Posted by: habentravels | January 4, 2010

The Shadow of Stereotypes

We all trip over things now and then while distracted by other matters in life, and such little mishaps are no big deal…unless the person has some sort of disability! A mistake made by a disabled person is magnified ten times. As you’ll soon read, a small fall by a blind person, a completely harmless fall, results in magnificent drama.

Though we might pretend otherwise, people with disabilities do make mistakes from time to time. When these mistakes are then blown out of proportion by onlookers, how does one respond to the social uproar? When American culture idealizes rugged independence, people with disabilities often struggle with the precarious business of balancing our identities as independent and autonomous individuals, and individuals needing some help (and yes, the masculine independence worshipped in America would love to have you believe that ablebodied men don’t need help).

***

During my trip to Costa Rica with Mobility International USA, we visited the University of Costa Rica in San Jose. We listened to panels about services for students with disabilities, and then mingled with the students with disabilities to compare student life in Costa Rica to student life in the United States. The mingling continued at the cafeteria where I took the opportunity to converse with a deaf law student. He planned to be the first deaf lawyer in Costa Rica.

After finishing my lunch, I was surprised to learn from Katie, the student leader of the day, that we had an hour of free time until the next event. Our schedules were typically so packed that we simply rushed from one activity to another. I hadn’t planned for a break, and had no idea what I would do. Tired of sitting in the noisy cafeteria, I decided to leave my group and explore the campus on my own.

Immediately outside the cafeteria was a wide rectangular courtyard. Enjoying the warm Costa Rican sun, I walked around the periphery to see what I would find. About halfway around, I found another blind person. Instead of a cane, though, she had a guide dog. Maria had been in the meeting before lunch with us, and standing beside her and her dog was a travel instructor for the blind who had also been at the meeting. We chatted for a while about the meeting, then about her dog. Interestingly, the dog was from a guide dog school in the US and Maria had traveled there to train with the dog. I had come across another guide dog earlier that week that also came from the US, and from the same school, too.

There is always something refreshing about communicating when there is a language barrier. When there is a language barrier, communication cannot occur unless the two parties really make an effort to communicate. Maria was doing her best to recall all the English she had learned in school, and I was racking my brain for all the Spanish phrases I’d been forced to learn in high school. Knowing that the other is really trying creates a special form of friendship. We were laughing through our mixture of Spanish and English. When I had to leave so that Maria could finish her lesson with the travel instructor, I was hoping I would see her again that afternoon.

I turned around and walked down the middle of the courtyard. My right hand swung my cane rhythmically on its own as my mind lingered on the conversation with Maria. From somewhere on the left, I heard my name being called. The voice belonged to Kamilah, a girl from my group. I squinted ahead and spotted a group of people. One was wearing a white shirt. Who from my group was wearing a white shirt that day? Kamilah and the people with her seemed very low, so I figured they were sitting on the ground ahead. Did I want to stop and sit with them? All morning I had been sitting at meetings; chances were that the afternoon would consist of even more sitting. Perhaps I should chat for just a bit and then use the rest of my break for walking? The group was getting closer and I could see that Alison was one of the people there with Kamilah.

The ground beneath my feet vanished. Suddenly, I was falling.

The fall was only for a second. I landed standing firmly on my two feet, as if I’d simply hopped off the ledge. My cane was standing straight and tall in my right hand, acting as though it hadn’t just betrayed me. The ledge was about two feet off the ground, and now that I was coerced into paying attention to my surroundings I could see that there were steps to my right. I could also see that Kamilah, Alison, and two other people were standing a few feet to my left—they looked low not because they were sitting, but because they were on lower ground. But they weren’t just standing. When four sighted people watch a blind person trip and fall despite using a cane, a storm is inevitable.

“Oh My God! Haben! Oh My God! Are you OK? Oh My God!”

Now, I was physically fine. No bruise, nothing. But inside, I was horrified. Embarrassment doesn’t even begin to describe what I felt. Would I ever live this down? How would anyone trust me to walk by myself again? I would have to forfeit my walking license…

They came over to me right away asking over and over, “Are you OK? Oh My God! I thought about warning you but I figured you’d see it with your cane. Oh My God. Are you sure you’re OK?” Katie and her personal assistant Marie Clare were the other two with Alison and Kamilah. Alison and Kamilah are hard-of-hearing and Katie uses a wheelchair. I knew that their disabilities would prevent them from being too patronizing. But still, how easily I’d played out the caricature of a blind fool. I did what every sighted person would envision of a blind person, and despite their disabilities my peers were all sighted. All I could do was hope they would believe my explanations. I simply wasn’t paying attention. Everyone makes mistakes, everyone trips and falls at times. We went over the episode several times and began laughing about the silliness of it all. How I’d scared them, how I’d broke the fall beautifully as if I’d intentionally stepped off the ledge, with even my useless white cane erect and ready to keep moving. They accepted my explanation and I would not have to forfeit my walking license. I would, however, have to endure several days of good-natured teasing.

A woman walked over to us with a guide dog. “Hi Maria,” I called.

“Hi Haben!” She came over laughing and put an arm around me. Oh no. Someone must have described to her what had just happened. Who else witnessed my humiliation? I felt incredibly embarrassed, but I knew that the best way to push the episode behind me was to laugh about it. Perhaps laughter would coax them into treating the episode as though it were no big deal. Honestly, what’s so earth-shattering about a blind person taking a harmless fall?

Maria’s arrival helped distract us a bit. I re-introduced her to the others and then asked her to give us a tour of the campus. Enthusiastically, she led the way to the various academic buildings. At every single staircase someone would say, “Haben, use your cane!” or “I’ve got my eye on you!” I wasn’t thrilled by these constant and unnecessary reminders, but I understood that I deserved them in a way. I laughed it off as best I could.
Later that day, I told the whole story to Loren, one of the group leaders. Loren understood the complexity of my situation. Yes, it was only a small and harmless fall, but when a disabled person makes any sort of mistake, it is almost always magnified ten times. Yet, Loren was shocked to see that I was actually telling him this story. He wondered if it would be wiser to try to bury it in the past, and he asked if I was going to repeat it. When the four had come rushing to me with a chorus of “Oh My God” and “Are you OK?” I decided then and there to confront the issue with a smiling face. It would have been futile to try to keep it a secret when four people, and maybe even more, had seen the fall. Each person would have their own version of the episode, perhaps even with a few creative tweaks to make it a better story. I would understand. For the sake of maintaining my independence, though, I needed to tell the story how it *really* was, emphasizing that it was my fault for not paying attention. In addition, experience has taught me that embarrassments eat at you from the inside if you try to hide them. There’s a huge emotional release when the embarrassing story is told to someone else, and indeed I did feel a lot better about the situation after admitting the whole thing to Loren. It stopped being so embarrassing.

Sure enough, by the next day everyone had heard the story. “Did you hear how Haben fell off a cliff??” I don’t know how a two feet high ledge turned into a cliff, but what did I say about creative tweaks? I retold my version of the story many times over the next few days. Adding here and there that everyone gets distracted now and then; everyone makes mistakes. Since I willingly told the story to people and laughed over my flaws, the story actually disappeared after a few days. The fact that we were on a fabulous trip to Costa Rica ensured that plenty of other things would distract and entertain us. I made an extra attempt to not get distracted from my cane, though.

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Responses

  1. Wonderful story and great response on your part. I think it’s true in much of life that untold stories have tremendous power over people–and telling the story your way (and joining in good-natured laughing) makes them small enough to disappear in a little time.

  2. I’m sighted, but I have a physical disability that used to mean I walked with crutches, and now means that I use a service dog.

    I can’t tell you what a fuss people make when I trip sometimes! I’ve done the same kind of stumble people do all the time on the stairs – you’re going upstairs and you just don’t lift your foot quite high enough, so your toe catches on the stair. You end up on hands and knees, and maybe it stings a little, but it’s mostly your pride that’s wounded. When you’re ‘able’, maybe one person going by you asks if you’re alright. When you’re disabled, it’s almost inevitable that someone will rush over to try to help you up, make a fuss over you and checking to see if you’re okay, reporting to you that the scrape on your knee is bleeding (as if you couldn’t tell that yourself), and going on about how ‘they’ (the people around you) should have stopped to help instead of continuing on their way. Add in that someone ‘helping’ me stand is likely to dislocate one of my joints if they haven’t been trained on the right way of doing things, just one MORE thing wrong about the whole situation.

    I mean, if I fell and stayed down, I would expect someone to at least ask if I needed help, the same as I’d expect them to do for any person, whether they were ablebodied or had a disability.

    That, to me, is the most frustrating part of the whole situation. If I were able-bodied, they’d ask if I need help. Because I’m disabled, they start doing things to ‘help’ before the question of whether I need or want it has even been asked.

    I suppose I understand that our cultural construct of ability has created this belief that being disabled, I am obviously incapable of managing basic things on my own, but I’m tired of it.

    On kind of the same page, I wish random strangers would stop deciding that girl with dog MUST be blind, and shouting out to me a description of the terrain and any obstacles in front of me or grabbing me by the arm and leading me. Even if I was blind, I doubt I’d appreciate the ‘help’, because I would have learned to live with and manage the unpredictability of my surroundings. I’m quite able to navigate the world on my own, and I quite resent the assumption that I can’t.

    ~Kali
    http://www.brilliantmindbrokenbody.wordpress.com

  3. I’m willing to bet the dog guides were from Guiding Eyes.


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