By Annika Konrad
In August 2017, the Board of Directors of the Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired voted to change one word in the organization’s mission statement. The board voted to replace the word “independence” with the word “empowerment.” In this post, I explain why I proposed this change to the mission statement and why it speaks volumes about how we think about disability, autonomy, and community.
My own journey of coming to terms with my visual disability has involved changing the way I think about independence. For many people, when they think about the prospect of becoming physically disabled, they fear they would lose their independence. Yes, it is true that I have lost some independence in a traditional sense—I can no longer drive a car, read a print book, see people’s faces when I pass them on the street, or read a menu in a dimly lit restaurant. But I have had to teach myself to think about these events not as “losses” but as opportunities to learn creative and collaborative ways of accomplishing tasks that do not rely on an unrealistic, flawed ideal of independence and autonomy.
Empowering myself to move beyond the ideal of independence has given me the opportunity to rethink what it means to be dynamically and unabashedly dependent—or as some call it, interdependent—with other human beings. In the process, I’ve gained perspective, patience, relationships, and creativity.
- Perspective – Not driving is hard—I will admit that. And asking for rides all the time is even harder. What I’ve gained from this experience, however, is a passion for walking, a deep understanding of the pressing need for safe, reliable, comprehensive public transit, time to think or read while I commute via public transit, and a critical eye toward urban environments. I know urban geographies in ways that drivers don’t—when people ask me for directions, I can only tell them how to walk, bike, or bus there, and often I find that these routes are different, and they expose me to aspects of the city that drivers don’t usually notice. One-way streets don’t get in my way. Traffic isn’t one of my daily frustrations. I notice uneven sidewalks and crosswalks lacking audible signals. I notice how disruptions like construction, sandwich boards, un-shoveled sidewalks and corners and misplaced bicycles and vehicles thwart people’s paths and cause them to find new patterns in their travel. Through this perspective, I feel connected to urban environments in an embodied and political way, as my mobility literally depends on the connection between my feet and the pavement.
- Patience – A lot of things take me longer to do. It takes me longer to walk or ride the bus somewhere, locate items in a grocery store, find a specific shirt in my dresser, navigate the Internet, read, and write. It is easy to get frustrated with how long it can take me to do some things, but I’ve learned to prioritize and conserve my energy for the tasks I really want to be able to do. There are some things I just can’t do on my own, or at all, and I’ve learned how to save my energy for the things I really want to find a way to do. Some tasks, like reading the cooking instructions on a package of frozen food or reading a print newspaper, I’m downright okay with not being able to do on my own. With the use of a magnification tool, I can read an expiration date, but if my husband is available, I have no problem turning the task over to him, and luckily, he never hesitates to help. Sure, there have been times when a group of friends decides to play a board game or go for a nighttime bike ride and I wish I could participate, but it’s things like these that I have to let go. In a perfect world, all activities would be redesigned in ways that would allow me to participate, but I’ve learned that some things are worth my creative, adaptive energy and patience and some things are not. And that’s okay. We do not have to be superheroes.
- Relationships – I’ve learned that the opportunity to collaborate exposes me to relationships I wouldn’t otherwise have had the opportunity to learn from. At the same time that it’s okay to let go of some activities or tasks, there are many goals and tasks that I do need help with. All our lives, we are conditioned to be as independent as possible. Living with a disability has forced me to ask myself, do I really want to live that way? Most of the time, I find that my experiences are richer because I need to involve another person. For example, when I design presentation slides, I need help from another person to tell me if the visual aspects look good. Usually, they don’t, but in the process of collaborating with another person, I learn more about visual design from that person than I knew before. If I relied only on myself, even if I weren’t visually impaired, I would never have been exposed to those ideas and I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to connect with another person.
- Creativity – Disability has exposed me to creative ways of accomplishing tasks that I wouldn’t have known otherwise. Losing my vision has taught me a resourcefulness that involves a combination of my own creativity and resources available to me. I’ve developed many of my own creative ways of accomplishing tasks, like following along on a GPS while riding the bus so that I know where I am, taking photos while traveling for the purpose of viewing sights in the distance, and using hiking poles to detect uneven earth while walking in Iceland. Sometimes, the decision to use resources comes naturally, but other times it does not. For instance, I recently bought a white cane because I had been hearing that it is a helpful communication tool. I have used it in airports, where I found it immensely helpful, but otherwise, I am still thinking through what people will think when they see me get off my bicycle and proceed to unfold my white cane. I have to remind myself, though, that this is just another creative (albeit confusing to your average on-looker) means of navigating the world that draws upon multiple, different senses.
People in the disability rights community often say that if we live long enough, we will all become disabled at some point or another. In this way, disability is a unique category that many people move in and out of throughout their lifetime. This is one reason why it is imperative that everyone participates in moving beyond the ideal of independence. While the idea of “independence” holds great value for many people, I believe it is time to empower ourselves to reach for something even more transformative. I believe that we need to empower ourselves to let creativity, relationships, patience, community, and perspectives push us to discover new ways of relating and accomplishing goals.