Differently-abled: What It Really Means

by Sally Hobart Alexander

After I lost my sight, I faced many challenges: learning cane skills to avoid sixteen-wheelers, mastering Braille, shifting careers, and completing daily tasks, like getting liner on my eyelids, not my nose. I didn’t realize I also had to adjust to a whole new identity. Only when I heard myself saying the word blind as if it were two syllables, “bl-(swallow)-ind” did I understand. But when I compared the term to the alternatives my friends used, “sightless” or “visionless,” I embraced the less encompassing word, “blind.”

Today many people use the term “differently-abled” instead. It’s a pretzel-twisted, P.C. label that sounds euphemistic, casting doubt on my real capabilities, and I’ve always recoiled from it.

I call myself totally blind and moderately deaf. I wear my disabilities like Medals of Honor for courage and triumph.

Yet, most of us with disabilities develop remarkable skills, skills that are subtle and hard-earned. These obscure abilities really do make us differently-abled.

Extra-strength Memory: My friends always praise my well-trained memory. Such recall is a dubious blessing, since I remember all the good and bad. Still, my family treats me like a rolodex with a half century of phone numbers. Although Brailing and taping notes were possible years ago, I memorized information because my brain was my one constant companion. Since then, I’ve kept my complete appointment schedule in my head. Blind kids today rely on technology, but we vintage blind have brains with rock-hard recall.

Caffeinated Listening: Friends also remark about how fiercely I listen. They say I always remember what was said and who said it. Blindness represents a huge deprivation, but without sight, I am not distracted by visual displays. With hearing aids and a microphone attachment, I zero in on a conversation, as if my ears have had a shot of espresso. Sound is my lifeline.

Vehicular Friends: Traffic becomes the line of music we blind people parallel to dance down the middle of the sidewalk. Its song tells us if lights are green or red. Elevators hum for our well-being, calling to us in crowded buildings.

Tentacle Touch: My fingers are antennae, helping me perform certain tasks. They distinguish a top-stemmed zucchini from a bald cucumber. Fingers are numb to canned goods, but they help with cleaning. They find dog hair, for instance, from my German shepherd guide.

Touch helps outside, too. I can’t hear the exact location of a car. Ramps and blended sidewalks steal away my tactual clues for finding intersections. However, wind picks up when I am past a building line, and often sunshine touches my face. Such subtle clues inform me that I am nearing the elusive intersection.

Rough or smooth, sloping or flat, sidewalks are the bones delineating my world.

My guide dog is a tactile extension of me. Through her harness I determine any distraction: tail wagging madly, an unleashed dog or other animal combatant. A pulling down of the harness, sniffing, a crime in the canine legal code.

Super Snoot: We who are blind never sniff at the information available through the nose. I identify people by cologne. I orient to locations with landmark smells. Open a door and smell popcorn, movie theater. Open another and detect hair spray, beauty salon. No, we never stick up our noses at smells; we could enter a Hall of Fame for Scent.

Language Lovers: Learning a second language is daunting. Yet, many blind people learn one additional language, Braille, and the deaf have three choices: sign, finger spelling, or lip reading.

Spatial Sensation: The Deaf and Deaf-Blind can feel a change in a room’s atmosphere when a door opens or closes. That’s how people “knock” to get their attention.

Visual Wonders: Deaf people “see” differently. They pay much more attention to their peripheral vision. Researchers conclude that the deprived auditory parts of the brain reorganize to better process visual information. The result: more sensitivity to a speeding car caught by peripheral vision.

Foot Hearing: Some Deaf-Blind people can feel vibrations from footsteps or voices. They can identify the one speaking or walking simply by the unique feel of the vibrations coming from the floor.

Six-pack Abs and Powerful Pecs: Some wheelchair users work hard to develop upper bodies that rival those of heavyweight boxers. Yet, they exhibit the flexibility of gymnasts, swinging in and out of their chairs. They shoot hoops, using the same 10-foot basket and standard court.

Fountain of Youth: Able-bodied friends who have reached sixty often scramble to do crosswords to keep their minds active. All of us with disabilities can use those things, too, but we may not need the stimulants. If we choose, we can keep our brains young by committing to dozens of mental workouts every day. So call me differently-abled. I now consider it a compliment.

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