Defined by Disability

The conversation was the sort you wished you never engaged in.  

Short, stilted, stifling and stillborn.  

Working at the Melbourne International Film Festival, which prides itself on its accessibility and diversity, I struck up a conversation with one my volunteers, who was partially blind. 

I opened it the same way I would with anyone else, a quick question about what they do for a living, what life was like for them beyond the context of this festival.  

He said that he didn’t do anything.  

Undeterred by the curt nature of the answer, I asked about what made him chose to be a volunteer at MIFF. He said he wanted to do something.  

Now actively struggling with the lack interest in the conversation I gave it one last chance.  

I asked about what sort of films he liked. He replied a bit more genuinely with “exploitation movies” but when pressed, did not elaborate further on what was his favourite sub-genre.  

Looking at his body language, I knew that the conversation was as dead as it could be. His curt, succinct answers, the evasive body language, the nervous twitches and the way how he seemed to beat himself up after every answer … 

It was time to just slip into silence and make it as comfortable as two strangers sitting in close proximity could make it.  

A feat that was easier to accomplish than one would think, because silence was golden. It was one of those rare things, that I never felt awkward about. Sometimes the presence of a person was enough.  

The resentment he felt about his blindness was obvious. He blamed it for everything that was wrong with his life. It showed in the way how he refused to use his walking stick, putting it away as soon as possible. The way how he stared at his phone, trying to hold it as far back as possible. His tone of voice, gruff and bitter, whenever asked about his disability and whether we could help in any way.  

I never treated him any different to a person who could see, never asking once about his blindness or whether he wanted any special treatment.  

But his resentment was all consuming. He didn’t acknowledge my efforts, lumping me in with everyone else.  

His situation and attitude was all too understandable of course. If I had sight, and began to lose it, there is no telling how I would react as well. Probably the same as him. My world would soon fade and be covered in darkness. Memories would lose their potency, faces, once so distinct and sharp, now a blur.  

How terrifying. 

Would I let it define me though?  

It’s strange, because I was born partially deaf. I am unable to hear high-frequency sounds, hence my actual voice has a lisp to it, because to me, words don’t have a tsch, sch, or sh sound.  

So I don’t know what a world with those sounds, actually sound like. It also doesn’t greatly affect me. I’ve normalised it so much, chose to live life without hearing aids, and just crank up the volume on things that I don’t really see it as a disability.  

Sure, whispers are a struggle and I understand it’s frustrating for people to repeat themselves, but it’s never been viewed as a proper disability in my head.  

I consider myself lucky, if anything, to suffer such a minor inconvenience. I’ve been blessed in a lot of other ways, that more than make up for this tiny shortcoming.  

But for this random blind guy, he was consumed by the trauma of his disability. He was unable to let it go, choosing to let the pain define who he was as a person.  

I know I am making huge assumptions about the guy, but there was such a strange sadness to his behaviour, I couldn’t help but feel pity for him.  

It reminded me of a very modern problem, where people define themselves by their past instead of their present.  

The way I see it, there’s two types of people, those who spend their lives trying to build a future and those who spend their lives trying to rebuild the past.  

People who define themselves by the past find it easier to view the world as a place that owes them something. Whether it is a traumatic event, some ancient history related to their culture or something that happens to be trending and resonant to their values, these people find their worth in the past.  

It’s a terribly backwards way to live. Defined by your past, never truly letting go of issues that shouldn’t affect your future. But for these people, it is all they have to live by. At their core, these people will never truly move on, because the world is to blame, and the world has to change to suit them.  

Which of course is nonsense, because no one is beholden to anything, nor anything to them. You make your own way, no matter how difficult or easy the road is.  

But that is the deceptive beauty behind living in the past. You can make your own way easier, by blaming external factors, instead of the fact that you are the one not moving your feet in the right direction.  

You can manipulate the world into blaming itself, guilting itself to fit your narrative, your own personal story.  

It is these sort of people who, without conscious effort, will invariably self-destruct. 

To live in the past, is to always travel backwards, and stifle personal growth. You are defined by your past, thus you are unable to let go of it.  

Those whose eye is on the future, will always outshine those who live in the past. Because to live a full life, is to understand that you are always continuously improving. You aren’t defined by your past, moulded slightly by it, affected deeply by it, but never defined.  

You are more than your past, more than your mistakes, greater than your trauma and far more capable than your previous self. Every day, should be a step forwards in improving a part of you, discovering a new element within your complex and pushing your boundaries.  

It could be found in a new way of talking to a friend, reading a book about new psychology, exploring a new topic of interest, listening to different viewpoints or even pushing your comfort zone at work.  

This is what it means to let go of your past, because you learn from your mistakes, do your best not to repeat them and take on board the lesson.  

We’ve all been despicable at some point in our lives … what makes us better, is understanding the route to that mistake and not repeating the error.  

Similarly, we’ve all been slighted by someone before. Why should their folly define who we are as a person?  

At some point in that person’s life, they too will be challenged. If they let their past define them, they will never grow. Just like how if you allow that person’s attitude and behaviour towards you define you, you will never evolve.  

Don’t let the past define who you are … learn from it and look to something greater in the future.     

~ Damocles.

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