The Visibility Paradox: My Experience with Disability at UVA

By Mausam Mehta

I approached the bus with one hand holding the harness of my guide dog, and the other weighed down with a collection of grocery bags.

“Is this the outer loop?” I asked the driver, hoping my guess was right, because it was getting late and I wanted to go home.

“It sure is. Haven’t seen you in a while. Beautiful dog you have there. What stop do you need today?”

After I let him know, I settled down for the 20-minute ride, secure in the knowledge that I would make it to my stop without incident.

This is just one of so many positive experiences I have every day at the University of Virginia. 

Yet, it is an intriguing and thought-provoking exercise to consider how our identities shape us. So many of our characteristics, no matter how seemingly insignificant, define our overall experiences from day to day.

I have been a member of the National Federation of the Blind for several years, starting in early high school. It is this organization that guided me to understand that blindness, while a major part of my identity, is not the characteristic that defines me. Upon further reflection, it is this idea of the defining nature of disability that poses a unique contradiction: to the general public, I am often bathed in a glaring spotlight by my disability, and simultaneously made invisible under its shadow.

A few days after I moved into first-year dorms, I was navigating through the narrow hallways, still cluttered with new furniture and belongings, on my way to class. I walked confidently into the stairwell, pausing to locate the top step with the tip of my cane. In that brief moment before I began the climb down, I heard a throat clearing behind me.

“That’s amazing,” one of my fellow first-years declared.

“What?” I responded, caught slightly off guard.

“How you go down stairs. If I were blind, I can’t imagine how I’d do it.”

I paused for a moment, considering my response. How could I explain, in the few seconds I had before I would certainly be late for class, that this was nothing out of the ordinary, that my blindness was simply a way of life? How could I picture something other than this, as she herself was attempting to do? I allowed the opportunity for a long, drawn-out philosophical explanation to pass, and instead responded simply, “Thanks, but it’s nothing special.”

In the vast array of similar experiences I have had since that day, I can’t help but point out the commonality: my ability to accomplish simple tasks as a blind person is a larger-than-life feat. Like a circus tiger doing tricks, it is so alien and unexpected, fascinating and magnetic to witness. I am hyperaware of my actions, knowing that surely they are being monitored, weighed, and tested for the slightest sign of uncertainty. So saying, public expectations of blindness rest on a bar that practically touches the ground.

I stood in line at Subway with a friend, waiting impatiently for the satisfaction of a sandwich I’d been craving for hours. As the line slowly inched forward, I recounted the terrible feeling of unease I experienced upon completion of my first accounting exam. I just finished my rambling story when we reached the order counter.

“What does she want to order?” the lady behind the counter asked. I knew, without having to confirm that she was talking to my friend, who was standing in line behind me. I am all too familiar with this scene. The lack of eye contact from my side, or maybe my need for a little verbal instruction to get through the maze of stations , gave me away. To this lady, I had faded entirely into the background, incapable of communicating my needs and unable to interact. I was suddenly invisible.

Throughout my time at UVA, I have often encountered this strange duality. It stems, predictably, from a lack of education and understanding of disability. It is an ongoing process, one that I wholeheartedly embrace. I am fortunate to serve on the Disability Advocacy and Action Committee alongside students and faculty who are passionate about accessibility and equal access. I have found a community that is endlessly supportive and a home at a university that strives to be inclusive to the best of its ability. Nonetheless, there is plenty of work left to be done.

I present an alarming case. The unemployment rate for people with visual impairments in the United States is 78%. Many of these individuals have one or more college degrees, but are discouraged and rejected, because their disabilities introduce doubt and apprehension into the minds of employers. Their disabilities trump their qualifications. Their potential worth is secluded behind the pervasive fear of uncertainty. They are, quite effectively, invisible. Upon my graduation from this university, I could be one of them. But I refuse to bow beneath the weight of low expectations.

Every winter, my fellow blind students and I stand on capitol hill, fighting for legislation that will improve the equality of disabled individuals. In those moments, as we assert our hopes for the future and we are not invisible. We are part of something bigger, a feeling we hold close to us in the face of adversity. Through hard work and determination, I hope to spread this feeling of triumph to every corner of UVA, so we can work together as the next generation of leaders to overcome the fear of unfamiliarity and make our society a more inclusive place.

Mausam Mehta is a second year student in the College of Arts and Sciences. She is the outreach officer for Chronically Ill and Disabled Cavs, a Jefferson Society member, and a student member of the Disability Advocacy and Action Committee.

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