Disability is sexy.

Of all the minority groups, those of us with disabilities seem somehow the least sexy. I use that term both in its usual sense, arousing, provocative, sensuous, slinky, titillating, as well as in the more casual use, meaning interesting or exciting, as in a sexy issue. How many of us feel complimented when someone says, “I forget you have a disability.” I remember someone stopping me on the street, soon after I became blind, saying, “It’s hard to believe you’re blind; you dress so nicely.” Of course, that was back in the 70s, when grooming and appearance weren’t considered an important part of the curriculum in schools for the blind across the country. People in institutions often became “institutionalized” into thinking that because their students couldn’t see themselves, it didn’t matter what they looked like.
But I digress.
Disability has always carried a stigma. People hide their hearing losses, their diminished sight; they are signs of weakness. The man who became president as well as disabled, F.D.R., never allowed himself to be photographed in his wheelchair. The chair was a symbol of powerlessness. He always had himself propped up at a podium to speak. Think of how many older people resist wearing the hearing aids that would improve their communication and quality of life. The stigma stands.
Of course, there have been groups of people with disabilities who have asserted themselves and expressed pride. There has been the Deaf Pride movement and there is the National Federation of the Blind, for instance. At times, however, I feel that these folks have done a bit of a disservice to the cause. I have heard NFBers say, “So I’m print-handicapped; sighted people are Braille-handicapped.”
To me that argument falls apart. Although I read Braille completely and my sighted husband cannot read a letter of it, he could learn, if willing. I can never read print again.
Some members of the Deaf Pride community rebuke the word disability and feel that their world without hearing is a culture—which is kind of beautiful, I think. However, I’ve heard of couples who are deaf who cannot conceive a child and want, then, to find a sperm donor who is deaf and, therefore, bring a child into the world with hearing impairment. Having had both sight and hearing in the past, I could never impose blindness or deafness on a child.
For me, not being able to see and not being able to hear well have been deprivations—not mere attributes. My friend who was born blind, says, “So I’m blind; I also have brown hair.”
Well, she and I can change our hair color, and I, for one, do. Neither of us can change our blindness, so the argument again doesn’t hold up.
And who cares? None of us, not my blind friend, not the NFBers, not those in the Deaf Pride community, need to justify our equality. We all have developed subtle and pretty amazing skills as a consequence of our disabilities. I wrote an article about such skills, called “Differently-abled.” They are strengths that we have honed that are beautiful and largely unnoticed.
And I’d submit that we’ve developed and honed some fine inner qualities, too, because of the challenges we face. So I think we often can say that our disabilities have improved us—something anyone who knows me must be sick of hearing at this point.
I recently read an article sent to me by my friend, Cynthia Ingraham of the Helen Keller Center for Deaf-Blind Adults. Written by Deborah Kendrick, who is, like me, Deaf-blind, the article argues for pride. She says that too often we with disabilities apologize for ourselves. In the training program years ago when I became blind, I remember how constantly I said” I’m sorry.” I hit someone with my cane or ran into a breast. Then I overheard the same phrase echoing throughout the halls of that agency: “I’m sorry; I’m sorry.” We were almost apologizing for existing.
Deborah Kendrick says that the other minority groups did not and do not apologize for themselves. In their Civil Rights movements they took pride, as in “Black is beautiful.”
People often use terms such as “sightless” or “visionless” to describe me, and I urge them not to—especially “visionless.” I hate thinking I’m a person without metaphorical vision. And I’ve worked hard to function deaf and blind. I don’t shrink from those terms because they’ve strengthen and deepened and—sorry to perseverate—improved me immensely.
So I’m a person with disabilities or just plain disabled, and proud of it.

About Sally Hobart Alexander

Blinded at the age of twenty-six, I left California and elementary school teaching for life in Pittsburgh, Pa. There, I met my husband, got a Masters' degree in social work, had two kids, now 35 and 32, and became a writer. Surprisingly, the writing career led me full-circle to teaching, and I teach in Chatham University's M.F.A. program and lead two writing critique groups. Always, since the age of 26, I have traveled, not in the stereotypic darkness attributed to blindness, but a mist. My blog then, "traveling through the mist" will deal with issues in my culturally different life as a blind writer, teacher, speaker, and human being.
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