Being Me First

By Dawn M. Sanders

When I sat down to read this article – I figured I would disagree with it, because I often do with people who write about disability and how it defines them. I mean, of course I didn’t know she would go on to write several paragraphs on it, as luckily, she wrote on what she does as a person and activist too, but of course her riding accident changed her life.

I get the stuff about having her needs met and filling up valued space – I feel the same and I too have done many demos where I publicly spoke against the austerity cuts or degradation to the environment – the fact I needed a guide with my obvious severe visual impairment wasn’t an issue. So, maybe that’s why I’m on the opposite side of the fence to her and many when it comes to my identity or the way I describe myself – that said, many with visible additional needs will still define themselves as ‘dis-abled first. I’m passionate and vehemently, a person, woman, mother or journalist first – end of story and my visual impairment is of course an integral  part of me, but absolutely ‘never’ first among equals. There are people who feel the way I do, so it’s not exactly me against the rest of the world with an identity crisis. That said, my identity wasn’t thrown into question until I immigrated to the UK, then all the sudden I had this huge label on my forehead, which is why being appreciated or recognised as a ‘person first’ is so important. What that has to do with capitalism makes no sense to me. For one thing, I’m Socialist and damn proud of it! Claiming to be Socialist/left-wing is problematic in itself in a capitalist society. The fact I don’t define myself as ‘dis-abled’ because society inherently labels me as such, along with all the connotations that come with it – pity, vulnerable, needy is my prerogative and has nothing to do with denial – especially as I was born with my visual impairment, so I’m more than comfortable and used to it. So when other people with additional needs start banging on about how they define themselves and how ‘dis-abled has been the preferred term for decades, to describe ‘people’ with disabilities or additional needs in the UK or anywhere else for that matter, a line taken by a guy I had a brief connection a few weeks ago – my response was, ‘if people of colour can be respected as ‘people first’ then why can’t I? Not everyone appreciates or subscribes to wearing the same uniform and when I wrote that in an e-mail I got no response. He had flagged the “social model of ‘dis-ability” as if it was some sort of prescription everyone had to adhere to, but when I responded with ‘yes of course I know of it and despise it’ – that’s where the connection went cold, as it was seemingly ‘un-heard of’ to despise the uniform and any preference challenging it was wrong. I once asked if someone could meet me off the train at Bristol to get to a demo, as I don’t know the place and wanted to try and avoid the expense of a taxi, the lass organising it, when I told her I’m visually impaired, said ‘how would you like to be identified’ and I thought ‘how cool and what a blast of fresh air, because there can be no ‘be-all-and-end-all for describing or identifying someone and what works for one person, won’t work for another.

To demand being appreciated as a ‘person first’ is anything but ablest, it’s simple self-respect and ensuring others respect me for who I am, not who or what their preconception or assumption dictates the second they set eyes on me. As I have a ‘very visible’ difference – I get the opposite to what someone with invisible additional needs has to contend with. I can’t count how many times I’ve been just about to open a door – whether to my local shop or walking through halls at my university and someone tried to step in front of me or nearly hits me in the face, trying to open the door. Or, walking down the aisle on a train, halfway to the toilet and what do I hear? – ‘can you manage’ – I could write volumes on the patronising things people say upon clapping eyes on me. Not only do a lot of people still think, if you’re visually impaired you can’t possibly know how to dial a phone, manage a home or enjoy a social/sexual life, the second someone sets eyes on the likes of me or other people with visible differences – they think they need to do something, say something derogatory, patronising or help. After nearly fifty-six years living in this body, doing things in the different way I do them, whether walking down the street with a rainbow coloured stick or cooking completely by touch alone, the steady diet of bullshit I have to endure the minute I step outside my door, doesn’t get any easier. Sometimes, I don’t get the bullshit and I can get to where I’m going or go about my business out in public without a single patronising word or statement, but that’s only sometimes, because I’m sure things are getting worse.

When I push someone off or tell someone off, as I often do while out, if someone is trying to physically ‘handle or grab’ me – I become a person, not an object of need who has no say in ‘being helped’ and yes, it’s forever to the tune of ‘just trying to help’ irrespective of whether or not I asked which, most of the time I haven’t. For those who ask ‘how can I help’ or would I like it in the first place, as I’m a ‘person’ with some additional needs and I respect them for asking first and not assuming anything. I’ve written extensively, on people with additional needs being acknowledged as sexual/social beings or liberating language and so have others, but the difference between someone describing/defining themselves as ‘dis-able ‘in my view’ and others have agreed with me, they’re placing a barrier in front of themselves and not doing any of us any favours. If people with visible or invisible additional needs want to join the conversation, gain access on protests or in employment – how the hell is that achieved by placing a label or barrier first. I’ve been to rallies with ‘dis-Abled People Against the Cuts and all they did is speak in victim terms of having benefits cut, not gaining ‘equal access to employment or even certain fields where it would be perfectly possible to contribute, such as politics, where it all starts and policies of inequality or stifling one’s agency are written by those making decisions who don’t get how it is to have say a degree or two, loads of skills, yet no chance of employment, because if one discloses a visual, hearing, walking impairment – let alone, a learning difficulty or autism – most employers would just a soon take on someone without the necessary skills, then a potential employee with additional needs. Point is, campaign groups like ‘Dis-abled People Against the Cuts perpetuate the whole assumption that, if you have additional needs or a disability – your life design will automatically be assigned to relying on benefits (and yes of course many people with additional needs have no choice) but why not flag up what/how people can contribute – even in a modest capacity – especially if they want to.    

Because I define myself as who I am, Dawn first, a mum, a journalist, American – makes it crystal clear I’m a person who should be valued (not admired) for my contribution, faults and human-ness first, but the additional needs that come with me; a guide in walking in unfamiliar places, help with certain aspects of the internet which aren’t access-friendly or crossing a tricky, busy road, are part-and-parcel. So, I’m equally fed up with those who want to be defined as ‘dis-abled accusing a ‘person first’ approach as being in denial or ablest. Ablism comes in many forms, in denying someone access to other things many take for granted – from employment right down to going for a walk along the beach; ablism is asking me if ‘can I manage’ walking down a train aisle to the bog, when I’ve just walked halfway there. Ablism is ‘not’ demanding to be appreciated for the person I am first and foremost – it’s not even anything to do with capitalism or individualism in fact, if it has to be an ism at all, call it egalitarianism. I tend to hesitate to even call out what is termed ablism, because it implies a stark contrast between perceptions of can do vs can not do; or the cringeworthy ‘able-bodied’ vs unabled. I question even the term ablism, because within the whole power dynamic of social structure, especially the pecking order here in the UK, it reinforced the whole ‘dis-abled discourse – hinging on what people can or can’t do, so I just tend to call it discrimination or, the other racism, the poor cousin and last bastion which warrants worthy attention.        

Yeah, I’m many things: Dawn, a founding editor, visually impaired, bi-sexual and an egalitarian – so what if my visual impairment isn’t first among equals within my identity – who the hell said it should be? If the world views me as needy, with pity or inherently vulnerable, why cloak myself in how the world views or preconceives me. To passively take that uniform and wear it, because someone or society hands it to me is, not only counter-productive in being treated/viewed as equal but different – it’s simply not my style. I don’t follow the herd, as there are many other things about me to trumpet.

© 2023

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