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Out and Around: The Presumption of Literacy.
Out and Around: The Presumption of Literacy.
My sister can't read.

Her disability usually isn't obvious when you meet her. And when she's home visiting my parents, she spends a fair amount of time out in the city on her own. She takes the bus, she shops, she goes to restaurants. She gets her nails done.

My dad gives her her walking-around money as five-dollar bills to limit how much she can lose if someone decides to cheat her when giving change.

But like I say, mostly her disability is invisible. And when folks do notice, they're usually cool about it.

(I remember once, years ago, I was out with L and we got into some sort of awkward situation. I wanted to explain to the woman we were inconveniencing, and so I said "she's..." And then I wasn't sure how to finish the sentence. The woman said "a little slow." It wasn't a phrase I'd ever use myself, and I cringe a little typing it, but she said it with love, and when she said it I felt myself unclench. We were among friends.)

But here's something I wish I could tell everyone in the city: Not everyone can read.

I see it at least once a month, when I'm out and around. Someone on the subway or the street or in a shop will ask a question. "Is this the 14th Street stop?" "How much is a Big Mac?" "What kind of iced tea do you have?" Usually, whoever's asked will answer appropriately, but too often they'll glance up and say "read the sign."

My sister will take a menu when she's offered it. But she can't read.

She'll flip through a magazine when she's bored. But she can't read.

She has a library card. But she can't read.

She's 32 years old, and she looks like any other 32-year-old on the subway. But she can't read.

My sister is good at keeping her disability to herself. She likes keeping her disability to herself. When she's out on the street, away from all of us who know and love and worry about her, she's just another New Yorker. But every once in a while, she could use a little help maintaining her public face.

As we all could.

Today is Blogging Against Disablism Day, and you can read. Go read.

(I wrote this post for the first Blogging Against Disablism Day in 2006. Today is Blogging Against Disablism Day 2008. I've updated the URL, but otherwise left the post unchanged.)

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Read 14 comments or Comment
willendorf5761 From: willendorf5761 Date: May 1st, 2008 05:16 pm (UTC) (Link)
I loved this the first time I read it, and I still love it.

In mediator school, I was trained to read *everything* aloud, because you never know who can and can't read. Sometimes I forget to do it, though. Thanks for reminding me.
From: ext_59654 Date: May 2nd, 2008 05:03 am (UTC) (Link)
What a beautiful post.
From: ext_98170 Date: May 2nd, 2008 11:30 am (UTC) (Link)

Great post

Beautifully put. Thanks for making me think.
brooklynite From: brooklynite Date: May 2nd, 2008 01:44 pm (UTC) (Link)
Thanks, guys. Much appreciated.
From: thegimpparade Date: May 4th, 2008 07:21 am (UTC) (Link)
Lovely how you put this. It can be a class and immigrant issue too, I think. Or for any situation where everyone doesn't speak/write the same language.

As a side note: At university, I was often asked English grammar questions by foreign students hanging out in the Union's basement McDonald's (I ate there too often, I suppose). An informal poll of nondisabled friends revealed none had ever been similarly asked for help. For these foreign students, somehow, I suspect my use of a wheelchair marked me as a nonthreatening person to reveal a vulnerability to. Maybe that's an example of disablism: That talking to me about lack of language did not endanger their "public face" like talking to anyone else would. Still, I was strangely honored by the confidence.
brooklynite From: brooklynite Date: May 5th, 2008 11:54 am (UTC) (Link)
It can be a class and immigrant issue too, I think.

Absolutely. Or, as the next commenter noted, a matter of visual impairment.

Something I notice a lot in how people respond to disability --- and something I've seen a lot in what I've been reading in this year's BADD posts --- is that the next step up from oblivious to disability is drawing overbroad conclusions about it. My friend Willendorf wrote about the assumptions people make about her relationship to her partner based on the fact that her partner uses a wheelchair, for instance. (She must be a family member, or a caretaker, for instance.)

One thing about the moments I talk about when someone asks for information, and someone else tells them to read the sign is that in some (possibly high) proportion of them, the person who asked actually can read, and actually did just fail to notice the sign.

There's something about the radical ambiguity of such situations that I find really instructive. The person asking me for information may have a disability, or have never have learned to read, or be literate in another language, or have left her glasses at home, or have simply zoned on the fact that there's a chalkboard menu right over my shoulder. I don't know which it is, I'll likely never know which it is, and it's really none of my business which it is. It's not relevant which it is --- in that moment, my appropriate response is the same, whichever it is.

I like that ambiguity. I like how it reminds me of the ambiguity of most human interaction.
From: thegimpparade Date: May 5th, 2008 10:39 pm (UTC) (Link)
I like the radical ambiguity too. I've experienced a really dynamic version of that ambiguity at a few disability studies conferences where academic types with all the possible impairments you can imagine share the room and try to communicate complicated ideas via spoken word, images, sign language, language translators, close captioning, etc. Wheelchairs and dogs and canes and all other sorts of assistive help fill the room. It's unbelievably exhilarating somehow.

lauredhel From: lauredhel Date: May 6th, 2008 01:28 am (UTC) (Link)
Ira Socol touches on this in a post about refusing accommodations when proof of a diagnosis is demanded. (Beware of the title: it is explained later, in terms of attempted reclamation, along the lines of "Crip Theory" and "Queer Theory". )
From: thegimpparade Date: May 6th, 2008 05:27 am (UTC) (Link)
I saw that. A great post, though I have problems with the idea of reclamation of a word with such a very oppressive past. (Yeah, I know the name of my blog, but some words just do have a more visceral punch than others.)
From: (Anonymous) Date: May 5th, 2008 10:25 am (UTC) (Link)
I had a brain tumor recently but didn't know it, and at some point in February I stopped being able to read altogether. I thought I just needed new glasses, but that's another story. Anyway, I had this odd experience in CVS when I went to buy some OTC medication or other and couldn't find it, and asked for help. I explained that I couldn't read the signs or the lables (because I needed new glasses, I told them) and asked for help, and it was like I was speaking Swahili. "No, you have to find it for me and walk me over to it, and then point it out. I'm sorry, but this is the level of difficulty I'm having." I had to explain this three different times to one of the store staff, and finally the pharmacist overheard and said, "You have to walk her over to it and point it out." And THEN she got it and did that. My speech was in no way impaired at that time, and yet it was like I had to have a translator or something. Until one of her own people said the same thing I'd just said, she just couldn't grasp it. She wasn't snarky like the "Read the sign!" people, though I have certainly seen a lot of that; she was just completely confused.

That, and later in the hospital when nurses and administrators kept handing me paperwork and things like phones and call buttons with complicated keypads I couldn't possibly interpret -- even though every single one of them knew why I was there and what my symptoms were -- was when I discovered the depth of this prejudice. Thanks for writing about it so beautifully.

-- Sara (http://www.saraarts.com, http://movingrightalong.typepad.com)
brooklynite From: brooklynite Date: May 5th, 2008 12:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
Wow. Thank you. I've heard friends who use wheelchairs talk about similar obliviousness, but I've never encountered it in the context of visual impairment. Really really interesting --- all the more so since both the examples you give are of people working in health care.

And I should note that most of the people I see saying "read the sign" aren't snarky, at least by New York standards. It just doesn't enter their minds that "read the sign" isn't a helpful response to the question they were asked.
From: thegimpparade Date: May 5th, 2008 10:43 pm (UTC) (Link)
A guy I knew in college once had a woman behind a desk at the university registrar say "Read the Sign!" when he asked a question. He just held up his white cane for her to notice and enjoyed the moment. He'd made what had been invisible to her suddenly visible and ALL the cultural meaning behind the white cane and disability suddenly came into play, but in a satisfying way for once.
From: (Anonymous) Date: February 19th, 2011 07:28 pm (UTC) (Link)

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From: (Anonymous) Date: April 1st, 2011 02:10 pm (UTC) (Link)


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