First things first — thank you all so much for the incredibly kind responses to my guest post on Inside Out Style. The comments came from perfect strangers, long-time friends, role models like Angie> and bloggers I’ve long admired like Sal from Already Pretty. I value them all equally and can’t properly express how much it all means. For those who are new to my blog, I love fielding questions from my readers about pretty much anything blindness-related. If you’ve got some, please drop by the suggestion box and ask away!
Did you know that yesterday was special? I sure didn’t until I conducted my daily purge of the work inbox (Yeah, that’s how I roll on Saturdays ). I came across a handful of statements from various political entities all offering fulsome praise for something called International Day of Persons With Disabilities. That’s a special occasion alright — an occasion for me to vent my long-festering distaste for stuff just like this.
Hang on a sec. A blind woman who believes in equality and has devoted much of her efforts to achieving it for herself is foaming at the mouth because of an international initiative that aspires to give others the same shot? What’s going on? You may well ask, but the best you may get is a fumbling attempt to defend a position that could rightly be called selfish. In fact I have not the slightest issue with the UN’s stated aims in launching this so-called day. Raising awareness of the chronic underemployment and marginalization many disability groups face is about as praiseworthy goal as you can find, and the agency certainly grasps the severity of the problem. The vision, though vague, is above reproach:
Take Action: A major focus of the Day is practical action to mainstream disability in all aspects of development, as well as to further the participation
of persons with disabilities in social life and development on the basis of equality. Highlight progress and obstacles in implementing disability-sensitive
policies, as well as promote public awareness of barriers to the full inclusion of persons with disabilities in their societies.
It’s the way in which the vision is executed that draws forth my wrath. While the UN undoubtedly means for this day to kickstart a dialog that would last the year round, it’s lucky if it generates something resembling cocktail party chit-chat. More often than not, these 24-hour-long calls to action do nothing more than pay lip service to the concept, mirroring the treatment the target population receives during the other 364 days of the year. What good is a day of platitudes that simultaneously celebrates individual successes while stoking the fires of powerlessness with a litany of depressing facts and figures? There’s no fear-mongering, since the issues under discussion are very real and are likely under-reported, if anything. There’s just an ineffectual approach that leads to the sort of patronizing behaviour that characterizes so many dealings with the disabled, both individually and from the organizations that profess to help. The takeaway message from days like this is easily distilled from these mixed signals — “Oh dear, how horrible for them! They are so much less fortunate than most — let’s be extra nice and understanding.”
Such sentiments are well-meant, but unproductive. Kindness and understanding, while valuable, won’t be enough to bring about change — particularly if they only manifest themselves on arbitrary days of action and the weeks immediately proceeding them. In my view, those estimable personal qualities can only have some impact on the community if they are used in service of conversation. Not idol chatter, but genuine engagement that has the potential to peel back layers of preconception and even misunderstanding to reveal core issues. Those issues vary wildly, which is part of why I question the wisdom of a uniform approach to disability. Too often, people with disabilities are tarred with the same brush despite obvious differences in the needs they have, supports they want and challenges they face. the total absurdity of people raising their voice when they speak to me is just one example — last time I looked, the human eye can function (or not) independently of both the ear or the brain. I could have a condition that impacts all three, of course, but best to find out rather than to assume the worst.
Organizations that service the disabled are guilty of this, too. Although their mandate prevents them from losing focus after the sun has set on the official day of recognition, odds are long that they will offer the kind of support so many people require. These organizations have an uphill battle, to be sure, and can hardly be blamed for embracing initiatives like this as the weapon that may help win the war. It’s all uphill marching for advocacy groups, who wage their fight under a nebulous banner hoisted by dispirited, divided troops. They must also contend with a paucity of financial resources, a situation not likely to be relieved by a largely apathetic public support base. Under such conditions, it makes sense to stay focused on the immediate skirmish and not get bogged down in the broader implications of the entire campaign. But such a strategy is, in my view, short-sighted. The school that creates a blind-friendly environment in order to get students through the provincial curriculum hasn’t fulfilled its role if it fails to equip them to further their life education beyond the classroom. Career initiatives meant to help the disabled may accomplish their short-term goals when they employ people to answer telephones and work in other menial jobs, but miss the mark on their more long-term goal to empower the clients they serve. Distributing low-hanging fruit smacks of charity, which establishes a hierarchy, which deepens the sense of inequality everyone’s railing against in the first place. Actual empowerment stems from successfully overcoming challenges. Society at large poses many, some would say more than enough to be getting on with. In my opinion, however, the organizations that do the most good are those that continually push their clients to expand their boundaries. They don’t erect insurmountable barriers, but they don’t go in for spoon-feeding either. They provide valuable guidance for people who face additional struggles on life’s bumpy ride, offering direction and encouragement without ever taking the wheel themselves.
Some reading this will label me as either hard-hearted or impractical, maybe suspecting that my utopian vision is overly-simplistic. I can see their point. As disability goes I readily acknowledge that I’m incredibly privileged. I only had to contend with one disability, and I lacked neither family support nor educational resources to help me on my way as I grew up. People who struggle with multiple disabilities, or who face their issues under different circumstances, may feel existing systems are more than adequate. They may argue, quite rightly, that advocacy groups can’t afford to go big or go home. Surely it’s better to have some support systems in place, no matter how imperfect, than to withhold all help while designing the ideal model. I agree entirely. I just wish the advocacy groups, people with disabilities and those without would all make more of an effort to address those imperfections. As the UN initiative aptly demonstrates, the status quo isn’t good enough, and fixing it, like the building of Rome, isn’t the work of a day.