Self-Advocacy Starts with Self-Acceptance

By Denise Jess

Negotiating a sighted world as a person with low vision is a full-time undertaking, calling on my physical, mental and emotional stamina, skills and creativity.

Navigating busy streets and sidewalks, finding my way in unfamiliar buildings, and filling out countless forms, are among the daily activities that are complicated by low vision or blindness.  Additionally, I interact with strangers, co-workers, friends and family who may respond to me with curiosity, confusion, discomfort, over-protection or indifference.  Being able to meet these challenges with dignity, integrity, clarity and compassion is deeply connected with my ability to practice self-acceptance.

On the road to self-acceptance I’ve experienced resignation, internally and externally, directed anger, as well as attempts to “overcome” my disability.  Similarly to the debunked belief that grieving happens in clearly defined stages, self-acceptance doesn’t happen in a linear manner.  While traveling on the road to self-acceptance, I might find that I’ve exited down the path of grief at not being able to do certain things that others take for granted, like seeing birds at the feeder, glancing quickly through the mail, or ordering food at the sandwich counter without having someone read me the menu first.  Other days I might get sidetracked with my perception of people’s insensitivity and their inability to “get it” when I’ve expressed my needs in what I believe are clear and concrete ways.

My most habitual roadblock is trying to “overcome” my disability.  These attempts have taken many forms, from wanting to play baseball in elementary school in the same way as my fully-sighted friends, declining the use of a CCTV upon entering college, choosing to not ask for help in reading street signs, or pretending to see something pointed out to me by a friend; all in the attempt to “fit in” and maintain a sense of self-agency and self-confidence.

While resilience and perseverance are worthy character traits, my habit has been to see my visual impairment as something to be climbed over, pushed past, or ignored, so that others would understand that I was talented, creative, competent, and worthy.  It’s no wonder that people in my life held expectations that I could do so many things despite my disability or seemed to ignore my needs.  There was a subtle way that I was communicating this and yet I would get angry when they would behave in “insensitive” ways.  Whenever I’d run up against a “doubter,” someone who believed that I was less able, competent or intelligent because of my disability, my goal became to “show them,” pushing myself to once again “overcome.”

External forces, such as the media, certainly didn’t help my perception that I needed to overcome my disability.  My Google search yielded ten pages of references about how people have overcome their disability to conquer a physical challenge, break into a profession, succeed at college or become a world-class athlete.  Terms like “inspiring” or “exceptional” are often attached to these stories, sending a strong message that it is important for others to not see your disability, so that you “fit in.”

My ever-growing awareness of my habit of “overcoming” my visual limitations is an important step on the road of self-acceptance that my visual disability is simply a part of who I am.  When my old habits and self-talk start to arise, I can more readily recognize that I don’t have to push so hard to “prove” myself.  This might mean, if I’m fatigued from reading at the computer, I tell a client I’ll review their documents in the morning when I’ve got fresh eyes, without fretting about any judgment they might make about my competence.  I can ask for help without feeling embarrassed or ashamed when needing assistance to sign a credit card receipt, asking for directions in an unfamiliar place or to tell me the price of an item on the grocery store shelf.  I can lessen my disappointment in others for not “getting it” and communicate with them with more grace and respect, speaking in ways that they are more likely to hear.

While I have a lot of “how-to” ideas to share on advocating for oneself – stories for another day – my foundation for self-advocacy and self-acceptance is to recognize, own and take responsibility for owning my patterns that create barriers to living fully.

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