The Role My Disability Plays in My Identity

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Editor's note: This is Audrey's response to the post that Elizabeth Sammons wrote on What Role Does Disability Play in Your Identity?. We hope that readers will read and comment with their own thoughts.

Audrey and dog guide Sophie in Alaska with snow covered mountain in background

Imagining a Bleak Future

When I first began to lose my vision, my thoughts and fears about blindness were much worse than the reality. I imagined a bleak future of helplessness and isolation; a life where I would be left behind and left out, no longer able to manage a normal life. Nothing could be farther from the truth today.

Blindness as One More Unique Characteristic

I became blind gradually and the adjustment to this new way of being was also gradual. I had to learn how to be blind and to be comfortable with myself as a person with blindness. At first this descriptor did not seem to fit me and I resisted it. But in time, it settled in on me and I yielded to it. Now, I see blindness, my disability, as just one more unique characteristic that makes me who I am. It is not the most important attribute, though it is conspicuous. I am a collection of parts, making up a whole.

We all project a certain face to the world and we all have certain identities we take on throughout life. In different stages and phases, these may change; like hats we wear and shed when no longer necessary. Some of these roles or identities cannot be set aside even if we wanted to discard them -- like race, ethnicity, and disability. These are our essence, our unchangeable and authentic selves.

Why Hide or Deny Essential Core Traits?

Why then, might we want to hide, shed, or deny these most essential core traits? Usually it is because someone told us it was a negative trait to have. Through social interactions, we may learn it is "bad" to be disabled. Some will internalize this and develop a negative self-image. That is one of the problems with labels. The other problem with labels is they can encourage a person to fully embody the label, and it becomes the dominant characteristic while all others fall away. Labels always limit people.

I have come to blindness later in life. I have accrued many roles, attributes, and identities over my lifetime as a woman in her 50’s; daughter, sister, wife, nurse, mother, friend, blogger, and soon to be grandmother! By now, I have sifted through the labels and statuses society has tried to impose on me, to embrace only the ones which fit and come without judgment. Disabled as a label, fits but it does not tell you all there is to know about me. We are more than a single label just as I am more than my disability. I do not mind the label per se, what I mind is when people look no further or make assumptions about me based on that one characteristic.

"Blind"--Just Another Unique Descriptor

"Blind" is just another unique descriptor to me and it is not necessarily a negative one that I need to hide or reject. It makes it difficult sometimes for family and friends to relate to me. And it has elicited awkward responses from strangers in public. But I believe this comes from a lack of understanding and less from judgement. I don’t make the assumption that they see me as "less than" themselves because of my vision loss.

Many people try to "relate" and connect with me but do not have experience with blindness. So they say weird things like "Well, you don’t look blind." And I try to be understanding; they just don’t know what to say. In these situations, I like to think of myself as an ambassador for the blind. I may be the only person with a visual impairment this person has ever met. So it is important to increase their awareness through our interaction so they will have increased understanding the next time.

Feel No Compulsion to Become "Super Blind"

I have accepted my vision loss and all the changes that come along with it. It is what it is and I feel no compulsion to overcompensate for it or to become "super blind." I am comfortable with my identity as a visually impaired woman…or is that a "woman with a visual impairment?" Either way, I just ask you to remember there are many more hats that I wear and more to discover about me beyond my disability.

Personal Reflections
There are currently 5 comments

Re: The Role My Disability Plays in My Identity

Audrey, great points here and I agree so much about whether we take on the 'label' or not, it only defines us if we want it to and for me, with RP it is just another layer to who I am but not everything I am. Thanks for this post, really enjoyed hearing your personal take on this topic.

Re: The Role My Disability Plays in My Identity

First, you will love being a grandmother. Congratulations! Second, I agree with you. Becoming blind or visually impaired is not bad or less than, it's just different than you were before. It's hard work at times, and it can be expensive, but it isn't a death sentence as most people perceive it to be. Attitude is important, and we all choose our attitude. I like an attitude of gratitude. I am grateful I cannot see bugs. They scare me and I can pretend they don't exist.

Re: The Role My Disability Plays in My Identity

Oh Neva! You crack me up!! I am so excited about the news of our first grand baby. And yes it is about attitude and what we choose to project to the world. It occurred to me after writing this that we really have two different identities. Our personal identity or how we see ourselves and then a social identity - how the world sees us. I think they are related and connected in that the way we view ourselves is projected to the world and they will take cues from us. If we believe blindness is a negative trait, it will be evident to others and they will think the same way. And yes to gratitude! We may not be grateful for the blindness itself but certainly for all the positive things it can bring into our lives… Like meeting great people! Glad I know you!

Re: The Role My Disability Plays in My Identity

Audrey, I guess I tend to ignore that social self you mentioned because it usually skews so far from my reality. People tend to either put us up on some kind of pedestal as so inspiring because we do ordinary everyday things like raise families, hem a skirt or travel independently to a meeting; or they see us as someone to be pitied and try too hard to help us without finding out whether we need help to begin with. Both responses are way off the ends of the bell curve that makes up our lives. Once, as a teenager, a boy jumped up to give me a space on the bleachers at a pep rally. He stood behind me talking to my sighted friend. He said something about how awful it was that I was blind because I was so pretty. It left me wondering if being unattractive would make blindness more acceptable? That remark falls in to the poor little blind girl reaction. I was in the office of my restaurant when a tired frustrated job seeker dropped her purse on the front counter and said to my counter employee, "I guess there is no point putting in a job application here because you only hire the handicapped." Margie, my prep gal answered, "We don't have any handicapped workers here." The job seeker then asked "What do you call that little blind girl that works here then?" My quick thinking employee answered "I just call her boss." I think that is ultimately what we want from that social identity, not to have the public see only the visual impairment and not the person. We just need bigger labels so as to fit more descriptors because no one has it all and we should be defined not by what we lack but what we do with what we have. I think it helps to have a sense of humor when dealing with those who see us differently than we see ourselves.

Re: The Role My Disability Plays in My Identity

Great discussion here! thanks Deanna for sharing your thoughts-I love what you have to say! "define us by what we do with what we have, not for what we lack!" Good Stuff!

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