What Role Does Disability Play in Your Identity?

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.