- Post date:
- Thursday, 11 January 2018
Meagan Houle, author of the blog Where’s Your Dog?, talks about an infuriating and patronising line often used by sighted people: “If a blind person can do it, what’s your excuse?”
Here we go again, I thought wearily as I scrolled past this tired line in yet another Facebook post by a sighted person. Here is yet another non-disabled person using blindness, that infamous limiter, to boost motivation levels while simultaneously shaming any sighted person who has accomplished less than any given blind person.
As I moved on to less infuriating content, this moment stayed with me. Why does the “What’s your excuse?” line crawl so persistently under my skin? What is it about the “If a blind person could do it…” reasoning that makes me feel both belittled and misrepresented? Why do I care, really, what strangers use to get them out of bed in the morning?
Unpacking inspiration porn, as many in the disability community call it, is never enjoyable and often controversial. However well-reasoned your conclusions, someone is always going to chime in with a plea to stop all the negativity. Why begrudge someone the right to feel inspired and uplifted by you? It doesn’t cost you a thing.
Or does it?
Let’s begin with “If a blind person could do it…” rhetoric, shall we?
My interpretation of this statement is that anything a blind person does must be relatively easy, because we are so much more limited and incapable by default. So, for example, if a blind person can learn to ski, or play the piano, or cook a five-course meal, anyone can.
According to the typical inspirational framework, the “if a blind person can do it…” narrative depends upon disabled people being less-than: less capable, less talented, less accomplished.
It also depends on us being more-than in one way: determined. Our innate resilience is such that, despite our nearly-insurmountable challenges, we manage to get out of bed, go to the gym, hold down jobs, raise families. Were it not for our remarkable courage and desire to succeed, we’d be sitting inconspicuously in a lonely corner weaving baskets and smiling vacantly at the wall.
Furthermore, this line assumes that any skills and talents developed and honed by disabled people are immaterial: if a blind person can do it, it’s possible for everyone, right? I spent four years in university learning how to communicate professionally and edit meticulously, but if I can do these things well, anyone can. If my blind friend spends years practicing her jewellery design craft, making use of existing talent and working hard to improve, none of those efforts matter because if she can design beautiful jewellery, anyone can.
After my high school valedictorian speech, a sighted stranger turned to their companion and whispered “If she can learn to speak like that and accomplish so much… what’s my excuse? Why haven’t I achieved those things?” Hollow admiration when you deconstruct it, since the reason I had already accomplished as much as I had by high school graduation was due to a combination of gifts I was born with and hard work I’d put in to get where I was. The glaring flaw in this backhanded compliment is enough to make me shed a despairing tear or two.
Let us move along to the “So, what’s your excuse?” portion
The logic of this idea states that sighted people should use us as a way to stem the tide of excuses they use to get out of everyday tasks like cleaning, cooking and working out. If a blind person gets up every morning and gets these done, that must mean sighted people have no excuse at all, despite any challenges they might be facing.
Maybe the non-disabled person struggling to motivate themselves has had less sleep than the blind person they’re using for emotional fuel. Maybe that blind person is an early riser by nature. Maybe they’re healthier. Maybe they enjoy cooking and cleaning and exercise.
Any number of reasons comes to mind, and they all lead me to the same destination: tasks don’t diminish in meaning just because a blind person can do them and a sighted person can’t.
I’m reminded of some of my more brilliant blind friends – the ones who laughed at the words “can’t” and “never” and achieved things any sighted person would be immensely proud to contemplate. One of my friends has more or less mastered physiotherapy, cat breeding and cooking. She has starred in a documentary, travelled Europe on her own and is currently teaching herself to sew. At 30, she has achieved more than most sighted seniors I know, and I don’t think anyone can honestly say that all of the skills she’s acquired are less impressive simply because she happens to be blind.
Other blind friends are published authors, admired public speakers, skilled carers, talented designers and exemplary instructors. They attain great things because they have the necessary passion, desire and talent, not because great things aren’t really as difficult as they seem. I would never allow anyone to cheapen the hard work and exceptional talents of my disabled friends on the basis that anything a disabled person does mustn’t be all that hard anyway.
So, what is your excuse, non-disabled person? I certainly hope it’s something reasonable like being too tired, or too busy, or too preoccupied with living your life.
I hope you motivate yourself by being authentically and respectfully inspired by those around you, for the right reasons. I hope you motivate yourself with passion, desire, hard work and discipline. I hope you chase your dreams because you desperately want to, and not because some blind person did it first and inadvertently shamed you into it. I hope you recognise the accomplishments of disabled people as important and impressive because they are, and not because disabled people don’t normally succeed. Most of all, I hope you admire disabled people not for getting out of bed, or cooking a basic meal, or doing what all grown-ups are expected to do. I hope you admire us for our unique, personal, hard-won achievements, and nothing less.
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