The Spectrum of Disability — Not Everything is Absolute

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

This was triggered by a post that I saw circulating on Facebook. It was one of those “Can you spot what’s wrong with this picture?” memes.

The picture, which I won’t link out of respect for the unknown person it, shows a woman with a red-tipped blindness cane and a cell phone. She’s on the sidewalk and appears to be texting.

The “wrong” we’re supposed to see in this picture is that she’s not really blind if she’s texting.

And this comes back to a subtle form of ableism; the assumption that a disability is an on-off switch. An absolute. I’m going to talk primarily about blind people here because of what triggered it, but expect me to tangent into wheelchairs. (And as a note? No, I couldn’t post a picture of a blind person with a cane…Unsplash doesn’t have any).

What does “Blind” Actually Mean?

When I grew up I had a friend who’s mother, a wonderful lady named Pauline, was totally blind since birth. I don’t know why…whatever it was did not pass on to any of her four children, thankfully.

Thus, I believed, as many people do that blind people don’t see anything. That that’s what blindness means.

The fact is, that the majority of blind people have at least some vision. Total blindness (no light perception) is rare.

In the U.S., you are legally blind if you have vision of 20/200 or worse. This means that something you can read at 20 feet can be read at 200 feet by somebody with what we consider to be normal (20/20) vision. You are also legally blind if your peripheral vision is limited to 20 degrees. If glasses or contact lenses correct your vision to better than this, you’re not blind.

Another term often used is low vision, which simply means that your vision loss interferes with your daily activities.

If a person is using a cane, then that means that their vision loss is sufficient, for whatever reason, to interfere with navigation.

Another key thing is that the cane in the picture had a red tip. Red tipped canes (as opposed to red and white striped canes, which mean the person also has at least some hearing loss) are generally used by people who do have some residual vision. Plain white canes are generally used by those who either have no light perception, or who’s vision is limited to light perception only…the kind of people we would immediately think of when we think the word “blind.”

I personally know somebody who is blind. She needs a dog to get around (cutest medical equipment ever, especially when lying on my feet because they were there). But she can still read large print, use a phone, recognize a familiar person at a short distance.

Blind really just means “Your vision is so bad that there are a lot of things you can’t do.”

Awareness of the Disability Spectrum

So, why is the little joke about the blind person and the cellphone not funny? I mean, it doesn’t hurt anyone, right?

Except it does. The immediate conclusion in our society to that picture is that she’s faking it. She’s carrying a cane so people will get out of her way or feel sorry for her or…whatever.

And this is a major problem in our society. It’s promoted, for example, any time somebody posts a picture of somebody getting out of a wheelchair and captions it with “Miracle.” Generally implying the person doesn’t really need the chair.

My mother used a wheelchair for many years, but she was not a full time wheelchair user.

Part-time wheelchair users may be able to walk short distances but not longer ones. Or they may be able to walk on good days, but not bad ones. In my mother’s case, she could walk short distances with assistance or a walker. She needed a spotter or her walker to ensure she did not fall, as one of her legs would regularly give way.

If she was going any distance, she used a mobility scooter. She only rarely used a wheelchair, although I have memories of irritation with a poorly-designed ramp while pushing her around the North Carolina Zoo. (She lived in the UK and obviously could not bring her scooter to the US. Looking back, we should have rented her one).

Her house did not have a garage. She had to park right outside so she could walk the short distance from the front door to the car…which was a lot less hassle than using her chair and transferring out of it. She could walk with her walker while my dad got the small mobi into the trunk, and then he would take the walker.

This caused the neighbors, who wanted their visiting relatives to be able to park closer, to harass her so much about faking it that it eventually contributed to my parents’ decision to move.

People who aren’t “absolutely” disabled in some area are often victims of ableist harassment. They’re harassed for using parking places, accused of defrauding the system…

And all because people don’t realize it’s all on some kind of spectrum.

My personal uncorrected vision is pretty bad. I wear glasses full time.

Nobody says to my friends who wear glasses for reading that they don’t really need them.

Let’s extend that to all disabilities. And stop posting pictures of that poor woman to mock her for not really being disabled.

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Freelance writer, freelance editor, novelist and short story writer. Jack of many trades.

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