I don’t really know what happened. I wasn’t that sick, but suddenly my voice just sort of left me, and a painful cough took its place. For the last four days, I’ve been on strict vocal rest, which is difficult for a singer and a socializer. I didn’t think about how it would impact my interactions with the public, however.
“I’m outside Panera.” I whispered into the phone, because that’s all I could manage.
“You’re where? I can’t really hear you.”
“Outside the doors of the Panera!” I tried again, “I have a guide dog and I’m wearing a black coat.”
“Oh, I think I see you. You have a dog?”
“Yes!” I replied, relieved that even if he hadn’t heard me he found me and I didn’t have to wait much longer in the 15 degree weather.
I got in the Lyft and got home, thank God, but my vocal issues had made it incredibly difficult to communicate with my driver to tell him where I was.
A similar thing happened a day later. A gracious friend of mine volunteered to drive me to the pet store to pick up some emergency dog food for Prim. We entered the pet store, and I was immediately struck by my hindered ability to scold my guide dog for trying to chase the cat she saw upon entry. Turns out whispered commands to your dog to “leave it” when there is a cat right in front of their nose is really not that effective.
The kicker, though, was when we stopped at CVS on the way back to collect some soup and cough drops and other such necessary items. Prim followed my friend into and throughout the store like a champ, and we found the things we needed without too much trouble. When we arrived at the counter, I set my items down and waited as the cashier scanned them.
“Do you live with her?” The lady asked my friend.
“No, just a friend.” She replied.
“She agreed to drive me around tonight.” I added with a smile, though I felt my smile falter a little when I realized what had come out of my mouth was barely recognizable as spoken word.
“Who takes care of her then?”
“I take care of me.” I answered, patiently, still in a whisper.
“She said she takes care of herself.” The cashier observed in shock to my friend, and then to one of her coworkers as we left.
Yes, madam, that is what I said. I take care of myself. She clearly found that hard to believe, since I am blind.
I desired desperately to educate her. I wanted to tell her that, not only do I care for myself, but I care for my guide dog, and sometimes, when necessary, my sighted friends too. I wanted to say that blind people can live quite independently, with the right training and techniques. I wanted to tell her that I’d been living on my own 12 hours drive from my family for almost 5 years now, since I moved to Tennessee at 18. I wanted to tell her I’ve traveled internationally by myself three times, and within the U.S. hundreds of times… that I’d been white-water rafting, and rock climbing, and hiking, and horseback riding, and kayaking and jet skiing, and spelunking, and I’d sung, danced, and acted in operas and plays and musicals, had a bachelor’s degree, and was planning on moving internationally for a master’s.
But I couldn’t say any of that because I couldn’t talk.
I’ve been blind for 16 years now. I’m pretty used to comments like the ones I heard at CVS last night. I’ve learned to say something, but once that’s done, it’s all I can do. Eventually, I just have to let it go and allow my life to be the proof, but I felt robbed of that power yesterday, of my ability to advocate through speech. It upset me, but mostly it made me thankful that, on the regular day-to-day, I do have a voice. I can speak up to defend my own freedom of independence and the freedom of other blind people to live the lives they want. I can share my experiences and challenge a sighted world to raise their expectations for the blind.
Not only do I have a voice on an individual, physical level, but also on a macro, socio-political-economic level. As an American citizen with first amendment rights to free speech, I can write articles like these to spread the word throughout this entire vast country that blind people ARE capable. I can vote for policy and policy makers that I think will advance the rights and privileges of blind Americans. I can show employers that there is a valuable workforce of competent, passionate people that are currently being largely ignored because of their blindness. I can tell our nation that blind people are a people without physical sight, but not a people without vision, or drive, or ingenuity, or skill, or, as I’m pointing out here, a voice.
Today is January 4th, a day many in the blind community know as Louis Braille’s birthday. Braille should have been as life changing to the blind as the invention of the printing press was for the sighted a few hundred years earlier. I say “should have been”, because while Braille’s invention did a great deal to change the state of blind people, and loose them from the chains of poverty and dependency, it hasn’t done enough. According to a study from Cornell University, only 42% of visually impaired Americans ages 21-64 were employed in 2015, and that is a high estimate given that the associated unemployment rate did not account for those blind Americans who were not actively participating in the workforce (Erickson). The National Federation of the Blind reports that 29% of the same population in the same year were living under the poverty line (Statistical Facts About Blindness in the United States), as compared to 13.5% in the general population (United States Census Bureau). Those statistics start to paint a picture of the devastating impact that negative perceptions of blindness have on our success and thriving as a segment of society.
I’m tired of being told I can’t, and I’m thankful that I have a voice to reply, “I can, I do, and I will!”
Erickson, W., Lee, C., von Schrader, S. “Disability Statistics.” The American Community Survey (ACS), Cornell University Yang-Tan Institute, 2017, Ithaca, NY, http://www.disabilitystatistics.org/reports/acs.cfm?statistic=2
“Statistical Facts About Blindness in the United States.” NFB, National Federation of the Blind, 12/2017, nfb.org/blindness-statistics
United States Census Bureau. “Income and Poverty in the United States: 2016.” Report Number: P60-259, Jessica L. Semega, Kayla R. Fontenot, and Melissa A. Kollar, U.S. Census Bureau, Sept. 12, 2017, http://www.census.gov/library/publications/2017/demo/p60-259.html