The term “woke” has been around since at least the 1930s when it appeared in a recording by the singer/musician Lead Belly. It grew out of the dialect of English used by some North American Black people. The word means awake, aware of racial or social discrimination and injustice.
In 2014, the term was made popular again by the Black Lives Matter movement, following the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Today, the word is almost exclusively politicized. Republicans weaponize it to attack pro-choice, pro-LGBTQ+ Democrats. Democrats criticize Republicans for their lack of wokeness to the needs and abuses of marginalized people. The partisan use of the term makes constructive discourse ever more difficult.
But, for me, the process of becoming woke, of gaining insight or new awareness, has always been invaluable in my relationships, my work and my self-respect. With eyes wide open, I followed the civil rights demonstrations and the marches for women’s equality.
In the 1970s, when my eyes grew metaphorically closed by blindness, ironically, I received a crash course in wokeness. Suddenly in a minority group, I experienced changes in the way people perceived and treated me.
Losing sight, but gaining insight
In grad school, I encountered cluelessness from people who are often considered the most informed of all. I asked my professors to find me an empty office or room in which to take exams. Because I had to bring a reader and lug a typewriter, both of which would disturb my classmates, I needed a special location. No professor remembered to find me the space, so I took tests on the floors of the ladies’ restrooms, while women talked about their dates and flushed toilets around me. Finally, I explained the disadvantages of bathroom test-taking and received the necessary vacant room.
New acquaintances seemed nervous around me. Often, they apologized if they used the word “see.” They also apologized if they swore. A few seemed surprised if I said something funny. One person even joked, “That’s why you’re different, Sally; blind people aren’t supposed to have senses of humor.”
We also weren’t supposed to enjoy alcohol apparently. When another grad student asked me to go out for a beer, he hesitated, then stammered, “D-do you drink?”
“Not excessively,” I said, “But one beer would be great.”
This unusual conduct mostly felt surprising, not exasperating. Within a few more interactions, most people put away their unconsciously learned stereotypes and saw me as an individual. And I learned that in my sighted life, I probably also had held many of these same views.
Regrettably, there was one behavioral change that simply infuriated me. Over the first year of blindness, a doctor, a dentist and the head of a nonprofit all thought I’d be interested in sexual relationships with them, though each was married and old enough to be my father. This behavior really “woke” me. One person took no for an answer. When the two others persisted, I threatened to report them to their work communities, and they ceased the harassment of me and, I hoped, other women with disabilities.
As a nation, finally listening
With the returning Vietnam veterans, Americans learned more about disability. Most everyone knew of a disabled vet or a vet who had a close friend who was physically or emotionally wounded.
For my rich life, I owe much to those Vietnam vets who marched and demanded legislation. I owe much to many who awakened others in their day-to-day interactions, through work, recreation, neighborhood and family get-togethers.
At this same time, my ears — my lifeline to nearly all learning and perceiving of the world — began metaphorically to close. This problem threatened not only future learning and awakening, but also simple day-to-day functioning.
As my hearing worsened, I encouraged theaters, lecture halls, movie houses and universities to make amplifiers, signers, audio descriptions — as well as sighted guides and Braille programs — available. I urged the technical staff to test amplifiers and audio descriptions prior to performances. I asked friends and family to turn off radios and TVs during conversations; when two sounds conflicted, I heard neither.
In a sense, the decline of my hearing earned me a graduate degree in wokeness.
Over the last 40 years, my hearing has only worsened. But with the astonishing advances in accessible technology, in hearing devices, the increased awareness of those with disabilities, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, I manage well.
Read more: ADA at 30: Accessibility in Pittsburgh
Why we have to continue speaking
Today, to avoid fights, most of us ban politics from our interactions. However, avoiding certain topics can keep conversations brief and superficial and may even result in shorter visits.
I propose braving deeper discussion, and by that I mean opening up the uncomfortable topic and doing a powerful amount of listening first. Next, speak to what you agree with, and finally, state the areas with which you disagree without being disagreeable.
I’ve had some success by writing and speaking about various challenges that many of us with disabilities face.
While in the hospital recently, I failed to receive my breakfast, lunch or dinner. I finally asked my nurse if I were to be on a liquid diet.
“No,” she said. Then she added, “Oh, here’s your dinner.”
The food server had placed the meals on a distant surface, assuming I knew it had arrived. Possibly, I’d been in my bathroom; probably I simply hadn’t heard the person enter. I listened attentively for the server’s return and explained my situation. I also spoke to the head of food service. From then on, my, uh, yummy Jell-O was announced with great fanfare. Food service got some vital information, and future deafblind or blind patients may not miss meals.
Since grad school, I’ve led many group discussions. I’m clear about the nonverbal cues untranslatable by blind people: i.e. gestures accompanying phrases like “this big” or “over there.” I ask people to put those gestures into words. Still, occasionally in informal meetings, I interrupt people. I absolutely don’t get the cues, the facial expressions, gestures or body language that a speaker is pausing, not finishing his point. Fortunately, I apologize, explain and even hug the person I interrupt. I hope this keeps people from rolling their eyes to the group!
‘Woke’ can be contagious
Electric scooters are a relatively new craze in Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, riders often park them so they block access to the sidewalk. This creates barriers for those of us who cannot see or walk.
When my guide dog stopped abruptly at a busy intersection, I reached out and found a scooter handle inches from my face. There was another right behind it.. To circle around them, I would have had to venture into the whipping traffic. So I reversed and walked home.
Later, I learned that two scooters also lay across a nearby curb cut for wheelchair users. I wrote to a city council member and was advised to call 3-1-1 to report the difficulty. I also spoke to the scooter company’s rep and learned of their parking rules: not on ramped curbs, not in ADA parking zones, always upright, allowing sidewalk access. ID numbers on scooters (though not in Braille) are available for reporting violations, and riders can be penalized. The Spin rep plans to speak to the team in charge of access about possibly doing a splash on their website about disability awareness.
Someone who wasn’t aware of an issue is now awake and spreading awareness. So, wokeness — important learning from one another — can happen with amiable, respectful conversation. Can we be more open to it?
Sally Hobart Alexander is the author of many essays and eight books. Six books were Junior Library Guild selections, and one, “Taking Hold: My Journey into Blindness” won a Christopher Medal. Having taught in Chatham’s MFA program, she now leads a writing group, accompanied by her guide dog (Instagram: @davetheguidedog). If you want to send a message to Sally, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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