American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections Winter 2018 PERSPECTIVES
by Sophie Trist
Reprinted from the Braille Monitor, Volume 61, Number 2, February 2018.
From the Editor: Sophie Trist is a sophomore at Loyola University in New Orleans. She hopes to become a writer, and currently she is revising her first novel. In 2017 she was awarded an NFB National Scholarship.
I've always loved the limelight. I revel in the sound of applause. That's why I answered the email I received 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 P.M. in the Bogue Falaya Hall."
I'd never heard of Inclusion Alliance in my life. A quick Google search told me it was a local organization that helped people with special needs 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.
In the summer of 2004 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 on 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, were assigned companions (read chaperones) for the evening. My companion was an older, extremely nice woman 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 before the ceremony, Ms. Linda and I stood beside a poster covered with photos 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. Hordes of people, most of whom I knew at least vaguely, came to talk to me. I was a fountain of smiles and laughter. Everyone from my hometown's special-needs community was hungry to know how my freshman year of college was going. The fact that I had pledged Delta Gamma the week before was especially interesting to them, 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 Mom 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. I still tingled with the adrenalin 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 even now were scoring our tests. Let me win, I prayed silently. Let me be one of the winners!
I imagined what everyone at Ponchartrain Elementary would say when they found out I was one of the top three Braille readers in America for my age. I quivered with excitement as we walked back to our hotel to get ready for the awards banquet.
The Inclusion Alliance ceremony started out with the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem. The first award was presented to a business that hired people with special needs. Next, the three finalists for the Student Spirit Award were introduced, each walking onstage with his or her companion. Suddenly the image of a superhero, standing tall and glorious in a flowing cape, popped into my mind. People seemed to imagine it would be great to be a superhero, but I thought it must be a lonely life, living with extraordinary powers. Sure, superheroes have sidekicks, but we make movies about them and plaster their pictures on t-shirts and posters because they're exceptional. They stand 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. I'm proud of those accomplishments, but they don't make me a superhero. When sighted kids achieve the same things, they get a bit of praise and a pat on the back, but no one would dream of giving one of them an Adult Spirit Award.
Disabled people are often crowned with laurels for doing things that don't even get noticed when they're done by "normal" people—excelling in school, getting a college scholarship, even using a fork. Seriously! One of my blind friends once was 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. I pondered why people with disabilities who live full and productive lives are treated like superheroes. I suspected that nondisabled people treat them this way to feel better about themselves. While the brokers of the disability superhero mentality mean well for the most part, they fail to see that 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 is capable of truly great things. It perpetuates the low expectations that hold disabled people back far more than blindness, deafness, or any other physical or mental impairment. Treating disabled people as superheroes allows Inclusion Alliance and similar organizations to ignore the discrimination faced by people with disabilities, such as the payment of subminimum wages and the lack of accessible course materials for blind college students. The superhero mentality surrounding independent disabled people impedes true and meaningful change.
The winners from the Apprentice Division were the last to be announced. "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 both nice and smart.
Once Emily 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; it felt almost as big as I was.
"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 Down syndrome. He loved horseback riding, and he 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 deaf. 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 Bogue Falaya 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 those awards had been earned. But tonight 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. The award was given to a student who "showed tremendous courage in the face of adversity." I'm a white, middle-class girl from the suburbs; the only adversity I've encountered is blindness. And while I have to do some things differently than my sighted peers, my life isn't hard by any definition of the word. I have always been encouraged to pursue my dreams, and I have been given every tool and opportunity I need.
As I stood on the stage at Bogue Falaya Hall, I felt like a china doll someone had placed on a high shelf. I felt like an object to be admired but not 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 afterward, I tried to push thoughts of the ceremony out of my head. But I couldn't forget the revelation I'd had while I sat in that auditorium.
I've always been a writer. A few months after that evening in November I decided to write about my experience. I hoped that writing 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 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 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 so out of ignorance and misunderstanding, not out of malice toward the disabled community. But I hope to educate people, people with and without disabilities, on the harmful nature of low expectations and misconceptions. I want to change the laws and change our culture so that disabled people truly can shine, with no barriers in our way.