Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Why I Am Not Amazing

The other day, on my commute home from work, I stood on the train as it sped down its elevated tracks, trying to avoid toppling over and simultaneously protect the camera around my neck. A man standing next to me asked if I wanted a seat, which I declined. We stood in silence for a few moments, and I sensed from his body language that he was staring at me out of the corner of his eye, his gaze shifting between the white cane I held in one hand to the bulky DSLR camera slung around my neck. I imagined his mind whirring, wanting to say something but not knowing how. The next time the train lurched on its way out of a station I grabbed a handrail for support. He asked if I was sure I didn't want a seat, and partly intentionally I said, "No, thanks. I'm just off balance from carrying these two bags plus the camera."

"Ah," he said. Then a moment of silence. "How, uh ... how do you take pictures?" There! Ice successfully broken.

I smiled and told him that I use autofocus a lot, and also had the camera's buttons and menus memorized. (A half truth, since I haven't yet had as much time to dedicate to learning photography and to use this camera as I would like.)

"Wow," he said softly. "That's amazing."

I (and the things I do) get called "amazing" with some regularity; and anyone who knows me well can tell you that I hate having the term applied to me. Not due to any issue of personal offence, but rather to an issue of societal attitude. Inspirational, sure. I can grin and bear it. We all find inspiration in different things, whether it be a mountain or a baby or a poem. But amazing is different. Amazing implies something startlingly impressive and rarely achieved.

None of the things I'm called amazing for are, in fact, actually amazing. Some of them are impressive, a show of dedication or skill, but all are everyday things that hundreds, thousands, even millions of people are expected to do without much fanfare, if any. I can't imagine someone being told they are amazing for reading ... or for commuting from home to work ... (or even having a job to go to in the first place!) ... or for completing a routine university degree. Even photography—although perhaps not the most common or well-known hobby—has an active community of blind photographers, and I know many individuals who are legally blind and own DSLR cameras.

I've been called amazing for all of these things and more. Whenever I get comments about being amazing and I reply that I'm actually not, people think I'm being meek and humble, although that's not the case. The truth is that I really don't think any of the things I do are amazing, and I wish society didn't treat them as if they were.

Why? Because it lowers expectations.

The next step up from "amazing" is nigh impossible. Doing something at the pinnacle of human achievement, whether athletic, intellectual, or artistic, is amazing. Only extraordinary people do amazing things. Doing an everyday task that most non-disabled people do routinely should not be considered an amazing feat.

The biggest tragedy of being born blind is not blindness itself, nor even being born into a world that is largely inaccessible. The biggest tragedy of blindness is that society's expectations are immediately lowered so much. If not by parents, then by teachers, or employers, or just the societal milieu in general. This shouldn't be the case. And calling someone "amazing" for doing a rather mundane task does nothing except reinforce these lower expectations.

If someone is consistently being told they are doing well—even if they may, in fact, be performing well below average—they will be apt to stop trying, stop pushing themselves to achieve a higher goal. If reading braille even slowly, doing the most basic of tasks on the computer with screen reading software, or crossing an intersection using a white cane are amazing tasks, then what of completing a doctorate degree, becoming a software engineer, or travelling the world?

The attitude that everyday tasks, done without vision, are amazing is harmful to everyone involved. It's harmful to parents of children who are born blind, who may become overprotective and fearful of their child's future. It's harmful for children themselves, who are just beginning to understand the cultural stereotypes that surround blindness. It's harmful for young adults, who find themselves wondering if it's possible for them to become a tradesperson or keep up with a university courseload. It's harmful to the blind adult who, eventually, may come to doubt even their own abilities, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It's harmful to people who are sighted, too. It's harmful to employers, who may pass over an applicant with a visual impairment because they wonder how they will get to and from work (never mind do the job they are applying for). In the same way, it's harmful to anyone who interacts with individuals who are blind (or have any disability) in the community, who may wonder how they can safely participate in a program. And, most of all, it's harmful to adults who are themselves facing blindness, and with it are facing what is for many the most scary experience of their life. If reading braille, and navigating a city, and living independently are so amazing, how will they ever believe that they can achieve these things. To say nothing of going back to work or school, taking a vacation independently, or hosting a house party.

This is not just a "what if" scenario. At gatherings with many blind individuals, the question asked upon meeting another person is often not, "What do you do [for a living]?" but rather, "Do you work?" Although factors such as (lack of) accessibility and support services, among others, plays a role in the high unemployment rate, so does attitude—on the part of both the employer and the employee. Both have to be willing to put in the work, yes; both also need to believe that the job, whatever it is, can be done.

Not to say being blind or visually impaired is easy. In fact, my attitude is that it often takes more work on account of overcoming accessibility barriers, but that extra work is just something I need to do. Just because I have to work harder at something doesn't mean I should simply lower my expectations and never expect to accomplish it, and nor does it make the accomplishment any more amazing once complete. Unless it really is amazing, like winning a medal at the Olympics, which is an accomplishment most people will never achieve. The reality is that low expectations are often the norm, and normal expectations are often considered amazing by society as a whole. This should not be the case, no matter what the disability.

And that is why I am not amazing for reading, for living alone, for going to graduate school, for working full-time, for choosing hobbies such as photography and programming. I shouldn't be amazing for doing these things. These should be normal and expected, not extraordinary! Inspirational, perhaps, if someone chooses to find inspiration in such things. But normal, not amazing.

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