I’m So Vain, I Probably Think this Post is About Me

…but it’s not. It’s actually about disability activist, Norman Kunc. And disabled people, and women, and poor people, and you, and everybody.

Being blind, I’m not a big instagram fan, but I recently started a project on instagram called #picaday2020. Its one of those stupid things where you take a picture of yourself everyday and post it. I already hate it. Why? The requirement is that I have to be in the picture. First of all, this is hard because there are no photographers in  my house. Not me, not my blind husband, not my kids who, despite being the ones that made me think about this by commenting that there are hardly any pictures of me, aren’t really in to taking lovely, well-thought out photos of me everyday.

I hate, Hate, HATE the thought of myself in pictures. I know what I look like. I am nearing 50 years old, I am middle aged, overweight and have funky messed-up eyes and a puffy broke out face from kidney disease medications. My uniform of choice is yoga pants and a T-shirt, no make-up, straight hair stuck in maybe some kind of random hair thingy. If I think too hard about it (which I try to avoid) I am kind of grossed out by myself.

Nationally-known disability rights advocate, Norman Kunc speaking at an event.

But then I think of something Norman Kunc, who has cerebral palsy,  once said when I met him years ago at the University of Kansas. I am severely paraphrasing here, but he said something about how when he hears his caregivers (usually women) talking negatively about their own appearance or weight or clothing or hair. He thought, I wonder what they think of me and what I look like when they think this about themselves? How can they really treat disabled people whose appearance is not typical as worthy and equals when they are so critical of their own appearance?

It made me think. There is something that we don’t talk about much in the disability community or in any community, even though I think it severely affects how we have been treated. Beauty-bias. The appearance of us. Of course this bias goes beyond disability and cross-sections race, gender, class, etc. But I think it especially affects the disabled.

The disabled were disproportionately affected by the so-called Ugly-laws, where people deemed unpleasant to look at could be arrested off the streets and put into institutions and almshouses indefinitely. It was illegal to be ugly, deformed or otherwise unpleasant in appearance in public for many decades. One of the last places to still have and ugly law (till 1974- my lifetime) was in a place where I grew up, Omaha, Nebraska.

I first encountered the consequences of beauty bias when I was growing up there. I had one of those mothers who had perfect hair, perfect nails, a perfect wardrobe, and who would rarely go to the mailbox without being appropriately made-up. When I was around middle school age, my hair started a phase of growing into frizzy kinkyness. My mother hated it, and would make me chemically straighten my hair and wrap it in old fashioned curlers every night before bed. I would sleep in them all night long. Once, my mother and sister were going to go on a trip to visit my glamourous aunt in Arizona. I couldn’t go, she said, because there was no way to take all my hair nomenclature on the trip. “I’m sorry,” she said, “But your hair is kind of like a handicap.”

I am on the far right next to my sister and mother. This picture was taken sometime in the midst of the Contact Lens/Frizzy Hair Wars

Even then I knew that was crazy, but then I was less sure about  my actual “handicap.” I was in the midst of the years long Contact Lens Wars. I had very thick, funny looking glasses. My mother said they scared people, and so she wanted me to wear contacts simultaneously with more normal looking glasses. I had to wear two different pair for this to work. But I did look like a more regular glasses-wearing person. I never adapted well to contacts even after multiple tries. They were very painful and caused red rings around my pupils. But, the message was clear. My pain, how well I could see or function, how much money it costed, or trouble it caused paled in comparison to “looking normal.” This was the message I learned and did not question.

Once, in college, I went to a frat party with my “hot” friend. I had recently had eye surgery and I think my eye was extra wonky that day. Some frat guys we didn’t know shouted, “Hey Tracy Lords! Why didja have to bring Hatchet Face?” I did not understand the reference until I watched the zany John Waters movie “Crybaby.” Oh, I guess I am Hatchet Face, the ugly one with the screwed up face.  But I liked Hatchet Face (played awesomely by Kim McGuire) in that movie. I decided to make her my own. Hatchet Face had style and she did not give a fuck. And she had cool friends who also did not give a fuck. She and the overweight Ricki Lake were besties with the beautiful Johnny Depp and the hot blond Tracy Lords. I can run with that crowd. I can have that style. I can own Hatchet Face.

The cast of Crybaby.

So, I struck out on what I called the “Celine Dion” philosophy. My dad once said Celine Dion is unattractive, but does the best with what she has. (I don’t think she is unattractive, but I got his point.) So, I was going to do my best with what I had. I had great hair that I dyed different colors (I had learned to work with the frizz by then in more realistic ways than my mom had.)  I worked out and had a decent body. I had lots of cute clothes, jewelry and make-up. I abandon all contacts and glasses, but I replaced them with a cute guide dog. I still had funky eyes that didn’t focus quite right, with too many red scars in them from surgeries, but I was doing it all with what I had. It was fun.

Me sometime in my 20s when I was all about overcompensating and being cute. (Being in my 20s certainly helped with that.)

But then once I applied for a job. Business suit, professional heals, hair, make-up, etc. And I heard later from a coworker with connections that I didn’t get the job because of my bloodshot eyes. “He thought you were drunk or on drugs.” my coworker said, ” and when I explained about your eyes he said it didn’t matter, because other people would think you were on drugs so there was no way you could work there.” I wondered how many other jobs and opportunities I had lost because of this. Something I could do nothing about.

Over time, I started to realize how repulsed people are by the differences in appearance caused by disability. Once a person gave me a ride to work and saw my boss through the window, a man with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair. He went off on how gross the guy was and how it made him sick to look at him. Why? I asked. He is just an average looking guy in average clothes. What is the big deal? But LOOK HOW HE MOVES! he said, referring to his spasticity.

Just a few weeks ago, my husband and I went to a parent’s night event at my son’s school. As we sat down at those picnic style cafeteria tables, I said a friendly “hello” to the parents sitting across the table. The man said to the women, “I can’t eat here” and the whole family got up and moved down to the next table. My husband has what Independent Living pioneer Ed Roberts would probably call “buggered up” eyes. They are atrophied and it looks like they are shut or that he doesn’t have eyes. He has a large scar on his chin from the same motorcycle accident that blinded him, and some minor paralysis in his face that makes his smile look a little odd. Whatever Hatchet Face drunk eye look I have, he is often treated much worse than me by strangers. When we are together, we seem to be more than some people can take.

My beloved husband, Nik, who I find gorgeous in his own way. (Also pictures is our then 1 year old son and 6 year old son.)

Disabled people often have physical aspects that are not typical and beyond their control. Beyond whatever actual and real discrimination that all disabled people face, those with atypical appearances face much more bias and derision. Sometimes, when I hear about a blind person who has had considerable success, I make a guess that they are typical looking to good looking, and I am almost always right. Some blind people do not have atypical features and can be very typically attractive. And quite frankly, they can often be rewarded with better treatment, more opportunities and less bias.

So, we ask ourselves, what is our responsibility as blind people to make others comfortable with our appearance? Obviously, appearance means something and I used to cringe more than I do now when I met a blind person who had no clue as to how to do their hair or wear matching clothes (which has more to do with low expectations and lack of opportunity than appearance at its core.) There is the Stevie Wonder sun glasses look that was a hack many blind people used in the ugly law days. (Some blind people also wear sun glasses because they are very sensitive to light.) There are prosthetic eyes, a version of which can be worn even if you have eyes. I have had many friends that wear these hand-painted scleral eye prosthetics. There is plastic surgery. All these options can be very expensive, have health risks and can affect functioning.

At what point should people be expected to accept us? Sure, have your second look, your double take or whatever, but then…how hard is it to just get over it?

In about my 30s, other elements started to come into play in my decisions about how far I was going to go to please other people with my appearance. My chronic kidney disease became more of a thing. I had to ration my energy levels. I had kids, I worked multiple jobs. Taking a shower became a thing I had to budget my energy for. Certain things, like nail polish and cute clothes, went by the wayside. For a time, I had babies in diapers and a job cleaning urine and ostomy bags. I was a mess all the time. My motto became “neat and clean. All I can promise is neat and clean.” I bought a bunch of Hanes T-shirts and scrub pants. I showered daily, I changed clothes when they were soiled, multiple times a day. That was it.

Here I am in my caregiving role with my twins in my These Hanes T-shirts WILL BE CLEAN days.

And that remains to this day. I still like to dress up and wear jewelry and make up on occasion. I still understand and appreciate that other people have fun with it. But I have been fortunate to be able to arrange my life to work mostly from home. This allows me to be as productive as possible and free to do the things that I want to accomplish. But it also means that I am not going to spend two hours flat ironing my hair and doing my nails to just walk upstairs to the computer. With kidney disease being much more of a factor than blindness at this point, I have to ration my energy and that means that I cannot afford a large budget of energy for vanity.

And I know what this means in this era where everyone is online and looks fabulous. There has been a sort of beauty inflation going on. Now you don’t just paint your nails, you decorate them with works of art. Now you can’t just throw on some sandals unless you’ve had a professional pedicure. Now you don’t just pluck a stray eyebrow hair, you get them threaded. Now you don’t just dye your hair some natural color, you dye it a rainbow of colors regularly. Now Kim Kardashian gets her hairline lasered and everyone has breast implants, butt implants and wears Spanx. Now not just the odd celebrity has “work done” everyone is expected to. Now new boxes of clothes come once a month and you can’t wear anything twice.

But disabled people largely get left behind. They (along with other marginalized groups) cannot afford to spend X amount of hours in the mani/pedi chair and X amount of dollars on the newest 5 second fashion. Many cannot get “work done” or get things like prosthetic eyes due to health or financial barriers. My friend who is quadriplegic and sometimes does not have enough care hours available to shave and cut his hair, often says how much better he is treated by medical staff, caregivers and others when he is clean-shaven and with cut hair. Hard decisions about prioritizing energy and time can impact personal appearance, but instead people often look upon grooming differences as a lack of competence or a character flaw.

Function takes precedence over form when you are constantly trying to keep up your function in a world not made for you. I used to ride the bus crumpled up against strangers and then walk over a mile to work in the Oregon rain regularly. When I got to work, I was the one who looked like a drown rat in heavy boots while everyone else stepped fresh out of their cars. I did not have room or the ability to carry a whole new wardrobe to change into when I was already carrying a ton of adaptive equipment. Even when I tried my best, I still felt left behind in the world of appearance.

Mostly, I don’t care too much about all of this. I am much more likely to get pissed off when I see one of my friends getting treated poorly because of the way they look. But I would like to center for others and myself this idea that people have dignity and self-worth no matter what they look like or how they choose to decorate themselves. I do not want anyone to feel they have to apologize for not measuring up to some appearance standard. As a small statement of that, I wanted to put myself out there on instagram and not apologize for my own appearance anymore.

My life is really good right now. I have many blessings. And I wanted to somehow share those and appreciate them myself while also being bold enough to be the self accepting person that Norman Kunc expects and deserves. I am a middle aged woman who is deafblind and has kidney disease. My eyes are scarred with surgeries and my face is puffy from kidney medication. I’m a bit fat. I often can be found in yoga pants. But I am clean and neat. And I am being as productive as I can, while enjoying all the good things my life has to offer. This is what I look like.

This is the picture that inspired the project. I am HAPPY here. I have my kid and my dog and my husband and its Christmas and we have our house and presents and good food! But I can’t show it to anyone because I maybe look FAT!

In my instagram pictures, I have tried to highlight every day a “blessing” in my life. One day it was a movie with the kids, the next it was braille and the knowledge and equipment I am so lucky to have access to, another day it was my guide dogs, another it was that I still love to exercise and do things like yoga, and another it was friendships. I will try to improve on the photography but I cannot promise anything. But 25 years ago Norman Kunc told me I was being a hypocrite about my insecurity over my appearance, and I am going to finally stop that right now.

October Odds and Ends

October was an extremely busy month. I’m just finally catching my breath. We started with a teen retreat, then my twins met their biological father for the first time (he found us via DNA testing in May and we had corresponded since then. They have known many of their donor siblings for years, but meeting their “third dad” has been a bit of–a positive, but still–a whirlwind.) We had NFB convention presentations, other miscellaneous presentations, my family visits, Halloween events, I got a new Braille Display to get used to, My partner, Niklas Petersson, went to Qatar at the last minute for a week, I was sick with a respiratory infection for about three weeks, and now I want the most boring November ever.

But backtracking, I had a couple of published things I wanted to post here.

First, I did an interview with the disability activist and blogger Mariah Hudson Nichols. I am really enjoying her blog. Check out my interview and stick around for the rest of her blog.

Disabled Moms Interview Project: Lisa Ferris, Deafblind Mom

Second, I had a column published in the Rooted in Rights blog. I have worked with them before, but I learned a lesson here. I wrote this up several months ago and sent Emily Ladau a draft to see if she was interested in it at all. She said yes, and that she would like to print it in October for Disability Employment Month. …And then, I promptly forgot about it. I had meant to go through an editing process with her and shape it up a little, but lo-and-behold, one day it was published as is. I learned in my freelance career that maybe it is best to NOT turn in an article before being pretty sure that it is edited to my satisfaction. That is my mistake, and the typos are mine.

“Essential Functions” on Job Postings Creates Barriers for Employees and Employers Alike

Third, Nik had a story in Al Jazeera about his trip to Qatar where he demo-ed educational equipment at the Qitcom convention. The story is in Arabic, but I will try to put a link of it through google translate for you (which makes it sound odd, but better than nothing if like me, your Arabic isn’t up to snuff.) I hope to write about his trip (kind of from his point of view, since he is not a writer) soon. It was fascinating even from my perspective as a bystander.

Nik’s Al Jazeera Article (Arabic)

Nik’s Al Jazeera Article (Google Translate URL)

Here is to a nice and slow, uneventful next few weeks!

Homeschooling

I’m attempting to wake up the homeschooling blog, which has been almost dormant. I have kept a pretty basic yearly summary of what the kids have done each year. There are some challenges there, as well as some places I could go with it. In this homeschool blog post, I try to round up the ideas floating in my head about it.

Just You Try to Read My Inaccessible Article About Digital Accessibility

When Attorney Leonard Duboff, who is blind, asked me to help him write an article for the Oregon State Bar Bulletin about digital accessibility, I said “sure!” and then promptly skedaddled over to the Bulletin website to get a feel for its tone. When I got there, it all made sense why the article needed to be written. Displayed in a photo flipbook format, The Oregon State Bar Bulletin was 100% inaccessible. “Ah, I see!” I thought. “I will be writing an article about blindness access that no blind person will be able to access. Classic!”

To their credit, once the OSBA was made aware of the issue, they did take steps to remedy the situation. They are working with our web accessibility consultants to improve their website’s compliance with WCAG guidelines. I hope that improvements will come soon for blind attorneys, law students, and consumers alike who may wish to access the Bar website and its Bulletin and archives. For now, the OSBA has posted, as an emergency measure, the entire Bulletin in PDF. Though now somewhat readable, it is still a headache-inducing, accessibility nightmare. For those of you who dare attempt to read it with screen readers and braille displays, I salute your bravery. (But if you really would like to read the article, email me and I can send you my word file of it. I can’t post something I wrote and NOT give you a way to read it!) For the adventurous, though, You can find it in the May, 2019 edition of the Oregon State Bar Bulletin.

A very similar article written by Mr. Duboff and myself was also picked up in the April 2019 edition of the New York State Bar Association Journal, but you probably can’t read that one, either. This is not an accessibility issue, though. What I can access of the NYSBA website is actually fairly accessible. But the journal is behind a login wall for members only. As a courtesy, authors are usually given free copies of publications they contribute to, and I asked for a digital copy. This is what I was sent:

New York State Bar Bulletin Article Publised April 2019
A JPEG image of a page from the article. It is slightly diagonal and cut off, greyed text like an old photocopied fax, it is not tagged or readable.

I can’t read this article, either–at least not with significant effort and a top notch OCR scanner. So we’ve got a ways to go on this topic, don’t we? But I will keep chipping away as best I can.

On Being the Only Minority in the Family

This article I wrote for Rooted in Rights was a tough one for me. I ended up rewriting it 3 times. The first version I turned in to editor Emily Ladau was over 3000 words long and was a meandering thing full of caveats. I did not want to put my mother in a bad light, and I felt like I could not tell my personal story (a requirement of the piece) without her. I knew I needed to slim it way down. Parts I cut out were:

  • That I grew  up in the 70s and 80s, and even though there was a lot happening in disability civil rights in places like Berkeley and Denver, none of that made it to suburban Iowa or Nebraska.
  • That the word ableism wasn’t even really a thing yet.
  • That there was no internet and significantly less local organizing. Families back then really only had the medical and educational professionals to tell them what to do.
  • I went to kindergarten in 1975, the year PL 94-142 was passed (now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). Having teachers of the visually impaired and blind kids with IEPs in regular schools was brand new.
  • “Maximizing vision” was the best practices at the time. This has somewhat changed since then.

What I also wanted to say, is that although in my mother’s time, the conditions were as above, making it challenging for parents to recognize that they maybe needed to get rid of oppressive attitudes about disability (or even understand that they had oppressive attitudes about disability), these excuses are not nearly as viable today.

Today, when a parent has a disabled child, it is much easier to find accurate information, learn about disability as a civil rights issue, and connect with adults with disabilities to find role models. Although I recognize that inherent ableism will not go away overnight and there is a learning curve to understanding and accepting a disabled child for who they are, there is really no excuse for parents to still hold the life-long poor attitudes about their disabled children that they did in the past. Self-Advocates have worked hard to reach out and be welcoming to parents and families. Information is readily available. Its not perfect, but support is out there.

However, I still see parents hurting their kids with their ableist and unaccepting attitudes. I still see parents who treat adults with their child’s disability with loathing and disdain and I still see parents forcing their kids to “PASS” as not disabled (or less disabled) using  methods that are unworkable at best and cruel and abusive at worst.

Instead of using the internet as a tool to reach out and learn from the disabled community, I see parents using social media as a way to martyr themselves using their “difficult” special needs child as a prop for how wonderful they are and how worthy of praise for putting up with such a kid. They display their child to reach these ends without any respect for the child’s privacy and understanding or empathy for their child’s point of view.

Every once in a while, I am asked to meet with a parent support group. I tell them, I DO NOT DO support groups. I am not a counselor, I do not care to sit and listen to parents whine and cry about their hard life with their disabled child. What I will facilitate is Information Exchange Groups. I can help with information about learning alternative techniques for sensory impairments. I can help with learning to take control of an IEP meeting and know your child’s rights. I can help you learn to advocate for reasonable accommodations. I can update you on tools and technology are available, etc. Why should I listen to you whine in fear about how your child may never go to college or live independently or have a family when I know that is a wrong assumption and I can show you hundreds of examples of people with disabilities who are doing those things successfully and we can talk about how they do them?

For many families, getting this information is exactly what they need to move beyond the fear (and need for whiny support groups) and get past their ableist attitudes. If those families keep working on it, they will be fine. But then, there are the others. Families who really DO NOT WANT TO KNOW the solutions to living in the world as a disabled person. Who don’t want to meet and accept successful adults with disabilities and who don’t want to be told that whining and martyring yourself on the cross of your child is damaging. When this happens, my goal changes. I focus on the kid. I try to give that kid (sometimes adult kids) every opportunity to obtain the skills and resources they need. Because when you find yourself in a family like that, you need to RUN AWAY as fast as you possibly can.

Luckily, there is a community of disabled adults who will be there to support you.