The Invisibility of Disability

This morning, I read the comment Gabe left on Thursday’s post and enjoyed it very much.  The overt discrimination we people with vision impairments must face can lead to rage in even the calmest of personalities and trigger explosive anger in others.  I do not believe that “the big bad sighted world” is out to get us but I do believe that we, as people with disabilities, must tolerate far greater humiliations than virtually any other class of people in our culture.

Gabe talks about an amusement park requesting that anyone with a disability sign a special waiver to enjoy the rides and a day in the park.  He further describes having the agreement handed to one of his companions with the statement, “Please help him fill this out.”  Gabe says he grabbed the paperwork and demanded to talk to a manager.  I completely respect this act of civil disobedience and understand clearly the anger that can cause a blind person to react to being treated as though he was invisible.

One day I went shopping with my friend Ben, a developer at FS.  We went to Circuit City to get some CDs and, possibly some other stuff too.  As I stood at the check out, the cash register guy, after accepting my credit card, asked Ben the question, “Can he sign for himself?”

As the anger swelled within me, Ben, who is married to a blind woman, reacted with calm, poise and provided the checker with the right answer, “Why don’t you ask him, he ain’t deaf?”  Ben has a special sort of acceptance of life and understands people with disabilities tremendously as his father runs a business that does everything from selling JAWS and MAGic to installing wheelchair ramps and ride in showers.  Ben, therefore, has grown up emerged in a culture where people with disabilities are a fact of life and understands that we should be treated like humans.

I wonder, given the poor literacy rate here in Florida, what the reaction would have been if the checker asked the companion to a different customer, “Can your African-American friend read and write for himself?”  Or, of the same customer, “Are you sure this credit card isn’t stolen?”  

The legendary classical violinist, Itzhak Perlman has a mobility impairment and travels in a wheelchair.  He, as possibly the most famous musician with a disability, took a tour of a newly renovated concert hall.  His hosts, the people who run the facility (I can’t remember which concert hall but I’m sure if one cares to search around for the anecdote they can find it somewhere on the Internet) made a special point of showing the virtuoso all of the special accommodations they made for people with disabilities.  Then, Perlman asked, “These ramps are very nice but how do I get to the stage?”

Embarrassed, Perlman’s hosts got very quiet.  While they had made accommodations for concert attendees with various disabilities, they completely neglected to consider the accessibility needs of the performer.  Perlman described that, in order to perform that night, instead of entering from the luxury accommodations designed for prima dona classical soloists, he had to return to the parking lot, enter through the loading dock and, “as if I was a piano,” rode the freight elevator to the stage.

Perlman stated that, as of the interview in which I heard these comments, he only had direct access via ramp or “human elevator” to the stages at, “Boston Symphony Hall, tanglewood, Metropolitan Opera House, New York City Opera, Avery Fisher Hall and quite a few venues in Europe and Israel.”  He then described various incidents in which stage hands had to carry him onto the platform, places where he had to crab walk backwards up a flight of stairs and one incident, I believe in Las Vegas, where the stage manager, obviously more accustom to topless shows who didn’t recognize Perlman, tried to refuse him access to the performance area for fear that he would roll off and hurt himself.  Perlman in great detail describes the feelings of humiliation and anger that one can feel when treated as a subhuman.

Most of my friends, when asked, “Would he like a Braille menu?”  Know to answer, why don’t you ask him?”  Recently, at a local barber shop, the woman who would be cutting my hair asked, “How would he like is hair?”  I responded, “Anyway my wife would like it.”  She had the good sense and humor to recognize her faux pas and we’ve laughed our way through quite a few haircuts since then.

I have met a number of blinks who work for various security and intelligence agencies for the Federal Government.  These jobs, for a blink with the appropriate aptitude and education, represent some of the highest paying positions available to a person with a vision impairment.  They pay very well, come with great benefits and, unless you are married to a government whistle blower, your identity is kept secret.  I’ve often thought that, if they don’t already do so, our spy agencies should train blinks to go into field service.

I, an opaque human, find that people treat me like I was invisible.  Isn’t this just about the greatest attribute a spy could have?  Sure, the ostentatious James Bond makes great movie fare but a blind person, especially outside of the US, Canada and the EU, receives the treatment of an object.  While staying at one of the finest hotels in New Delhi, the employees there, when I left my room alone, would almost attempt to carry me to a place to sit, plop me down and ignore me.  I’ve experienced this same treatment at airports around the world, many of which will put me in the first class lounge so I can wait more comfortably for a flight.  I have, in these situations, overheard really detailed and probably highly confidential conversations between business people, government types and half of all sorts of conversations on mobile phones.  The invisibility attribute that we blinks take on in public places could be useful.  “The old poison dart in the white cane trick…”

Margaret Atwood, an excellent novelist, recently published a book called “The Blind Assassin.”  I haven’t read it yet but I do plan to when I get the chance.  I kind of like the thought of a blind spy, hiding in plain sight and recording the conversation of some very bad guys and, expert in the language, able to report back to headquarters on the nefarious dealings of some real bad guys and save the world for democracy.


After visiting Joe Clark’s shrine to anything I may have said or written that displeases him, I must say that I feel privileged that he spends so much time and effort tracking my actions and, whenever he disapproves of something I’ve said or done, carefully documenting it.  It kind of makes me feel like the president or some other big time celebrity to whom one would pay such detailed attention.  I hope anyone who reads Joes selection of statements taken out of context that I’ve made in Blind Confidential comes back here to read them in their original context as they make more sense that way.  

When it comes to broad stroke ideas about accessibility, Joe and I are on the same team.  We may disagree on how best to achieve some of the goals but the goals themselves are pretty much the same.  Our conflict reminds me of an anecdote I heard on NPR when William Kunstler, the great civil rights lawyer and attorney of last resort for many left wing activists, died a few years ago.  The story was told by a Republican lawyer.  The GOP attorney reflected on the one time he exchanged words with Kunstler.  They were walking in opposite directions down a side street in Manhattan.  The storyteller recognized Kunstler and, with a wave and a smile, yelled, “Kunstler, you are an asshole!”  Without batting an eye, Kunstler responded, also with a big smile and a wave, “So are you!”

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I'm an accessibility advocate working on issues involving technology and people with print impairment. I'm a stoner, crackpot, hacker and all around decent fellow. I blog at this site and occasionally contribute to Skepchick. I'm a skeptic, atheist, humanist and all around left wing sort. You can follow this blog in your favorite RSS reader, and you can also view my Twitter profile (@gonz_blinko) and follow me there.

7 thoughts on “The Invisibility of Disability”

  1. Nothing’s “taken out of context.” It’s called quotation, Chris. Links are given (all the way down to the level of the cite attribute on blockquote) for the reader to check the original posting.

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  3. This is very true. I have been in restaurants where the server will ask my sighted friend or family member what I want to eat and drink. Whenever this happened, the friend told the server to ask me. This has never really annoyed me, but I do find it rather interesting. I think just about the only thing about disability that really enrages me is all the discrimination we face, and it isn’t just true for those of us with a visual impairment.

  4. Howdy Comrades! I have been astounded by some of the bizarre questions some people have asked me as a blind person. Recently, I was asked by a sighted person at a social gathering how I knew when my ass was clean after taking a dump. Do sighted folks use mirrors or what? I was also asked at a restaurant how blind people were able to have sex. His buddy seemed embarrassed and told him, “Haven’t you done it in the dark?” Like Dr. Phil, I am often stupefied by this level of ignorance. Regards and Power to the Peeps!

  5. Howdy Comrades! I have been astounded by some of the bizarre questions some people have asked me as a blind person. Recently, I was asked by a sighted person at a social gathering how I knew when my ass was clean after taking a dump. Do sighted folks use mirrors or what? I was also asked at a restaurant how blind people were able to have sex. His buddy seemed embarrassed and told him, “Haven’t you done it in the dark?” Like Dr. Phil, I am often stupefied by this level of ignorance. Regards and Power to the Peeps!

  6. I have restaurant invisibility syndrome happen as well. What’s interesting is that, because it is still acceptable for men to place orders for women in restaurants, my male friends will not always catch what’s going on and *will* order for me, whereas my female friends will almost always say, “You ought to ask her.”
    Gallant intentions aside, sometimes disabled women have several stereotypes and misconceptions to battle at the same time.

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