What Role Does Disability Play in Your Identity?

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Editor's Note: Elizabeth brought this question up to the VisionAware peer advisors and it elicited a wide-range of discussion, which we agreed needed to be shared with the larger VisionAware audience. Elizabeth's post is the kick-off of this discussion. Other peers will be sharing their thoughts in future posts, but we hope that you will chime in.

Helen wearing hat and long dress standing in garden

"First I’m a Human..."

"First I’m a human. Then I’m a man. And finally, I’m a Hungarian." Not the usual self-introduction, but it’s what I heard from Bela, a high school student just a few years my junior while I was serving in Hungary as a Peace Corps volunteer English teacher. The confidence in his voice told me that barring genetic alteration, sex change or a war, this young man would continue being who he was, and he liked this being.

I wondered, how could Bela be so certain in his self-identity? His words didn’t arise from his genetic heritage or historical birthplace so different from my own. Instead, they bubbled forth from the linear conclusions he had drawn from what he found most important. This freedom of his to express the definition of self with such confidence was what impressed me.

Recalling today the strength of my internal reaction to Bela, I realize that I was quite used to having a piece of my identity forced forward –I still am.

Here’s why: Let’s get acquainted. "I’m Elizabeth," I say, walking towards you. Unable to meet my eyes, you meet instead the white cane of "the blind." You are not being cruel or bigoted. You are simply fixating on what you consider most distinctive about who I am. My disability may be my weakest link, but it’s what you see before taking in the would-be distractions I use. Hoping to lead you beyond this first perception, I wear a tailored business suit and an Italian gold necklace. My coiffed hair and even my posture, studied to straightness as I extend to you my ordinary, five- fingered hand, all add to my carefully planned persona.

Disability Marks the Point of Greatest Divergence Between Others and Myself

You see, disability marks the point of greatest divergence between others and myself. Despite themselves, it’s how even many of my friends would define me if they were talking with others: "The blind lady." I get it; I even use it; It’s just a shorthand. If I have not met someone that is looking for me, I quickly say "I’ll be carrying a white cane," and almost as an afterthought, "Oh, and I am a tall, slim blond." Turning people into objects happens every day in missing person or police descriptions: "Black male, age 25, about 6 ft. 2," or even at beauty pageants, "Platinum blond, 125 pounds, 36/22/36."

What Characteristics Really Define Us To the World?

Psychologists point out that to children who are disabled, the game "What do these people have in common" often rings hollow. In their reality– my reality– it is the difference and not the common ground that tie a giant knot of "not" to the world. And what is worse, I do not know if there is any way to get away from such definitions, or even if we need to. After all, as a pastor of my childhood church used to say, "If two of us were the same, one of us would be unnecessary."

Creation of Internet Profile Successful

For a long time, I could do nothing about the perception of otherness looming between myself and the shared world I longed to inhabit. Then in the late 1990s when Internet took off, I decided to create a personal profile. "Mother…Christian…Internationalist" read my identity. The questions I got from others included things like "How old is your child?" "What does your faith mean to you?" and even "Cool! How many languages do you speak?" In reply, I found myself reacting with a freedom I had never known before.

Meanwhile, my "E-contentment" was growing by leaps and bounds. The reaction, as I got to know a few e-readers better and decided from time to time to inform them of my disability, surprised me. While just a couple of them said "Thanks for wasting my time," the vast majority responded something like "Wow… you’re all of that, and you did all that, and you’re blind, too? Now I want to know even more about you."

Another memory, far earlier in my life, still fringes my identity. Walking home in the mid-1970’s as an elementary school student, I would pass a Catholic hospital where Sister Leah staffed the front desk. A retired school teacher, Sister Leah always took time to greet me and give me something to do such as folding letters or placing stamps on letters. I loved the peace I felt between us when we discussed things like music, flowers, even faith. In fact, there was only one thing I didn’t like about being with Sister Leah. When other people came to her desk, she would always introduce me: "And this is my little blind friend."

Risk Pays Off

My mother told me I should talk with Sister Leah about this if it bothered me. The day I decided to bring it up was the first time I recall trembling. "I wish I could just be your friend, not your little blind friend," I told her. I foresaw a reproach, maybe even the loss of our happy times together. Only today while writing this essay do I see the magnitude of what it took for me to risk this sorrow in exchange for shaking off a label I hated.

But the risk paid off. From then on, to my amazement, Sister Leah would just say, "This is my friend," whenever she introduced me. To this day, I remember the click of our heavy glasses meeting after she would walk me down the double flight of front steps of the hospital as we kissed good-bye. We remained friends indeed; that was all that mattered!

P.S. For a fellow writing artist’s satire on how people with disabilities can be portrayed in fiction, please see Clemson University English professor Jillian Weise’s YouTube video.

Personal Reflections
There are currently 5 comments

Re: What Role Does Disability Play in Your Identity?

As a child, I thought of myself in terms of the role as first born daughter in my large Native American family. It probably had more impact than did the onset of total blindness at age eight. As soon as I could stand on a chair at the kitchen sink, I was learning to wash and dry dishes. When I was strong enough to lift them safely, I was caring for the four younger children that followed me in my immediate family and the dozens of other small ones in my extended family. My mother needed my help as her second pair of hands, the traditional role of a first born daughter. I learned to cook, clean, wash clothes, iron and sew. I used my hearing to identify where and what my four siblings were doing. I was a good student and my mother insisted I bring home only top marks. She said my three brothers and little sister could work in a factory, pump gas or wait tables, but I would need a college degree to earn my living. My blindness was more than a nuisance and less than a tragedy. It was just one of the obstacles that made achieving my goals a bit tougher, but it was no excuse for failure.
My mother insisted I be mainstreamed and it wasn’t until high school that I actually started attending activities sponsored by the Foundation for the Junior Blind. I was startled that many other blind kids lacked life skills and couldn’t navigate independently. I was grateful for all of the times my mother tapped me on the nose and demanded I look at her when we were talking. She insisted that I dress well and could care for my own needs as well as the needs of my family members. My early training led me to think of myself as a natural caregiver. My love of animals led to my choosing to use guide dogs. I am a good cane user, but enjoy the companionship of dogs and am currently working with my ninth Seeing Eye Dog. I love to read, write, cook and travel. I celebrated my 45th wedding anniversary on Easter Sunday. I am the mother of three adult children, grandmother of 7 grandchildren and great grandmother of two. My blindness is down my list of identifiers somewhere around my five foot three height, a fact, but not that important unless it gets in my way when I set out to do something. Then it becomes an obstacle to overcome.
My list of identifiers goes something like this petite mature woman with long hair, : Chippewa/Apache, writer/poet, disability rights advocate, guide dog user, liberal. The blindness can be inferred by my use of guide dogs and my disability advocacy. It doesn’t define me in my roles at work and or at home.

Re: What Role Does Disability Play in Your Identity?

Thank you for this thought provoking question, Elizabeth. I think it is worthwhile to reflect on our personal experiences. It is a complex issue and I am certain we each would answer differently. There are so many differences in the experience of living with blindness!

Re: What Role Does Disability Play in Your Identity?

Beautifully said! In the early days of blindness I think my blindness pretty much defined me. Over the years I've been blind, over 33 years, it's gradually become less and less important. Thanks for a great post! I hope we get to meet some day!

Re: What Role Does Disability Play in Your Identity?

What a question to get a conversation going! This is a tuff one because it so much a part of my life whether I want it to be or not. I find that in many social situations I have to find ways to integrate my disability. What I mean is that the situation does not embrace it and I have to figure out how to bring it into the room. For example, I might be at an African-American women’s meeting but then you feel awkward that I am a black female that is also blind. I have found that I have become very secure and comfortable in my “skin” and that has helped me to deal with this question in my life. So, what role does disability play? A huge one!

Re: What Role Does Disability Play in Your Identity?

Great thoughts on this subject. I am visually impaired but not blind. My vision is impaired due to communication problems between my eyes and my brain. For over 40 years, My identity included husband, father and machinist and lastly; teacher. Then in 2010, I lost the ability to teach full time and to be honest, my identity became-a lost person. My life had been defined by my work within the schools, and even with a supportive family and friends, the loss of a daily purpose that involved more than "me" was a huge loss. However, I have always believed that in time we can overcome most anything life throws our way. And then there is "luck", divine intervention, what ever we call the unexpected. My new condition made me eligible for VA medicial care and then 6 weeks at Heines VA blind and visually impaired training center. That was a turning point that still carries the day for me. Today I am retired, but I also volunteer for three 1/2 days a week at the local elementary school helping 1-5 grade students who have given up on school find a path to success. So, I have regained my original identity. I was also approved for a guide dog and I will be returning to the school and my students with my new support.
So I guess my ID will change once again, and I hope I can add role model for others with a disability who want to expand their Identity. I will be the first teacher with a guide dog to be teaching in our area. Who to say I or any other disabled person could not also be employed in the public school systems in the future? So in closing, I believe we are the most important factor in defining who we are or will be. Yes the disability is a huge part of our life, but it does not have to be "what" define any of us.

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