (sadly). I have a learning disability and went to a special high school for it. I did great, I too thrived. My guidance counselor told me to look at 2 year schools bc it might be easier for me. I like you was adament that I go to a 4 year school, a good school. I ended up looking at a bunch of schools far away from home. At one of them I met with the head of the LD program. I told her I wanted to major in English/be an editor. She then told me English was a stupid major, being an editor was dumb/pointless/no one read anymore & went on &on. So I shut up. I stopped answering her questions. My mom & dad had to answer for me in the room. She then said "well you're not answering my Q's...I guess you're not ready for college. you should go to a comm college or do a year off because you're just not ready." My mom later called the college to complain abt this woman (HEAD OF DISABILITY!! wtf!!!) and the woman denied it and said my mom was making it up! *shakes head* The point is...there is DEFINITELY ableism even for disabilities that can't be physically seen.... It makes me so mad that people discourage like that

JoSVolpe said...

Ugh, this upsets me in a way I don't feel I can appropriately express here on a blog comment.

In any case. I will sum it up in two words:

screw them.


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