I do a couple of volunteer gigs around my small town. It is important to me to serve the community that I belong to, in addition to being a visible blind member of my community. As a result, one of the projects I participate in involves tutoring 3rd graders in how to read.
Yesterday was my first day.
On my first day, we read a story called “Man’s Best Friend.”
I scanned the page after putting on my reading glasses and there it was.
Blind: can not see.
Later in the story it talks about how some dogs help blind people by being a seeing eye.
Well, a room full of third graders stared at me, the woman who had just introduced herself and told them that she’s blind, and they wanted answers to their questions. Because the definition of blind they had just been taught didn’t include me.
We have to stop teaching children that people with disabilities fit into nice little boxes.
I’ve never fit into the boxes that are provided for me. I’m blind, and hell, the percentage of No Light Perception (NLP) blind people is pretty low. Most people have a perception of SOMETHING. I’m blind because my field of vision is about the size of a toilet paper roll, and I can’t see out of one eye.
I’m not blind because I “can not see” anything. My blindness also isn’t defined by the adaptive devices that I use. I don’t have a guide dog – and I barely qualify for one. Just because I use a white cane instead of a guide dog doesn’t discount my blindness or make it less valid. Many NLP people use white canes instead of guide dogs, too. It’s a personal choice, not a definition.
Teaching children to believe these things are simple is harmful.
The disability binary is harmful.
Deafness, too, is not a binary. I can hear out of one ear, and I wear a hearing aid in the other. That doesn’t mean that I’m not deaf. I just am not capital D Deaf because I’m not a member of the Deaf community.
I’m technically deafblind, because I have both those disabilities. For a deafblind person, though, I’m on the end of the spectrum where it doesn’t look that way.
Teaching children that I don’t fit in the disability box doesn’t hurt me. Not right now. It’s irritating, because I’m here to teach them reading, but what’s harmful is what those children will go on to do to their peers: They will police what disability is.
Disabled children will be told by their peers what their disabilities mean – and if they’re exposed to texts like this, they’ll feel like they don’t fit in the box. Maybe that means that like me, they will struggle to use the tools created to help them lead their lives, or maybe it means that they will never be able to accept themselves for who they are.
The truth is, no one fits in the disability box. No one fits squarely inside the neat lines of disability definitions. We are individuals with disabilities. Our individual experiences and disabled experiences often don’t fit in neat boxes. Teaching children that blindness or deafness is a single three word definition assumes they are stupid – they’re not stupid. Children have the capacity to learn complex things if you teach it to them in a thoughtful way.
To some, this article will seem petty. It will seem as though I am picking on a third grade reading prompt. A prompt written to simply given children something to read – the fact is though, even a simple reading prompt teaches children how the world works.
For me, though? For me it was a moment reminding me that this is how it starts. This is how the people who harass me on the subways learn the falsehoods that they try to enforce on me as teenagers and adults.
The 3rd grader who accepts that disability is like this could grow up to be the twenty year old boy who tries to take my cane away because “You can see, you’re not really blind, I don’t think you need that.”
The 3rd grader who reads that blind people can’t see anything might grow up to be the adult who “flirts” with me by asking if I like it with the lights off or on, and then laughs cruelly.
We have to update our lesson plans, our language choices, we have to create a world in which we don’t foster these definitions and raise them up as truth.
I’m glad I was in that classroom. I was glad that I got to expose these kids to a real disabled person and give them the sense that it wasn’t as easy as just saying “either you’re blind or you’re not.”
Not every classroom can have a person with a disability come volunteer on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Not every classroom has that opportunity. Which is why we have to change things on a grander scale and shift what we teach all children about disability.
According to the reading sheet, this was copyrighted in 2001. In fact, after I thought about it, this is the second time I’ve seen this reading sheet. The first time was in my own classroom in 2005, when I was student teaching in an elementary school. I hope my students from then remember what I said that day.
“Just because I don’t have a dog, and I see out of one eye sort of okay, it doesn’t mean I’m not also blind.”
It’s what I said yesterday. It’s what I said ten years ago. It’s what I’ll keep saying until we teach children that disability is not so simple as three word definitions.