by Sophie Trist
From the Editor: Sophie Trist is the winner of a 2017 national scholarship. She is intelligent, energetic, introspective, and articulate. In this piece she contrasts the experience of winning two different awards during her lifetime: The Inclusion Alliance’s Adult Spirit Award when she was nineteen, and the National Braille Challenge when she was eight. Her narration of the events alternates between the two awards, really letting her reader see what a difference the criteria to win the award makes to the value of winning it. Here is what she says:
I’ve always loved the limelight. The sound of applause is music to my ears. That’s why I answered the email I got from Mrs. Sarah Cordet in August of 2016. “Dear Miss Trist,” it read, “The special education coordinator for St. Tammany Parish has nominated you for Inclusion Alliance’s Adult Spirit Award. After much consideration, we have chosen you as a finalist. The ceremony will take place on Thursday, September 28, 2016, at 7:00 PM in the Long River Hall.” I’d never heard of Inclusion Alliance in my life; a quick Google search told me it was a local organization that helped special needs people become involved in the community. I had no idea what an Adult Spirit Award was, but I told Mrs. Cordet that I would be delighted to attend her ceremony.
I sat in a classroom with eleven other eight-year-olds at the Braille Institute in Los Angeles. I forced myself to stay still, remembering all of Mom’s prohibitions against fidgeting. I was one of twelve finalists in the Apprentice division (ages eight to ten) for the National Braille Challenge. We would now take a test, and the first, second, and third place winners would win trophies and money. Nervous, excited sweat broke out all over my palms as a grown-up called for quiet. “We will now begin the test,” she said. “I’ll be passing out the booklets, but no one is to open them until I say so. As you all should know, you’ll be competing in the categories of Braille reading, spelling, and proofreading. Good luck!”
All of the Inclusion Alliance award finalists, including nineteen-year-old yours truly, had companions (read, chaperones) assigned to them for the evening. My companion was an older, extremely nice lady named Ms. Linda. I actually knew Ms. Linda’s family pretty well; her younger daughter Alyssa had been in Advanced Placement classes with me in high school, and her older daughter shared my name, Sophie. At the reception that took place before the ceremony, Ms. Linda and I stood beside a poster containing numerous pictures of me that Mom had emailed to Mrs. Cordet. I was skiing, I was playing the piano, I was reading Braille, I was meeting Taylor Swift. I was the belle of the ball. Tons of people, most of whom I knew at least vaguely, came to talk to me. I was a fountain of laughter and smiles. Everyone from my hometown’s special needs community was dying to know how my freshman year of college was going. The fact that I had pledged Delta Gamma the week before was especially interesting in a town where Greek affiliations are almost as important as church and football.
“How do you think you did?” Mom asked the second I walked out of the classroom. All around us, other parents were asking their kids the same question. I told them that I thought I did pretty well. That was an understatement. I felt like Santa Claus had just told me it would be my birthday every single day for the next year. All I could think about was the adrenaline that shot through my veins as my fingers flew across the keys of my Braillewriter. I had been fast, and the questions had been easy. I thought about the judges who were even now scoring everyone’s tests. Let me win, I prayed silently. Let me be one of the winners. I thought about what everyone at school would say when they found out I was one of the top three Braille readers in America. I was quivering with excitement as we walked back toward our hotel to get ready for the awards banquet.
The Inclusion Alliance ceremony started out with the pledge and the national anthem. The first award presented was to a business that hired special needs people. As the three finalists for the Student Spirit award were presented, each walking onstage with his or her companion, an image of a superhero, standing tall and glorious in a flowing cape popped into my mind. Everyone always said it must be great to be a superhero, but I thought it must be a lonely life, living with extraordinary powers. Sure, superheroes have sidekicks, but the reason we make movies about them and plaster their pictures on t-shirts, posters, and everything else we can think of is because they’re exceptional. They stick out from the crowd. These people think I’m some kind of superhero, I realized as a troop of girls went through a dance routine onstage. But they’re wrong. I’m just a normal nineteen-year-old girl. I took AP classes in high school, I got a full ride to college, I advocate on social justice issues that are important to me, and I’m proud of all those accomplishments. But they don’t make me a superhero. When sighted kids achieve those same things, they get some praise and a pat on the back, but no one would ever dream of giving them an Adult Spirit Award.
Disabled people are often crowned with laurels for doing things that don’t get noticed when done by “normal” people, such as excelling in school, getting a college scholarship, or using a fork. (Seriously, one of my blind friends was once lavishly praised for using a fork properly.) I could invent a new superhero, I thought, struggling not to laugh out loud. Forkman would be right at home in the Justice League, swinging his Terrible and Awesome Silverware of Justice to save America! But my mirth didn’t last long as I started to think about why disabled people who live full and productive lives and refuse to let our disabilities stop us are treated like superheroes. I think non-disabled people do this to feel better about themselves. While the brokers of the disability superhero mentality mean well for the most part, they can’t see how their actions are demeaning to disabled people. Congratulating someone for the ability to eat without making the table look like the scene of a Civil War battle implies that you don’t believe that person capable of truly great things. It perpetuates the low expectations that hold disabled people back much more than blindness, deafness, or any other physical or mental handicap. Treating disabled people like superheroes allows organizations like Inclusion Alliance to ignore the discrimination faced by people with disabilities, such as the payment of subminimum wages to disabled workers and the inability of many blind college students to gain accessible materials for their education. The superhero mentality surrounding independent disabled people is holding back true and meaningful change.
Of course, the winners from the Apprentice division were the last to be announced. My friend Tiffany, who was twelve, had won second place in the Sophomore division. “For the Apprentice division, we have Emily Necker from Paradise, Ohio in third place!” The lady with the microphone announced. I clapped with everyone else; Emily had struck me as nice and smart. Once she received her trophy, the woman called, “In second place, we have Sophie Trist from Louisiana!” The cheering in that hall sounded like the best kind of thunder. For the first couple of seconds I was too shocked to move. I’d imagined myself winning, but I couldn’t believe it was actually happening! A dreamlike calm stole over me as Dad took my hand and led me to the stage. Someone thrust a trophy into my hands; the thing felt almost as big as me. “Congratulations!” someone gushed. I tried to say thank you, but I couldn’t speak. My smile was too big. As cameras flashed, I basked in the applause like a cat basking in the sun. I’d never been happier in my life. Being recognized as the second-best Braille reader in America was a huge accomplishment.
The three Adult Spirit Award finalists were called up in alphabetical order. Owen Hart, whom I’d known since childhood, had Downs syndrome, loved riding horses, and worked two jobs, one as a janitor at Clear Lake Middle School, and another as an assistant at the weekly farmer’s market in the next town over. Mary Katherine Church was a schoolteacher who was mostly deaf. And then the MC announced, “Sophie Trist graduated high school with a 4.2 GPA. Several years ago she started her own business Brailling menus for local restaurants. Sophie’s hobbies include reading, writing, and singing. She is a freshman at Loyola University New Orleans and recently pledged Delta Gamma sorority.” Once we were all introduced, the MC presented Mary Katherine with the third-place award. Owen won second place. My heart rate sped up; I knew what was coming next. “For the winner of the 2016 Adult Spirit Award, Miss Sophie Trist,” the MC exclaimed. Applause thundered through the Long River Hall. I beamed as Mrs. Cordet handed me a plaque and a certificate.
As cameras snapped pictures that would appear on Facebook by the next day, I thought about the other times I’d stood on stages to receive awards. Many of them had been earned. But this wasn’t my first night as a superhero. In sixth grade I’d received the Principal’s Award, and just last year, a few days before graduation, I received the Dare Award at the seniors’ assembly. This award was for a student who “showed tremendous courage in the face of adversity.” I’m a white, middle-class girl from the suburb; the only adversity I’ve encountered is blindness. And while I have to do some things differently from my sighted peers, my life isn’t hard by any definition of the word. I have always been encouraged to pursue my dreams and been given every tool and opportunity necessary to do so. I felt like a China doll someone had placed on a high shelf, something to be admired but not necessarily understood, something designed to make others feel better about their supposedly perfect lives. I felt more pride when I won second place at the National Braille Challenge than when I won first place at this empty ceremony.
On the way home that night and for many nights after, I tried to push thoughts of the ceremony out of my head. But I couldn’t forget the revelation I’d had while sitting in that auditorium. I’ve always been a writer, and a few months after that evening in November, I decided to write about it in the hope that it would help me process my thoughts and feelings. The result is the piece you’ve just read. I’ve hung up my cape. I won’t—no, I can’t—accept any more awards for simply being myself and fulfilling my own high expectations. I won’t take part in this superhero culture any longer. I want to be acknowledged for true accomplishments such as starting my own business or writing a novel that makes the New York Times bestseller list, a lifelong dream of mine. I bear no ill will toward Inclusion Alliance or my school principals or anyone else who gives disabled people awards for doing mundane things. They do this out of ignorance and misunderstanding, not out of any malice toward the disabled community. They have big hearts, but they do not understand our struggles. I do hope to educate people, blind and sighted alike, on the harmful nature of these low expectations and misconceptions. I want to change the laws and our culture so that disabled people can truly shine, with no barriers in their way.