The Access Matters campaign team is a big fan of that blind woman, Julie Woods. And we are very grateful for her tireless support for the cause, to see accessibility legislation implemented in Aotearoa New Zealand. Here is her latest story.
Today I am 25 years blind! Yes, it's 25 years ago today I sat in the waiting room of the eye department at Dunedin Public Hospital, about to be told ...
... I would never see again. To mark this moment, I have decided to look back on my first 25 years as a blind woman, and rather than do what I normally do on these types of occasions, which is celebrate all that I have done, I will instead highlight the things that have made it so hard. This involves thinking about the things I have shrugged off along the way that maybe I shouldn't have. Today I am allowing myself the chance to reflect on the comments people have made to me that are still with me, many years on.
There are so many positive things that people have said and done to lift me up, but I have written down the ones that made me want to curl up and die.
I've done this because it's hard to call out acts of ableism as they occur, but, unless we do, attitudes towards disabled people will not change.
Here are the top 25 ableist things people have said to me in my first 25 years as a blind woman:
1. "I'm so sorry" - I don't know how many times I have heard this one when people find out I am blind. I am not sure what you're sorry about, for I am minding my own business going about being happy. Oh you mean because I'm blind?
2. "But you don't look blind" - I'm sorry but I can't do much about this one. Would it be easier on you if I looked more blind? What can I do to help this?
3. "Is your husband blind?" - Could it be unthinkable that my husband could see? A lady asked me this once at a party to which I replied "only when he's looking for his socks in his sock drawer!"
4. "It must be terrible not to be able to see" - Ouch! I really hate this one. How is this supposed to make me feel. I foolishly end up trying to make the messenger feel better rather than walk away which is what I need to do.
5. "I'd rather be Deaf than blind" - This old chestnut! Firstly, you don't get a choice, and secondly, it's not a competition. I always let Helen Keller answer this one, "Deafness takes you away from people, blindness takes you away from things."
6. "How can you cook?" - I answer the Dolly Parton way with this one by saying what she said when a reporter asked her how could she play the guitar with those long finger-nails ... "Damn well".
7. "But I have to go home and clean my own flat" - The response from a needs assessor when they wanted to take away my funding for domestic assistance.
"But you're not blind!" I protest.
8. "Are you going for a spot of skiing?" - Something a city councillor said to me at a civic function when he mistook my white cane for a ski pole.
9. "Who dresses you?" - I should really have fun with this one. When they suggest it's my husband I always want to say, "No way, he is the one who undresses me!"
10. "How do you put on your make-up?" - Once again, the Dolly Parton way ... damn well!
11. "How can you sight see when you can't see?" - This is one I got asked constantly when my husband Ron and I began to travel. Because I can smell, hear, taste and touch, but most of all, I listen!
12. "I don't know what I'd do if I went blind" - Oh that's nice. What would you like me to say to this one? "You get used to it" I often splutter back.
13. "What do you want support services for?" - The dreadful words of an ophthalmologist when, at the age of 18, I was diagnosed with a vision impairment, 38 years ago, oops, I've held on to this one for longer - sorry about that - but it still hurts.
14. "How can you use a computer?" - Yes, it's true; I can use a computer, with speech software and a significant amount of tuition from Blind Low Vision NZ.
15. "Are you driving home?" - I don't know how many times people have made jokes about this one. For some reason they think it's funny. IT'S NOT FUNNY!
16. "Are you stone blind?" - Something a taxi driver said to me recently enquiring about my level of blindness.
17. "Can you fill out this print form?" - Actually, no. Can you make it accessible?
18. "Do you want to know what I look like?" - Not really!!! Why would that be important to me? Do you want to tell me how good looking you are?
19. "I'm very handsome!" - Yes, you do want to tell me how good looking you are! This happened to me one night while I was out collecting funds for Guide Dog Services.
20. "Can she walk up the stairs?" - Woohoo, are you talking to me? Yes, I can walk up stairs, it's my eyes that don't work, not my legs!
21. "Do you want to look in the mirror?" - I don't know how many sales people have asked me this one. While in Sorrento, Italy, a retail assistant ran away behind the counter and burst into tears when she realised what she had said.
22. "Can I pray for you?" - Ron and I were walking around the train station in Copenhagen and a lady chased us down before tapping me on the shoulder, saying she wanted to pray for me. She even followed us into the lift, so I finally asked her "Why do you want to pray for me?" Discovering it was because I am blind, I replied "You don't have to feel sorry for me, I am happy." She eventually got out of the lift.
23. "Do you want to click on the blue link?" - What blue link?
24. "It's over there" - Are you pointing in front of a blind woman?
25. "Does your husband do all the cooking?" ROFL! What? I've had two sighted husbands and neither of them have done all the cooking! I do the cooking, and shopping and washing, make the bed, put the rubbish out, and change the toilet paper constantly! The only thing I refuse to do is change the light bulbs!
Ableism is the discrimination of disabled people based on the belief that able-bodied people are superior. Ableism assumes that disabled people require fixing, when we don't. All we want is to be treated as equals. We don't want to be pitied, nor reminded we are vulnerable. And if you don't believe me, those are the words spoken by the grandfather of the blind Louis Braille in 1841, after inventing his system of reading and writing for use by the blind.
It's not in my nature to put others down, so it always comes as a great surprise when others try to do it to me.
All I ask, from a woman who has been blind for 25 years, is: don't try to fix me, know that I don't want to be able to see, don't think I am less than you or that you are superior to me.
I am your brother, I am your sister, I am your fellow human being, who just happens to be blind.
That blind woman,
This is my access story, it is one of many. I'm sharing it because I want a law that puts accessibility at the heart of an inclusive Aotearoa New Zealand.