Is there another psychological pain as intense as shame? Maybe to be falsely and irrevocably accused of something reprehensible might be worse. But shame is a pretty common experience that eats away at a person and is probably experienced far more often than we can appreciate.
Not the most important aspect of the book I recently blogged about, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, by Ari Shavit, but the shame he describes in one chapter of the book certainly caught my imagination and my experience. I’ve heard most about the present conflicts in Israel between the Jews and Arabs over the occupation and over the settlements, about the conflicts between the orthodox Jews and the more reformed, conservative, and secular Jews, between the conservatives and liberals. What I hadn’t really thought about were the conflicts between the Arabic Jews, the Oriental Jews, as Shavit called them, and the Ashkenazi Jews. I was struck by the interviews Shavit conducts with Israelis who had grown up in Morocco and other African countries, then moved to Israel.
One woman who is now a TV host spoke of her shame. Her effort as a teen and young adult was to blend in, to be more accepted, to deny her culture from childhood. Many would say that she has triumphed in her new-found homeland, having name-recognition and respect and affluence. But the woman regrets what she has lost in denying her own identity.
My thoughts strayed, I’m afraid, to the similarity to many of us who are blind and those of us disabled.
As an adventitiously blind person, I certainly gained immeasurably from the rehab program I was gifted by the state of Pa—nearly four months of training to regain my independence. I am forever grateful. But the push from most of my teachers there was “to blend in,” to keep using nonverbal communication tactics like gestures and facial expressions, to hold my head up always, rather than to tip it backwards or lower it to avoid blows from branches and other objects, to find ways to keep up with clothing and other styles, to maintain tiptop grooming, to eat in socially-acceptable ways. I don’t regret this pressure to look and act “normal” and “appropriate.” But the sub textural message was that blind impulses, like turning my ear to someone speaking to me rather than my face, weren’t okay. Bottom line: blind people were inferior.
I’m reluctant to admit this, but at first I didn’t want to date any blind men. I didn’t in those early months even want to nurture blind friendships or take a “blind” job. I wanted to prove to myself that I could make it in the sighted world, so planned only to work at the agency that had trained me temporarily, to save enough money for graduate school. And I did only teach there for one year.
I also remember overhearing one trainee after another apologizing for him or herself. Then I realized I constantly said “I’m sorry,” when I bumped an ankle with my cane, a breast with my hand.
Having just reached in my early twenties a kind of self-acceptance and peace with my limitations, I became blind and went through early adolescence all over again, hating my mistakes, my clumsiness, my new, slower, less graceful self.
How often I burned with shame in those early months, I can’t say. But I loved hearing comments, such as, “Oh, I had no idea you were blind,” or “It’s hard to believe you’re blind; you dress so nicely,” or “I always forget you’re blind.”
I was the one blind person on staff, then the only blind person in graduate school. And most situations I found myself in, I was the conspicuous blindie. I liked that isolated status. I was making it in the big time, with the majority.
Wow, conformity. What a pull it has on us all and at what cost?

And when I consider my congenital colleagues, and what they went through in the very painful years of childhood and adolescence, where vulnerabilities are legion and nailed by all adversaries, and are there many we encounter in those years other than adversaries? To grow up with a sense that they just don’t measure up, that their way is so bizarre, I wonder that they ever get over the anger at others and at themselves. It seems like such a universal to feel better about oneself by pointing out the failings in others. It’s not enough that we succeed; others must fail.
But at what cost do we devalue the physical and cultural and probably emotional and spiritual skills of the less-prized in our societies? I’ve published a personal essay years ago about the subtle skills that disabled people of all stripes develop, skills that those without disabilities could hone as well, but do not since there’s no necessity. But the skills are pretty delicious—amazing peripheral vision of those who are deaf, astounding sense of touch of those dealing with deaf-blindness, for instance.
I’ve also spoken many times about eventually embracing the word “blind.” I try to respect many with disabilities not wanting to be labeled, “the deaf woman” or “the blind man.” Instead it’s more respectable to say, “the man who is blind.” The distinction serves to demonstrate that we are all multifaceted, and no one quality can dominate or encapsulate us.
But disability has been such an enormous challenge for me, and, frankly, such an enormous gift, improving me immeasurably, that I want to spotlight it and wear it like a badge of honor. So I never shrink from the label, the blind woman.
I think I turned a corner in my self-blind concept during the training program. As I gained more and more independence, as I reclaimed dreams and goals of my sighted life, as the realities of my blind life made me more disciplined, persevering, empathic, appreciative of the unusual among us, I lost the shame and the self-loathing.
I view disability now as one more aspect of the rich, diverse culture in our world. Those with disabilities have as multifaceted and deeply-interesting experiences as African-Americans, Hispanics, GBLTs, Native Americans, all varied groups. Becoming comfortable with someone who cannot easily climb up or down a set of steps, but can crawl because of his or her remarkable upper body strength broadens. And as many with disabilities point out, if you with abled bodies live long enough, you, too, with experience impairments; you are quite accurately, TABs, temporarily able-bodied. To me, the shame is to isolate oneself from this remarkable tapestry of difference making up our world.


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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