Claiming My Education and My Anger

On top of a red and white tablecloth sits a white plate with a shiny red apple. The apple has a jagged bite taken out of the right side. Image courtesy of www.inabeautifulmess.com

Years ago, I took a course on women writers. I was particularly excited about that. By then, most of my courses focused more on white Christian men; poems, novels, and essays full of justification on why they supported racist ideology, or why they supported keeping a woman subservient (legally or socially) to their fathers and husbands, or how intelligent or stronger they – or their main (white male) character – was compared to the ignorant and weak male character (who was from another country or lower class). The course featured all women writers, ranging from poor to rich, white to POC, Christian to Muslim; our readings ranged from poems, novels, to essays; and public outreach was a large part of the class – for Women’s History Month, we had to create fliers (of our choosing, that had something to do with women), we split into groups and decided what (or whom) to use as a theme in our exhibit at the university library, and we had to do a presentation at the main library downtown. Other than a few accessibility issues, the course was great.

I love courses that make me think – philosophically, spiritually, about myself, about my loved ones, about society. Luckily, being an English and Gender Studies major, I had a lot of courses like that. In this course, we were asked two questions that made me stop and think (and gave me the feels – of the not so good kind):

  • Have you claimed your education?
  • Why are you angry?

 

These two questions hit me so hard. You know those questions – those questions that are so simple, so innocent sounding – those questions where the answers come quick but the emotions rarely match and you have to stop and analyze yourself, or your answers end up being longer than you thought – or doesn’t end up being the answer you thought you would have given if you thought of it first, or the answer, after given, leaves you drained, emotionally? Yeah.

As for the first question, it comes from “Claiming an Education,” by Adrienne Rich. She delivered this speech at the convocation of Douglass College in 1977. She says,

The first thing I want to say to you who are students, is that you cannot afford to think of being here to receive an education: you will do much better to think of being here to claim one. One of the dictionary definitions of the verb “to claim” is: to take as the rightful owner; to assert in the face of possible contradiction. “To receive” is to come into possession of: to act as receptacle or container for; to accept as authoritative or true.

Basically, we must be active in claiming our education, not passive. We must be assertive and take responsibility for ourselves and our needs; advocate, never settle for less and know, in the end, you know what you need better than anyone else.

She then goes on to talk about the professors and how they should take their students – women – more seriously. Instead of focusing on their student’s intellectual abilities, they tend to eroticize their students – treating their students as sexual objects.

The education of women has been a matter of debate for centuries, and old, negative attitudes about women’s role, women’s ability to think and take leadership, are still rife both in and outside the university. Many male professors (and I don’t mean only at Douglass) still feel that teaching in a women’s college is a second-rate career. Many tend to eroticize their women students–to treat them as sexual objects–instead of demanding the best of their minds. (At Yale a legal suit [Alexander v. Yale] has been brought against the university by a group of women students demanding a stated policy against sexual advances toward female students by male professors.) Many teachers, both men and women, trained in the male-centered tradition, are still handing the ideas and texts of that tradition on to students without teaching them to criticize its antiwoman attitudes, it’s omission of women as part of the species.

I was so self-assured back then; I told myself that I do claim my education, then list why that statement was true.

As for the second question, I can’t remember why our professor asked us this; all I have are fragmented rambles taken after the question was asked:

I am angry because my professors see nothing wrong in asking students to write down their opinions, while telling me that do to it not being accessible, she will read it to me, and I can tell her how I feel. Out loud. In the middle of class. Meanwhile, the students write down their private thoughts, reassured in their privacy.

I am angry because I am not being represented in books and poems; where is my body? Do I – and others like me – exist outside of medical textbooks?

Out of our five-person group, he was chosen to speak for us. Group discussion: when did we first realize gender differences? He ignored mine; told the story of the boy and the other boy and the girl and the other girl – but did not tell my story. Why said the second girl. He did not verbally answer. I do not understand why. I am angry because too many times my voice, my story, has been put aside, not good enough to be repeated, told, fkjdls;ajfdl

The professor wanted us to write down – anonymously – why we are angry. She would collect them all and turn them into a poem. When I got the poem a few weeks later, I cried. It was raw and ugly and real and heart, stabbing heart-breaking real pain beautiful. I loved it. I still read it from time to time.

With shaky fingers that are no longer used to writing with a pen, I wrote,

Practicing self-silencing.

I look back at those questions now. I know better now. I have not claimed my education; not entirely, anyway. This is an ableist society and being disabled, claiming education is the difference between living or existing. You either will sink or swim. Too often parents of disabled children are told by friends, doctors, and others – regardless of disability – that the child will be unable to live a reasonable quality of life (because having an impairment has such a traumatic physical or psychological impact on a person). With society set against believing you can achieve success from the start, it is up to the disabled child’s loved ones – then as the disabled child gets older, up to them, to push for accessibility and inclusion.

When I look back at the countless times in college, where I sat silent, not able to fully participate because the materials weren’t made accessible in time – do to the Disability Resource Center running behind, or the professors failing to give the materials to them in time; or when I fell in love with math, and wanted to minor in it, and an advisor kindly told me that it would be too hard, considering my…impairment; or when I failed Gender Studies because the professor refused to create an actual lesson plan, and enjoyed randomly showing – and testing us on – movies that were subtitled or silent…

How many of those times did I stand up for myself? More than half. Did I claim my education? I sent emails to professors a few months before the semester started, informing them of my disability and what I needed done for the class to be made accessible. I invited them to ask me questions if they were unsure of anything; I assured them that I would do everything on my end to make this easy. Most took me up on the offer, some informed me that they knew all of this because they “had a blind student before,” – which then I had to explain that, no, that student can read print, I can’t – but there was a couple who, no matter what I did, I was always an inconvenience. There were professors that had to be reminded constantly to be descriptive when talking about art, or that they had to finish the list of extra readings as soon as possible so that they can be made accessible in time, or that had to be told, no, they can not randomly pick an essay for us to read or movie for us to watch, because it won’t be made accessible in time and I won’t be able to participate in class discussions.

How many times was I silent because I was tired of the constant fight to make sure I had the things I needed to pass the course, or scared because I thought the professor would give me a lower grade out of spite, annoyed by my constant nagging, or ashamed of having a disability. How many times did I feel as if I had to justify to my professors why I was there, in their classroom instead of at home. How many times did I sit in the back, or front, or middle of the classroom, silent because I couldn’t participate. How many times did I feel stupid and weak? How many times did I let things slide because the professor was too busy, or the professor was trying their best, or the professor will get to it later? How many times did I feel as if I didn’t belong there; that I should just give up?

Too many times. So, no, I have not claimed my education. Not entirely.

Am I still angry? Yes. Yes, I fucking am.

However, this time, this time I will let my anger guide me in claiming my education. Claiming my space in classrooms, claiming my voice in class discussions, claiming my right to be here. I will no longer hold my anger back, letting it lay on my tongue, refusing to roar. No longer will I ask politely, then beg; I will ask, then I will demand. I will no longer give a pass to those who barely try; I will no longer be thankful for at least getting ‘something’; I will get everything I deserve, everything that is given to the other students.

I belong here. I have a right to be here. And if you don’t want me here, in your ivory tower, too fucking bad. I will get what I deserve. Make way for my cane. Make space on these desks for my brailled notes and laptop with a screen reader. Become comfortable with me here, in front of you, because you have no other choice.

 

 

October — Meet the Blind Month (Or — I WILL NOT PARTICIPATE IN YOUR FREAK SHOW!)

braille alphabet on rectangular wood block

Fire Japanese Maple tree in the Fall

 

It’s October – pumpkins are growing and pumpkin flavor is being put on everything, kids (and adults) are debating what to wear for Halloween, the leaves are changing colors…

And I get a few emails requesting an interview or to be a guest speaker to their event for “Meet the Blind Month.”

According to the National Federation of the Blind, Meet the Blind Month’s purpose is to spread awareness of the NFB and there goals; they do this by promoting events that support the NFB.

Sound good? On the surface, yes; what organization doesn’t do something similar? However, without fail, every October I am frustrated – by the blind – and harassed – by the public. Without fail, every October, I politely send out my sorry-will-not-be-able-to-do-anything-this-month rejection email towards those who want me for their Meet the Blind Month related interviews or events.

Why? Isn’t it important to show the public that the blind and visually-impaired are just as vital to the community? Shouldn’t the blind and visually-impaired go out and show the public that they are capable of doing anything and everything they put their minds to? Isn’t it important to knock those barriers down; to show the public that the blind and visually-impaired are-just-like-them?

Yes. Yes. Yes.

And still I won’t participate in Meet the Blind Month related events. Let me explain why.

I am not a freak show. I am not here to do a song and dance for the public. I will not inform every-single-able-bodied-person on my medical history, on my “regrets,” on my “hopes for a cure,” on how I do everyday things – just-like-they-do (which seriously, just use common sense; it’s not rocket science on how I shave, eat and shop).

(The quotes are sarcasm; the regrets I have – which are very few, fortunately – have nothing to do with my vision. Nor do I hope for a cure. I am happy with the way I am.)

What do you mean “freak show?” The NFB doesn’t agree with nor do they promote freak shows.

True. And yet…

Braille Alphabet Chart

I have seen the blind (not just those affiliated with the NFB) walk around populated areas (farmers market, town center, churches) handing out cards that have the braille alphabet, handing out brochures and pamphlets on “HOW TO TREAT THOSE WHO ARE BLIND” or “BLIND PARENTS ARE JUST AS CAPEABLE AS SIGHTED PARENTS,” “FAQs ON BLINDNESS,” etc. I have seen people who are blind invite the able-bodied to ask questions about their blindness and how they do various tasks without being able to see.

If you want to do all that – then be my guest.

I however refuse to stroll up and down the sidewalk, stand in front of a store, or sit in a restaurant loudly proclaiming my blindness and opening my arms to the public, welcoming their invasive questions and comments, prayers and pity.

As a disabled person, the public already considers me public property – to move, to make an example of, to study. And for eleven months out of the year, I can choose to converse with those asking questions about my vision, or how I can exist without it. Then October comes, those who stood beside me – sighted and blind – understanding my choice and level of participation in these conversations are gone. I am no longer the advocate or self-assured woman; I am the one holding us back (how can the public understand us if we don’t answer their questions, if we don’t show them what we can do?), I am the rude one (how can you expect the public to understand the blind if you don’t answer their questions, if you don’t show them what you can do?).

Choice. Having the choice to say no to one person and yes to the next one. Having a choice to participate in a question and answer form on how I live my life. Having the choice to give detailed information on my medical history when asked. Choice.

It is my choice to say yes and to say no; and to say no without feeling guilty of betraying “the cause,” or being rude for not being an open book for the public’s perusal.

Living a Life of Tragedy or The Truth of Living with Blindness

At Lake Eola Park. Keshia sits in the large stone palm of the Muse of Discovery. She is laying back, propped up on her elbows and looking left toward the camera with a playful look on her face. She is wearing sunglasses, blue jeans and a pale yellow tank top. Her long, curly, dark brown hair is draped across the front of her. In the background is the left side of The Muse of Discovery's face and her other hand and arm, giving her the appearance of coming out of the ground.

Keshia standing beside the staircase in a purple, three-quartered sleeve blouse, black dress pants and heels.

When people find out I am blind, they usually react in the following ways:
• A moment of silence – this person silently regrets all of the life experiences I have missed out on. They immediately begin talking (to me or—usually—to the person we are with) about how sad it is that I will not be able to achieve a reasonable quality of life.
• An awkward pause – this person doesn’t know what to say or do, they feel as if they have committed a social faux pas. Do they make a joke (“I thought you were wearing sunglasses in the house because you were high!”), do they apologize for not knowing, do they ignore it and continue with the conversation? In the end, the conversation never picks back up; knowing that I am blind makes it difficult for them to see me the way they did before: normal. And how do you interact with someone that is not normal?
• Start to praise – this person considers it their duty to inform me that I am doing so well (for being blind). They start listing my accomplishments and comparing me to people they know who haven’t achieved half of the things I have (and are not disabled).
• And? – This person doesn’t care. This person may or may not ask one or two questions, then continue with what we were doing at the time. This person doesn’t feel pity or concern or awe.

 

The first three people have something in common: they all believe that it is a tragedy to be disabled. To them, my life has been negatively affected because I am blind.

 

We are taught (both able-bodied and disabled) over and over again that disability, or being disabled is a tragedy. The mind and body damaged, requiring rehabilitation, treatment or (preferably) a cure. Society says that to be disabled is to be completely dependent on the state.

 

But why? Why is society so ableist? How did we get to this way of thinking?

 

To me, there seems to be two reasons. A religious reason (which I talked about in a previous post), which views disability as a sin, a punishment from God. And a medical perspective, which views disability as an affliction, something that needs to be fixed/cured, or prevented at all costs (antenatal termination).

 

To many people, being disabled means that your childhood was lonely, your education was stunted, and you will never have close and healthy relationships with others.

 

Disabled Childhood

Eight-year old Keshia at Buchberg, Schaffhausen dressed in light blue jeans and a dark blue sweater with three brown cows behind her.I grew up participating in gymnastics and ballet. I read large print. I enjoyed roller skating. I wore contacts. I had to make my bed and clean my room. I had to sit in the front row of the classrooms. I hated (and still do) drinking milk. I had to take eye drops twice a day for my glaucoma. I got into fights with my younger brothers. I used a magnifying glass to read. I played with baby dolls and hated Barbie’s. I had countless surgeries on my eyes. I loved hiking.

 

Disabled Learning

My favorite class was math. Once I learned braille, math became a lot more fun and faster for me to complete. I thought science was too hard. I had an Individualized Education Plan. I graduated from high school. I had extra time to finish tests. I graduated from university with a bachelors in English and Gender Studies. I take class notes in braille. I am currently pursuing a masters in Gender Studies.

Disabled Personal Relationships

Despite my mom’s constant urging, I am not married and I do not have (nor want) kids. I have a circle of best friends. I am close with my family.

 

As you can see, my life has not been negatively affected because of my disability. Nor has it been enriched because of my disability. Have I experienced hardships? Yes. Not because I am blind but because of societies attitudes and perceptions of the disabled and our abilities. Despite having a disability, I experience, achieved and am pursuing many of the same things countless others my age have.