Introducing Story District’s new monthly column. After 25 years in the storytelling biz, we’ve learned a lot and want to share our stories and insights with you. In this column, we feature a story by Qudsiya Naqui, lawyer, disability rights activist and creator and host of the podcast “Down to the Struts.” Below is a written version of the story she performed in March 2020 as part of “She Comes First,” Story District’s annual Women’s History Month show.
Being in an airport can really suck sometimes, right? You’ve got flight delays, being felt up by the TSA. But it can suck even harder to be a blind person in an airport.
It’s true, there’s been a lot of progress in terms of making the world more inclusive and designed for blind people. We have artificial intelligence, we’ve got text to speech, and yes, I can’t wait until there are self-driving cars. But airports are still lagging a bit behind. We blind people often have to deal with well-meaning airport attendants who want to help, but often don’t ask the blind person how they actually need to be helped. Case in point: Once, I got in a screaming match with an airport attendant because he was trying to force me to sit in a wheelchair. Even when I insisted, quite vehemently, that a wheelchair is not the best way to get me to the gate from security.
Once, I was traveling for work and spent two straight weeks in the airport. I’d been in and out of three different cities already and was so excited to touch down at home base in Washington, D.C. You can imagine my excitement when the captain turns off the fasten seatbelt sign, and I am just ready to leap out of my seat. During the flight, as I often do, I had my mobility cane folded up and placed in the seat pocket in front of me. Just a tip about blind people — we like to know where our stuff is. That’s why we put things in places we can find them. Consistency is key. Much to my chagrin, the man sitting next to me leans over gallantly and says, “Here, let me help you.” He proceeds to take my mobility cane out of the seat pocket, and waves it in front of me, saying, “Here’s your stick.” And I’m just waving my hand around trying to find this thing. I knew where it was before, and now I don’t. It’s totally annoying. Finally, I’m able to protectively grab my cane and pull it away from him. I’m relieved to have back in my possession my lifeline, my tool for independence, my way of understanding the world. Then it occurs to me: This guy probably sees me with this cane and sees someone who is very dependent and helpless. I started to remember back to a time when I might have agreed with him.
I was born with a rare eye condition that causes night blindness and the gradual deterioration of my daytime vision, among various other things. I often liken losing your vision to mourning the loss of a loved one. You go through the anger, the sadness, the grief, the denial, and you somehow, some way, at some point, stumble your way to acceptance. In my 20s, I was deeply wrapped in the cocoon of denial, and it was so beautiful. I would forego social activities if they were at night or in a place that was unfamiliar. I didn’t date because I didn’t want to explain my vision loss to guys, and I engaged in various other very clever forms of social isolation. But then one day, I was very promptly knocked out of my very comfortable cocoon of denial. On this day, I was in Penn Station in New York City, and I was about to board a New Jersey Transit train home to visit my parents.
At this point, I was trying to pretend like I was sighted. I was stubbornly cane-less and kept it folded up, hidden in the bottom of my bag. But I mistook the gap between the train cars for the door to the train, and I walked off the train platform — Anna Karenina style — and fell into the tracks. Thankfully, the conductor noticed this happening and rushed over to pull me out. I’m a little bruised and battered, but mostly just deeply emotionally scarred. Then, I came to two very important realizations; the first being that I did not want to go the way of a tragic heroine in a Russian novel. And secondly, I needed to deal with my vision loss.
So, I found a mobility instructor. I learned how to use my cane appropriately. I started picking up all of these new technologies, like text to speech, and I learned how to outsource the whole activity of seeing. Most importantly, I started to hang out with a lot more blind people who are super good at being blind. It became my mission to become an A-plus blind person. I’m still at a B minus, but I’m working on it.
All of these thoughts are going through my head as I’m sitting there next to this guy on the plane. Little do I know, he’s not done with me yet. He turns to me and says, “Why don’t you get an ophthalmologist to help you?” Aghast, I had to ask him to repeat the question. He’s like, “Why don’t you get an ophthalmologist to help you fix your eyes?” It took everything inside of me not to scream at him, “Mind your own business, you jerk” in the middle of the airplane. Not wanting to come off as the angry blind woman, I decided to hold my tongue. Instead, I thought about why this was pissing me off so much. It was insulting because the great lesson I had learned in the past decade of my life was that I don’t need to be fixed. The world needs to be fixed. The world should be designed for me. With that in mind, I turned to this man and I said, “I don’t need anybody’s help. I’m fine just the way I am. Thank you.”
Watch Naqui’s story performed at the Black Cat in Washington, D.C. in March 2020.
Listen to Naqui host “Down to the Struts,” a podcast about disability, design and intersectionality, aiming to uncover the building blocks for a more accessible, inclusive and equitable world for all disabled people.
About Story District: In 1997, The Speakeasy was born, an open mic series for storytelling. Over time, we evolved into Story District and now we host dozens of shows and classes every year, while also leading trainings and creating custom performances for businesses, government agencies, colleges and nonprofits. Visit StoryDistrict.org, subscribe to our podcast, “Story District Presents,” our YouTube channel StoryDistrictLive and follow us on Instagram @storydistrict.
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