My earliest memories are always of summers by the beach. The waves can be dangerous, and they have the capacity to continuously knock us down, but I have always been enthralled by their power to erode structures and shift the tide. I think they’re a nice metaphor for how I like to live my life; often unassuming, but always looking to shake up the status quo with only a moment’s notice. Even as a child paddling through the waves, I knew the world was going to knock me around, but that I’d be there to keep swimming and watch the tide shift in my favour.
Most people feel shame about their disability. But, for me, being blind is such a normal part of me that my feelings don’t go far beyond mere indifference. I have days where I feel confused and frustrated and angry at society for not making space for me, but never have I felt inwardly unhappy about being a blind woman.
My dad has always thought I was brave, because at five years old I was going to make sure I was the first sibling to go water-skiing behind our boat, never mind how scared I was. My mum has always reminded me that I am fierce, because she knows the anxiety I feel every time I challenge myself, but watches me do it over and over again. My brothers have always seen me as confident because of my firm beliefs and competitive streak. My best friend has always viewed me as a boss bitch as I fight to be smarter and more hard-working than my able-bodied counterparts. All of these people have nurtured my growth. All of them have had unwavering faith in my capabilities. They are the reason that I can push back against the stereotypes society holds for an introverted, blind woman, and assert my place in this world. They are the people who taught me to swim. They are the reason I feel I am powerful.
When I think of my queerness, I don’t feel this power. When I think of being queer, I have always felt angst and fear and uncertainty. I remember this one time when I was trying to come out to my family; my brother said something along the lines of: “There’s no way you’re gay; you’re so confident about everything that if you were, you would just tell us and not care what we thought.”
I hate to say it, but he’s right. I should own my queerness with the same ferocity I own my disability, my femininity, my political and moral beliefs. He has no idea how much I wish I had the confidence to face the world that way. They have no idea how much I crave to bring the confidence through which I navigate the world with my disability, to my queer identity. But when I fail to align these two identities, I feel my identity eroded.
As marginalised people, I feel like we have this responsibility to smooth the way for others.
My parents say my brother does this for me. This hurts me because I think he enjoys the same benefits of having a blind sibling that I do. You know, growing up knowing that there is someone just like you, facing similar challenges of ignorance and discrimination, and using the same makeshift strategies and life hacks to navigate a world not built with us in mind. Having that community, even just one other person, doesn’t just mean they break down barriers for us. It also gives us the confidence to smash through the unique challenges we face on our own.
I feel like I have to do this for others. Earlier this year, I was applying for law clerkships (the Hunger Games of law school). I felt like my lack of experience would hurt me, but I told myself if I tried and failed at least I would have the knowledge to pass on to those that come after me. I could tell them how to navigate the inaccessibility of psychometric testing and video interviews, temper the ableist attitudes of interviewers, and of course, to never, ever, ever look at the forums. I thought that if the firms were faced with a blind candidate this year, and I mean, a blind candidate who can’t hide that fact, maybe they would be better prepared in later years. The law industry, like most, is somewhat apprehensive about disabled people, especially visibly disabled people, so I thought if I could make it easier for at least one person, even if I couldn’t survive myself, that would be enough. Turns out, I did survive and I secured a couple of clerkships of my own. I think it’s important that even as I ride that wave of competence and satisfaction, I remember that there are so many others still thrashing about, waiting for us to lend them a hand.
But I feel like I’m lying or not doing my job right when I suppress my intersectional identity. I’m not just a disabled woman, I’m a queer, disabled woman. If I don’t show the world the whole me, then how can I possibly help to make space for others?
Sometimes I don’t feel powerful. I don’t feel powerful when I’m too scared to speak my mind. I don’t feel powerful when I fail to advocate for myself in queer spaces that don’t think I’m queer enough or the ‘right’ kind of disabled — you know, the kind that is easy to accommodate with blanket policies that make our community look “woke” and progressive, even though it’s all form and no substance. I don’t feel powerful when I retreat when people speak to me like a child because it’s easier and I don’t want to make things awkward for my friends. When my professors run their classes inaccessibly, but I don’t want to say anything in case it jeopardises my grade. When the law firms create an application process that disadvantages me, because I want them to think I’m nice and agreeable and capable as everyone else. I don’t feel powerful when I fail to call these things out as wrong.
More than that, I don’t feel powerful when I fail to correct my mum when she asks me if I met any nice boys yet? I don’t feel powerful when my dad and brothers make queerphobic jokes and I remain silent. I don’t feel powerful when I change the pronouns of the person I’m dating in front of my friends, so as not to stir up a fuss. I don’t feel powerful when I deny a part of my identity to the people who are most important to me.
If my family’s unwavering faith in me has taught me something, it’s that I can be powerful. I’m an introverted disabled woman born into an able-bodied world that can’t stop talking. My power has always been in my ability to emerge above those waves and carve out my own path. I can be powerful because I can use my knowledge of society’s shortfalls and my own perceived weakness to prosper. We all can.
I feel powerful when I do speak up, because for all the time I have remained silent, people listen when I speak with the confidence of someone who knows what she wants to say and sure as hell won’t be repeating herself. I feel peace in knowing that by doing so, those that come after me won’t have to fight those battles.
I feel powerful when I do advocate for my rights, and call out the people who treat me like I am inferior, because sure, it’s a little awkward; but my friends are allies and they too grow from this experience. I feel powerful when I call out the professor, because I could have some of the best grades in my law school, and some prof scrawling handwritten comments everywhere isn’t going to undermine that. I feel powerful when I see the changes I’ve been fighting for manifest before my eyes, because it means someone else won’t have to do it. If my power has come from being empowered by others, then the greatest gift to me is to pay that forward. When I see my law school shift to electronic assignment submission, my Model UN society incorporate disability accommodations into their rules of procedure, or the legal organisations I work and volunteer with actively engage with disability issues, I feel heartened, because that is my power.
I feel powerful when I taste fear but do it anyway. I feel powerful when I take risks, continue to learn, grow and live. I feel powerful when I run back into the ocean. I am powerful enough to ride those waves back into shore.
I don’t think anyone looks at the introverted, disabled woman and thinks she’s powerful. But my family chose to, even if they haven’t yet embraced my whole identity, and that has been the greatest gift. Maybe there’s power in that first statement, because by underestimating me, it only makes me all the more powerful. Let’s harness our inner turmoil, hopes and fears, and continue to break down the walls our white, cisheteronormative, able-bodied society built. This space has always been here for us, we’ve just got to own it. As intersectional feminists and queers, I think we’re past the point of pitting ourselves against each other, hiding our insecurities to make ourselves more desirable.
Our openness and vulnerability and uncertainty are what make us powerful, and together, we can make waves of our own.⚡
Edited by Carmen