When people I encountered casually, like taxi drivers, used to refer to “people like you”, I always knew immediately what they were meaning, even though I didn’t like them using this phrase: “like you” is supposed to mean “blind”. This is despite the fact that I have many other characteristics besides blindness, and when we’d just been discussing some political event I’d attended, context would suggest them to mean “socialist”. But never mind; it’s easier when you don’t have to worry about such things as context anyway.
Unfortunately, the “people like you” statement is not a neutral statement. It connotes some particularly interesitng assumptions: especially, that blindness is my core characteristic. Would anyone be able to mention one single core characteristic of theirs? I wouldn’t, and if it were the first characteristic I mention when introducing myself to others, it’d be my age – but that is just a convention of introducing yourself (if you choose to mention it, state your age right after your name), and I don’t identify strongly as 21. Or is it a characteristic that you mention of yourself even when context doesn’t dictate it? Blindness used to be such a characteristic, that I mentioned in introductions even to teen forums (and then inevitably had to explain at least five times how I used a computer), but I no longer hang out on most chit-chat boards and don’t mention it on politics boards (but do on autism boards, because we’re talking about disability anyway). Currently, I say on my profile on Hyves, the Dutch equivalent of mySpace, that I’m in psychiatric hospital, but that is just to avoid the “What do you do for a living?” question – and most communities I am a member of at that site, deal with politics.
Of course, blindness is the first thing people will notice about me, because people tend to notice deviations from the norm first, and blindness is my only visible deviation from the norm (apart from short stature, but people always think I’m taller than I really am). People just won’t notice my political or religious persuasion or my college major when they first meet me, and “blind” is far more obvious when having to identify me in a large crowd than, say, “very dark blonde hair and blue eyes”.
But I don’t care what other people think my core characteristic to be. If you’re the only muslim in a christian community, you shouldn’t be surprised by being referred to as “that muslim” either. What I do care about, however, is when people assume my every experience is vastly different because I am blind. And, of course, that may be true – I can’t be sure, since I don’t know what it’s like having the same experiences I have while being sighted -, but I don’t walk around thinking “Hey, I must have a very different view on this from everyone else because I’m blind” all day. I have that experience, of course. To give a very simple example: I will not be searching the entire living room for coffee cups when it’s my chore to load the dishwasher, because I would have to feel all over the place while others could be overseeing the whole room at a glance, so I make it a requirement that if others want me to take their cups to the kitchen, they need to place them on a particular table. Right now, the majority of my “but my experience is vastly different from yours” moments deal with autism, because, heck, I’m in psychiatric hospital and that’s my (main) label. But I guess I would have such an experience with socialism or agnosticism if I’d been at a pro-life event.
It doesn’t matter some of the time. For example, I don’t care about the teen forum members constantly asking how I use a computer – even when we’re discussing politics, but they decided to check my profile from reading a reply I wrote. I care a little more about people making completely off-base assumptions about my experiences, like the fellow psychiatric patients who automatically assume I mean blindness when we’re discussing our symptoms ninety percent of the time – ninety percent of the time, I mean the state I’m in when approaching a massive meltdown or shutdown. What I do truly care about, is when people attribute some experience of mine to a disability in a tone as if to imply that, since I have that disability, it’s logical that I ended up in that (negative) experience. Of course, “like you” still means “blind” to most people, and therefore, it’s pretty easily communicated that it’s logical for someone who is blind to end up in psychiatric hospital. Well, it’s NOT. It’s not logical for an autistic, either, even though it’s more understandable. I mean, I wouldn’t mind if people asked whether I’d been committed cause of depression resulting from vision loss, or something like that. That would not be logical – most people depressed from vision loss, don’t get committed -, and it isn’t true in my case, but it would be understandable. I would care that someone assumes that I’m committed because of blindness, and I would care as much if someone assumed that I’d been committed because of autism. I usually explain that I was committed cause of a crisis when I became overwhelmed from going to university and living independently – which is, I might say, a pretty common experience even among non-disabled college freshmen, with the reason they don’t end up in hospital and I do being more related to their coping skilsl that I lack. (Oh, for clarity’s sake: this is to people who know I’m committed, like taxi drivers taking me from my home back to the hospital; I wouldn’t spontaneously announce to a casual stranger that I’m in a psychiatric hospital.) I have a problem with people assuming it’s logical for an autistic to be committed as much as I have a problem with people assuming it’s logical for someone who’s blind to be committed, but that former assumption is less prevalent cause people don’t generally know that I’m autistic. For some reason, I generally do end up mentioning autism somewhere while explaining my reasons for being committed, probably because I don’t want them to think that every blind person they meet is a potential psychiatric patient – neither is every autistic they meet, and I may be doing a disservice to the autistic community by mentioning my ASD, but I’m not sure how I’d address this otherwise. Or would it be best if I said it was a personal issue and I don’t want to talk about it (not that I personally care, but to avoid stereotyping) and just be sad for being a bad example of one disability community already (the blind) and not making it worse by making myself a bad example for the other, too? I guess I’m going to do that in the future. At least I’ll avoid stereotyping the autistic community then – even though in my case autism-related characteristics had more impact on my reason for being and remaining committed than did blindness-related ones. That’s none of a casual stranger’s business. Now how would I avoid automatically answering people’s questions (like I automatically inform anyone who asks about the details of my blindness, despite it being none of their business) cause I’m used to doing it all the time?