It was a beautiful Thursday morning and I was out walking with my guide dog, Allegro, whom I have lately been referring to as “my labradorable,” because of his incredible cuteness. If it were safe to run the trail at Aquatic Park, perhaps we would have. But it isn’t safe to run with a guide dog, and this is particularly true for me because for some reason I often find myself ahead of my dog, and you just don’t want the blind human leading the sighted assistance dog. It defeats the whole point. Anyway, we resorted, instead, to walking so quickly that we could have been mistaken for running, but technically were not. Birds sang, very few people came by, the air was clear, the sun was shining but even in the sun it was wonderfully cool, and I was managing to be exceptionally quiet and not trip on anything which surprised me.
I had too much work to do to make the entire loop around the park that morning, so we stopped at an odd piece of wood and some other material imbedded for some inexplicable reason in the road, which makes an excellent landmark, and I gave Allegro a few minutes of being an ordinary dog. He sniffed around happily as I checked the time. We’d gone 3/4 of a mile in twenty minutes flat, which surprised me once again. I’m not particularly in shape, and I wasn’t running, of course.
Completely immersed in the joy of being able to move and be outside, we made time back the other direction just as quickly. I was not a “blind person on a walk,” although I was walking, and still blind. I did not “look blind” whatever that means, and the phrase should be abolished in my opinion. I looked like myself. I walked tall. Even when walking uphill I managed to stand straight, the way my dad taught me to do a few weeks ago. I smiled at people who walked by. I carried myself like I was sure of my belonging in this world, because of that I am completely sure. I did not move cautiously, but like I trust myself to find my way, and hold my own, because I am learning that I can.
Perhaps that is why the little boy said hi to me as I made my way up the sidewalk back to the main road. There was quite a gathering of children on the sidewalk, actually. I’m starting to wonder if there is an elementary school nearby there? Perhaps parents or teachers like to bring the kids there to play. The park has an extensive playground, awesome for a child. Most of the kids walking toward me were talking amongst themselves and this is honestly what I expected all of them to do. I was on a walk by myself and had no need to have a conversation with anyone.
But the last kid to walk by, who sounded like he was between ten and twelve, who was walking with an adult, slowed down and said hello. And I smiled at him and said hello in return and kept walking.
The adult with the group was either a teacher or his or someone else’s mother. I could hear both of their sets of footsteps behind me, and the woman slowed down slightly. The little boy asked, his voice conveying indignant confusion, “What!” I hear that same tone from kids who are being caught out at something which they shouldn’t have done. What, indeed? What had the kid done wrong?
But I could guess the what, in vivid detail. The “what” went like this: the kid had done nothing that “he shouldn’t have done,” but instead, he did something that “people don’t do.” It is a very important distinction, which the adult with him did not make, and by example started to teach him to not make it likewise. It starts with a look. You know the one. You’re fixed with it by someone with more power than you, usually while you are a child looking up, literally and figuratively to the older and wiser grown-ups around you. You got that look when you picked your nose in public, took off your bathing suit in the baby pool when you were a little too old to get away with it, and perhaps when you said hello to a person with a disability when you were twelve, because you’re sociable and like to acknowledge people you pass on the road. Shhhh, it isn’t done. But I’m on the little boy’s side here. What is that about? Why on earth isn’t it as normal to talk to me as it is to talk to anyone else? My abilities, or lack of them, should not matter that much.
Now, I am not advocating for everyone to pick their nose or run around naked. Most social norms are fine. They’re there for a reason, and a really good one at that. However, I become terribly, terribly sad when I see an adult perpetuating social norms that are exclusionary, that harmfully stereotype and prejudge those different from oneself. This kind of “us” and “other” mentality is the source of sexism, racism, and religious wars, as well as ablism– discrimination based on ability– and is at the root of many more instances of intolerant attitudes and actions as well. It perpetuates destructive social barriers, reinforcing a separateness that deforms relationships and further entrenches false beliefs and perceptions that are as devaluing of the people who hold them as they are of the people at whom such perceptions are aimed. What are we saying to our children when we admonish them for acting politely toward another human being, insinuating they have made some social blunder, insisting, wrongly, that the person they were about to speak to is in a different category, has a disability, and so needs to be treated accordingly?
This is how discrimination against people with disabilities continues, It is passed on from one generation to the next. It starts with the planting of a seed, and grows until we are afraid of one another, until we believe the stereotypes, the lies, the myth of our own separateness. Until we cannot think critically about the distinction between the inculcation of healthy social norms and the perpetuation of ignorance, misunderstanding, distrust, falsehood, and fear.
Sometimes children know more than we adults who think we are in fact so much older and therefore wiser. It is too easy to be like that woman and project your insecurities, stereotypes, and limiting beliefs onto the children in your care, or onto your friends and family who might think differently. I was unsure how to salvage the moment and reassure the adult, as much as the child, that it is perfectly okay to talk to someone who is blind. But there seemed little I could do. What would you do?
I continued believing in myself. I continued walking tall. I know the truth about myself no matter what others are or are not doing. I hoped the child might know an adult who could now teach him an even harder lesson: that not all adults are right, that we can make mistakes, grave mistakes, that we are all equal, and to trust himself. I kept on going my way. Then I decided to share this experience. What world do we want to leave to our children? The answer to that question rests, in part, on what we impart to them about the ways in which we live and accept and belong. It is as simple and as difficult as putting aside our preconceived notions of who we and other people ought to or are told to be, and being open to finding out who we really are, celebrating our differences, and by doing so, becoming part of the incredible difference that will make.