There used to be a guy who went to my school, named James, who was blind. One reason I thought James was cool was because of his competence and confidence in asking people for help. He would walk into a room and ask what he needed to know about what was in the room. (I don't mean to act like this is some kind of unusual quality in a blind person, but I hadn't met anyone who was blind before so it seemed really cool to me.)
Once I was talking to Noah about James and Noah told me something he had heard from James's former roommate. James's roommate had asked, "What do you imagine it would be like to be able to see?" and James said, "It would be like having a hand that could feel everything in a room all at once." This has always stuck with me and I don't think I realized why until I watched this video that's been going around tumblr.
The video is an ad for a marketing firm, called "The Power of Words." It depicts a blind guy begging on the street and not getting very much money. A woman comes up, grabs his sign, turns it over, and writes a new message on it. For the rest of the day, the blind guy makes tons of money, and when the woman comes back later he asks, "What did you do to my sign?" She says, "I wrote the same thing with different words."
This would obviously be patronizing no matter what the sign said, but I found the words on the sign to be the most interesting part of the video. The guy's sign originally says, "I'M BLIND, PLEASE HELP." The woman changes it to, "IT'S A BEAUTIFUL DAY AND I CAN'T SEE IT."
This illustrates exactly what non-disabled people want from disabled people.
A lot of blind people are unemployed either because they weren't taught the skills they need to be independent, or aren't given the proper accommodations for getting and keeping a job. I think it's reasonable in our society for a disabled person to express frustration that their disability keeps them from getting the things they want, and to ask for help from other people because of their situation. So although I find a blind beggar to be a questionable subject for an inspirational video, the existence of such a person is realistic and I don't feel that I can condemn the video just because it's about a disadvantaged disabled person asking for money.
However, we're told in the video that the fact that this guy can't work and needs money isn't enough for people to want to help him. People only want to help him when he comes out and says not only, "There are things I can't do because of my disability and that sucks," but, "My experience of the world sucks on an existential level, not just a practical one, because I can't experience the world the way non-disabled people can."
I think one of my Autistics Speaking Day posts was about my desire to always add the phrase, "It's no big deal," after telling people about my disability, even though it actually is a big deal. This is because I don't trust people to understand the difference between the fact that there are some bad things about being disabled, and the idea that my disabledness is tragic in some overarching, objective way. Or rather an overarching, objective, spiritual way, if you know what I mean--the idea that disabled people are less human or less alive due to being disabled.
I think the most negative view you could reasonably have about being disabled is that it makes your life really hard, and it makes you upset a lot, and that sucks. This isn't necessarily my view but I would never criticize another disabled person for having it. But that isn't enough for non-disabled people. They have to feel that disabled people are missing not just the ability to have a job or feel secure, but that we're actually missing a vital part of being alive on the pure basis of our impairment.
I realize now that what James said stuck out to me because I heard it in the context of a society where stories about blind people are often about how they don't get to look at sunsets, or colors, and how tragic that is. I think I remember reading a children's book about a kid who "helps" his blind friend by describing different colors to him in terms of emotion. But if you're blind, the really cool, lovely details of life don't have to do with visual information because that just isn't a part of your life. Not getting to look at a sunset really isn't a big problem. What I liked about James's quote was that he thought of problems due to blindness in very practical terms--because he was blind, he didn't immediately know what was in a room the way sighted people did.
But for sighted people, this isn't enough.
Blind people have to say that their day is worse on an experiential level because they are blind.
And I think this duality--objective impairment, and the nebulous, often unlikely connotations of misery that are attached to it--explains a lot of the things non-disabled people do to disabled people, and why they seem so ridiculous when you look at them straight on.