What am I?

25 Nov 2016 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 25 Nov 2016

Joe Kenny

by Joe Kenny 

It must have been when I was still at primary school.  There was a  game show on the TV, round about lunch time, called ‘Going for Gold’.

Obviously I must have watched this on school holidays or on days off due to illness or whatever but the thing I remember most was the way the questions were put to the contestants.  The host, Henry Kelly would say:

“What am I?  I am a country bordering Hungry blab la bla....”  or “what am I? I am a kitchen utensil used to batter potatoes in to mashed submission.”

You get the picture.  Why am I bringing this, some might say, best forgotten quiz show up?  Because, for one tiny fraction of a second, we, the audience, got confused.  Is this a thing he’s talking about or a person?  The ‘I’ in the question throws us.  It invites us to imagine this thing, what ever it is, to be somehow alive. 

A means to anthropomorphise and play a silly game in our heads.  At the very least, it confused the hell out of me at that age.

But it did get me thinking about me and “What am I”

I am a man of 39 and I live in Belfast though in the wise words of Jonny Cash, “I’ve been everywhere man.”  I lost my sight when I was five due to congenital Glaucoma.  I’ve been totally blind since then.  Can’t see nothin.  No light, no shadows and no, I cant’ see you or how many fingers you’re holding up.  As I say, as blind as it gets.

If your eyes are the windows to your soul then my soul has been boarded up... Now there’s a dark thought.

Is it black?  No, it’s not black but it’s not any colour, except when I bang my head or something.  I see stars then -just like anyone else.

I use a long cane or white cane and no I don’t have a dog.  People are often amazed why this is so.  I’ve been asked many times, why wouldn’t you have a guidedog?  I respond with something like.  “You can’t fold a dog up and put it in your pocket.  You can’t use a dog to hoke something out from under a bed.  You can’t accidently leave a dog somewhere overnight and trust that it will be ok when you finally retrieve it.”

  On the other hand, a long cane is never pleased to see you.  It doesn’t have a lovely coat to stroke and a cane has no capacity for learning and will not give a damn about you or anything.

It has always struck me that, when I meet someone for the first time, the fact that I’m blind is likely to be the most significant thing – perhaps the only thing - they will take away with them about me.  They have an image of a blind man.  So how do you then apply ordinary everyday things to that image, for example, the fact that I work for a living, the fact that there was a time that I didn’t work for a living and that I have big grown-up opinions on local and world politics and guess what, like everyone else, I love to share them?

Several times a day, both at work and at home, people define me and other blind people like me, as disabled.

 I do it myself as a way of explaining myself to others.  Whether on the phone to a customer service rep from a utility company or retail outlet, or when filling in forms or applying for a bank account or booking travel in one way or another ’m asked ‘What am I?”

 I have to respond so that I can continue with my transaction or whatever in order that I do indeed end up with the service or product or outcome that I require. I’ve fitted neatly in to a box that was designed for people like me.  I’m a disabled one.

But what if we really look at what this is saying? Forget just fitting in for a moment and think about the inevitable end result.

I and many people like me assist in our own classification.  When I’m not needing anything from anyone and I feel free to say what I really think, the word ‘DISabled’ causes me to recoil in disempowerment and I have to have a quick word with myself “It’s ok, it’s just so I can”...  In my head, where I live, I’m not disabled. 

It is just that the world around me is, at the moment, largely inaccessible to blind people or people who have less than full 20/20 vision.  I can sit here and confidently say that it’s society that disables me not my lack of eye sight.

But surely there are so many products, systems, new ways of thinking and organisations to make me ENabled?  The answer is no. Well, not enough anyway. 

When I get up from this chair and leave the house to catch the bus to work this morning, so begins a daily obstacle course.  It is not only made of physical barriers like lamp posts and kerbs and traffic but my daily journey is made ever more hazardous by the attitudes, long held innocent but no less harmful discrimination and, of course, my own fear.  Yes, after thirty odd years of being blind you do pick up many hang-ups and destructive or at the very least, unhelpful fear baggage. 

From a very young age I came to realise that society doesn’t change for the better unless there’s a financial reason for it to do so. 

Of course I’ve met hundreds of people throughout my life that want to do things for the better and money doesn’t motivate them.  Some of the most driven, intelligent people I’ve met couldn’t give two **** about cost effectiveness or how much will they win or lose.  But look around.  The infrastructure we rely on from day to day - public transport, the entertainment industry even local government services, succeed or fail by how much money they make and by selling the most, to the most, for the most.

If we as a society really wanted to include people with disabilities or anyone, for that matter who has difficulty interacting with the mainstream community, then money would not be a barrier.  Ideas and better techniques and methods of designing things or approaching things wouldn’t be so hard to bring about.

It’s a disgraceful thing to note but part of me really enjoys the fact that when I meet someone new the first thing they will notice is that I am blind.  From that a person might make a series of assumptions about me.  The disbelief and surprise I’m met with when I say things like I’ve got three children or I love building flat-pack furniture or I have travelled the world or perform as a solo musician around Northern Ireland, still gives me a bit of a thrill.  No, I’m nothing special, I’m not alone in this.  I know many people like me who are blind or have some other disability, oops there I said it, who do ordinary everyday stuff.  But I believe as a society we don’t expect that.  We don’t expect much in fact from people like us.

So what am I?

I am Joe.  I’m a person and as such, I am full of surprises just like everyone else.  Some good, some bad, some secrets and some lies.  The things I’m proud of in my life probably aren’t what you might think but then again, isn’t that the same for all of us?


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