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“Five dollars to see Blind Boy tie his shoes!” -- The Inspiration Paradox

Categories: Blind or Visually Impaired

This piece by Peter Altschul, an author and long-time Learning Ally member  who is blind, was published on his blog, Breaking Barriers, and is posted here with permission.

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PeterAltshul2-newPut people with visible disabilities in a room together and, sooner or later, we will start grumbling about how strangers tell us how “inspirational” or “amazing” we are. This phenomenon is a reoccurring theme in my memoir Breaking Barriers: Working and Loving While Blind. Consider the following passages: While growing up, both strangers and social workers would talk about how amazing my mom and I were because I could walk, get dressed, or do other mundane things. Mom was amazing, but the syrupy ignorance behind these compliments caused her to develop a game to put these remarks in context. “Five dollars to see Blind Boy tie his shoes!” she would trumpet as she walked with my sister and me on the beach. “Five dollars to see Blind Boy put on his shirt!” she would proclaim as we walked in the woods. “Five dollars to see Blind Boy brush his teeth!” she would declare as we walked the streets of New York City. My sister and I roared with laughter and eagerly invented more outlandish tasks for me to do for five dollars. Blind author Peter Altschul and guide dog sitting on sofa Later in the book, I wrote about how this phenomenon takes place during job interviews: I appear at interviews prepared to talk about my qualifications for a given job. “Thanks for coming,” an interviewer often says. “How did you get here?” “I took the subway and walked.” “By yourself?” “Yes.” “Amazing!” Interviewers often ask about my professional background or describe the main duties of the job, but while they usually follow the interview script, I sense that my answers are not being absorbed. It would seem that my ability to amaze by doing many of the mundane tasks of life independently saturates interviewers’ brains, making it impossible for them to absorb how my skills and experience could benefit them.”
"I’m trying to be more gracious when people express their amazement over things that seem trivial to me."
And a much more positive example from the early stages of a romantic relationship: “Every year since 1984,” I told her, “I have recorded three funky four-part vocal arrangements of Christmas carols, and used them as Christmas cards.” “What a great idea!” she said. “Then last year I got the idea of composing new melodies for carol texts instead of just arranging the more familiar tunes.” “What do you mean?” “You know the carol `We Three Kings of Orient Are?`” I sang a couple of phrases of the solemn, melancholy waltz. She hummed along. “I created a different melody that’s more bouncy and joyful. Do you want to hear it?” She squeezed my hand, so I clicked on the carol and rejoined her on the couch as six voices and a synthesized harp filled the apartment. “That was awesome!” she said when the tune ended. “Who sang the vocals?” “I did.” “Really! How?” I explained that I would sing the melody on one track and then record the other parts while listening to the melody. “Would you like to hear more?” I asked. “Yes!” Twenty minutes later, sudden silence fell as the last note died away. “Are you all right?” I asked, sitting down and putting my arm around her. “I’m overwhelmed,” she half-whispered, putting her arm around me. “You’re amazing.” * * * It can be extremely frustrating when my ability to tie my shoes sparks more inspirational comments than my professional accomplishments, yet a choral conductor’s observation helped reframe the issue. “You need to remember that people really are inspired by what you can do,” he told me. “They’re not making it up.” So I’m trying to be more gracious when people express their amazement over things that seem trivial to me. It hasn’t been easy, but I’m still trying, because, well, it’s the right thing to do. I wish, however, that hiring managers and other professionals would stop, take a deep breath, and consider how my ability to inspire them might make me a valuable contributor to their organization. Isn’t it strange how expressing to someone how much you inspire them can bring you both closer together and further apart? And five dollars to the light-dependent person who doesn’t scream or gasp when the lights suddenly dim.

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Peter's book, Breaking Barriers, is available in accessible audio format in the Learning Ally library. It's also available through iUniverse, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.