Braille Monitor                         February 2021

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An Introduction to the Concept of Microaggressions

by Joanne Gabias

Joanne GabiasFrom the Editor: Joanne Gabias is an outstanding human being who has strong opinions about the capabilities of blind people and is glad to share them. We are all the beneficiaries of the fact that she does and she can. Here is what she has to say about a concept that has only recently been presented to me but one that deserves our consideration and action. Here is what she says:

As a sighted person who has been around blindness my entire life, I have observed and experienced different situations from many perspectives on how blind people are treated in this world. I have dedicated my career to breaking down the misconceptions of blindness in the hope of changing its perception in society. Currently I am the deputy operations officer for SAAVI Services for the Blind in Arizona. Since COVID-19, Colin Wong, NOMC and staff training advisor, and I have taken the opportunity to run weekly staff trainings on a positive philosophy of blindness with all of our staff. This means everyone from the drivers to the accountants to the instructors to upper management. It was the perfect opportunity to make a concentrated effort in our journey toward Structured Discovery certification. We have been able to use many resources such as the Braille Monitor and JBIR articles to help get important concepts across. We have even been able to have discussions about diversity, mental health, and race with guest speakers from across the nation.

Our staff has grown a lot in their knowledge these past few months, but the next topic we wanted to address was microaggressions in terms of disability. Through my research I found that the term microaggression does encompass disability along with sexual orientation and any socially marginalized group or characteristic, although it is commonly associated with race.

With a quick Google search you find that: Microaggression is a term used for brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative prejudicial slights and insults toward any group, particularly culturally marginalized groups. The term was coined by psychiatrist and Harvard University professor Chester M. Pierce in 1970 to describe insults and dismissals which he regularly witnessed non-black Americans inflicting on African Americans. By the early 21st century, use of the term was applied to the casual degradation of any socially marginalized group, including LGBTQ+ people, people living in poverty, and people who are disabled. (Wikipedia)

During my search, I was surprised that I was unable to find any articles about the little things that sighted people do to the blind. Likely they are thinking they are being helpful, but they are actually undermining their blind coworker/friend/family member. I know we talk about it all the time in what SAAVI calls positive philosophy of blindness class. I know other training centers might call it seminar. However, I couldn’t find anything that specifically talked about these microaggressions that blind people sometimes face on a daily basis. This was disappointing. I knew that I could have a discussion with our staff, and they could all come up with examples about when they experienced microaggressions from coworkers, but I did not think it was appropriate or considerate to put people in that position. Sometimes a topic as intense as this one is best introduced from literature or articles that don’t directly come from the audience but that help open up the dialogue to express these things.

Now that the topic of microaggressions and diversity and inclusion is at the forefront of public conversation, I think it is important that the blind community have its voice and be heard as well. When HR departments are starting to look at their personnel policies and making sure that everyone has equal rights and respect in the workplace, we cannot let them forget that microaggressions are not limited to race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. It is also related to ableism. Unlike some microaggressions, ableist’s microaggressions may be disguised as lack of understanding of accommodations or accessibility, but that does not mean it should be overlooked or dismissed. For example, not understanding accessibility features might be a lack of education, but expressing amazement that a blind person is able to communicate using email is a microaggression. This is a difference between a lack of knowledge or education on a matter versus a microaggression.

As a fully sighted Caucasian female, why does this matter to me? Let's go back to when I was in graduate school at Louisiana Tech University, where I obtained my master’s degree in counseling and guidance with a concentration in rehabilitation teaching for the blind and orientation and mobility. Part of my education and training was as a student at the Louisiana Center for the Blind for three months and then subsequently cane travel every weekday for the six months after immersion. I experienced microaggressions from the public during travel routes and during confidence building activities. I’ve had people grab me out of nowhere as I was walking down the street. I had people question my ability and give me misinformation because they thought the answers to questions I was asking were too difficult for a blind person. I even had people pray over me to regain my eyesight. These experiences frustrated me, but at the end of the day I could take the blindfold off, and I was able to reenter my sighted bubble. My blind parents, colleagues, and classmates do not have the luxury of turning off these specific microaggressions like I do. It is said that microaggressions are like papercuts; they may not be giant wounds, but if people get multiple papercuts a day throughout their lives, that can either cause them to retreat into their comfort zone or start believing those limiting beliefs. Maybe I shouldn’t be doing this job. Maybe I shouldn’t live on my own. Maybe I shouldn’t fight for my independence.

But I think it goes back even further for me. When I was a child, people would always tell me that I must be a big help to my parents as though I was taking care of them at the age of five instead of the other way around. I was lucky that my parents were very strong in their philosophy and their belief in themselves by the time I came along and that they were able to counteract the misconceptions and the microaggressions that people had toward them.

I very distinctly remember asking for a letter of reference from an organization after being connected for almost ten years as a student, a volunteer, and finally as an employee. My supervisor, who had seen me grow into a strong senior staff member, wrote in her letter that it was amazing everything that I was able to accomplish because my parents were blind. Although my personal accomplishments were dismissed, the thing that bothered me the most was that everything I learned from my parents such as working hard, advocating for myself and others, developing and nurturing a strong moral compass, and following a great work ethic was completely disregarded. I felt demoralized.

I bring this all up to say that, if I have felt the impact of microaggressions toward blind people, I cannot imagine what my blind friends, family, and coworkers must go through every day. The first part of any change is to make people aware of the ignorance and implicit bias that is out there. Here are some everyday examples from two of my colleagues showing how these microaggressions affect them:

Amy’s story

Amy Porterfield was headed to an out-of-town conference. On her way to the airport she dropped off her retired guide dog at her parents’ house, ran quickly to work to grab something she had forgotten, and swung by the pharmacy. Running a bit behind schedule, she arrived at the airport. If you have never been through the Tucson airport, you don’t know that it has just the right amount of shops and restaurants, but it also has the most straightforward, easy-to-access terminals ever. Amy easily checked her bag and made it through the security line in great time. As she was grabbing her laptop and shoes, a security agent asked, “Are you traveling by yourself?”

Amy answered, "Yes, thanks. Have a nice day."

Apparently not believing that Amy was being truthful with the security agent, he asked the stranger behind her, “Is she with you?”

The bewildered business traveler answered in a worried voice that trailed off at the end, "No, I'm not sure.”

Hearing this, Amy answered, "I'm good, thanks. Have a good day." She continued on her way through the terminal she had traveled many times before. As she passed by the shops and restaurants, a man hurried up behind her soundlessly and grabbed her by both arms just as her cane encountered a metal pillar. Startled, she turned and said over her shoulder, "Please don’t grab me.”

The man answered in a stressed tone, "You are going to run into a pole." 

Amy, maintaining her good humor, said, “Actually that is what the cane is for. To demonstrate, she tapped her cane on the pole. "I'm just fine, thank you.”

As the man walked away and Amy continued on her way, her phone rang. It is her co-worker who she was trying to connect with before she left. Answering with her Apple air pod in one ear, she began to have the brief conversation that she wanted to have before leaving. In the distance she noticed that another man was shouting, “Ma’am! Ma’am!” Amy observed him running toward her. “Where are you going?" he shouted at her. 

“Hold on” she said to the person on the phone. “I’m good, thanks," she said to the approaching stranger, adding a smile and wave for good measure. She continued on her way.

“Where are you going, ma’am?” he continued shouting. 

“I’m sorry. I am on the phone right now and am just fine," she said to the stranger.

Growing more concerned the man said, “Am I on the phone? No ma’am! I’m talking to you!” 

Amy finally stopped, told her friend she would call her back, and told the man, “Actually, sir, I am on the phone, and I know where I am going, but thank you.” 

Raising his voice and using a highly indignant tone, the man asked “You’re on the phone? Where are you going?”

Just then a young man came up beside Amy and said in a confidential tone, “Don’t worry about that guy. He doesn’t know anything.” He then said to the man, "She's fine.” Feeling better about the situation, the shouting man walked away. 

Believing she was finally in the clear and could continue her trip in peaceful productivity, she thanked the young man and continued walking. “I’m sorry about that guy,” the young man said. “But I am happy to help you. I’ll take you to your gate. I’m walking your way, and I know how you feel. My cousin is blind.” 

Trying one last time, Amy said, “I really appreciate it. I actually travel here all the time and know where my gate is. I have to do a couple of things first, and I am really just fine. But thank you so much.” 

“Am I making you uncomfortable?" the young man asks? “Like I said, my cousin is blind, and I just want to help you to your gate. Can I just walk with you?”   

Giving up and recognizing that this is just going to be one of those days, Amy smiled at the young man and said, “That would be nice. Thank you very much.” 

Once at her gate, Amy decided to forego calling anyone back. All she wanted at this point was to board her plane, put on some music, and take a break from dealing with the public for a little while until she had landed.

Jordan’s Story

Jordan Moon and his wife Ashleigh are both blind. They live in Phoenix and have a two-year-old daughter who is also blind. Aside from the "Wow, you guys are all blind?” or the “I don’t know if I could live if I was ever in your situation" comments, these microaggressions happen so frequently that the couple tends to attribute them to just being “part of life.” Most of the time they either laugh or ignore the situations, occasionally educating the public as needed. There are times, however, when the toll of these microaggressions become too much to bear and moments of deep breaths, perseverance, and restraint have to get them through.

One of these moments happened while visiting Pittsburgh last year as their daughter Liberti was seeing a pediatric ophthalmologist who specialized in her eye condition. During a day off with no doctor’s appointments and some downtime, they decided to take a nice family trip to walk around and explore the area. So, using his cane, Jordan proceeded to pull the stroller behind him because he is better able to control it and navigate around obstacles, curbs, and steps. Ashleigh was behind the stroller, helping to turn the front wheels in case there was a turn or if it started to veer. As they made their way down the sidewalk parallel to traffic, they started feeling tension in the air. “Sir, there’s a pole! Ma’am, be careful of the turn.” The couple ignored them. As they made their way to a street crossing, they continued to feel the tension building. Cars began to honk. People waiting to cross offered to pull the stroller for them. When they made it across the street, they felt the “wows!” As they continued on their way, the sidewalk, which was an older one with many cracks, was uneven. This, of course, made the stroller harder to control.

Nonetheless, they maintained control, and the safety of Liberti and the couple was never in jeopardy. But you would have never known it. Just as anyone would, they slowed down over rougher terrain. Unfortunately, what was clearly prudent precaution was perceived as struggle. There was a gentleman who tried to grab the stroller to help. There were people asking them where they were going. There were people asking, speculating, and commenting on whether the baby was okay. The majority of the time intended to be spent enjoying the new city was spent trying to convince a skeptical public that they were enjoying the city.

What started off as a calm day with the goal of taking a nice stroll ended up as a stressful day with a stroll that was cut short. All too often, when blind parents like Jordan and Ashleigh simply want to enjoy time with their families, microaggressions like this occur. Blind people can have all the confidence in the world, but if the world doesn’t have confidence in them, then what good is it? Jordan and Ashleigh haven’t let these moments stop them and continue to happily take part in family time in public. But it is to the blind parents whose philosophy doesn’t mirror the Federation’s or who don't have the self-confidence to continue that these microaggressions are extremely damaging.

The first step to change is acknowledgment and understanding. We need to acknowledge and explain how microaggressions may create obstacles for blind people in our society. Additionally, we need to recognize how we might be judging each other within our blind community as a consequence of our lived experiences and microaggressions. It is common that we model the ways we have been treated onto each other. As we move toward a more inclusive society that values all people, it is critical that we continue to acknowledge and educate each other in the ways microaggressions permeate our lives. We need to make a conscious effort to acknowledge, address, and educate ourselves and the public to make a positive change in the world. If you do not know, you cannot change it. Let me be the first to say, I hear you, and I stand with you.

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