Blind Reduction

I met a blind lady at our church.

And there is such a lot wrong with that statement, most of which I am only just learning.

As I think back to the first time I met Jeanette a few months ago, I am chastened to realise that I didn’t learn her name for several weeks. I’m poor at names; I know their value, but their recollection has never come easily to me and I have made some monumental blunders! I apply myself to the task; I keep lists of new people I meet in my phone with little reminders beside them: clues like ‘teacher’, ‘two daughters’ or ‘red head’. And of course the reminder beside Jeanette’s name was ‘blind’. Obviously! What else? And that’s the problem, right there. The most obvious thing about Jeanette became the only thing; and rather than a name, all that lodged in my mind was a single word: blind. What could be more obvious about a person than their disability? But Jeanette is far more than a blind woman.

Until recently my standard description of myself to people who needed to recognise me, say at a conference, was a simple one. “I am tall”, I would say; sometimes adding, “The tallest person in the building” without much chance of inaccuracy. Today my height is unchanged, but unnoticed. How shall I describe myself now? If I said I will be wearing a red scarf, I could well be overlooked in my wheelchair because the person would be expecting to see a ‘normal’ person in a red scarf. If I said anything other than “I will be in a wheelchair” I feel I would be invisible. Or, to put it another way, I am expected to describe myself in terms of my disability. Normality is such a common, pervasive condition that disability stands out like a sore thumb. It will frequently be the most remarkable thing about a person, and so the sequence of blind reduction begins.

Which leads to a fascinating question: Why is it that people raise their voices when they speak to people in wheelchairs? There may be only a handful of people who unwittingly assume that limited mobility equates to limited hearing; but never the less I have experienced this strange phenomenon on numerous occasions. I have to say it: even one or two of my family occasionally do it! I suspect it stems from an unconscious globalization of disability; or a failure to distinguish between the many subtle hues disability takes. I understand all too well how easy it is to fall into this trap: ‘disability’ is a collective term that is easy to misuse. We have schools for the disabled, disabled taxis (an odd expression!) and disability services – all terms which aggregate us into one large, homogenous mass. We, the disabled.

It’s all rather subtle. Last week I carefully descended a set of aircraft stairs to find, alarmingly, a red Qantas wheelchair awaiting me; while some way off an elderly fellow passenger was happily ensconced in Bugger! Having righted that awkward wrong I took my lawful seat, expecting to be ferried, as usual, by the buggy that runs into the terminal. But the buggy didn’t come, and the airline staff who were waiting with us consulted each other and said, “Let’s just push them in”. I imagine able bodied passengers would have been advised of the change of plans. As a matter of courtesy some explanation would have been offered. But there was no need to secure the cooperation of my elderly companion and I; we just needed pushing. And so off we were pushed. I am not complaining – I am amazed by the provisions that airlines and many other organizations make – but I understand how simply reduction happens. It’s interesting how life changes when you lose a little autonomy; or a little mobility, or a little anything.

Jeanette is, of course, obviously, far more than a blind woman. She is a person of faith who finds and befriends others. She is a thinker, a student, and a musician, surmounting ordinary obstacles to take a place in our church band. Above all Jeanette is a person, deep and real, as are we all.

Reduction seems inevitable in the preoccupied transactions of our world. And yet, thankfully, wonderfully, the story doesn’t end there. Painful though it is to find yourself reduced; less can, surprisingly, be more. Theologians use the term Divine Reversal to describe the often repeated concept of the prisoner being freed, the poor becoming rich, the last becoming first, or the hungry filled. And so I wonder if blind reduction isn’t sometimes also divine reduction? Paul writes, “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16). Grace transforms the very forces that seem to callously reduce, until they become a breath that fans the candle within to brighter light. That may sound a bit pious, but how else can I describe the upwardness of the downward path?

Rejoice!

_________________________

PS…

I read this essay to Jeanette before publishing it. Hearing it gave her a lump in her throat; and there was much for us to discuss together.

7 Responses to “Blind Reduction”


  1. 1 Mark Coffman July 18, 2010 at 9:00 pm

    Hello Rod,

    You’ve given us another thought provoking read. Without fail, I have enjoyed your blog and found them such worthwhile reads.

    I had an observation on the reduction that you rightly noticed: that reduction was righted by relationship! In relationship Jeanette stopped being perceived as what she offered and started being percieved as WHO she was instead.
    I have been really enjoying the Gospel of Luke lately and seeing all the places where Jesus tries to correct people who view Him for what He can do, instead of for who He is. If you are up for some Luke, it has been good fun.

  2. 2 roderickmallen July 19, 2010 at 12:18 am

    Thank you Mark Roderick!

    You’re right about Luke, thats where I first learned about ‘divine reversal’. Perhaps its time to read there again.

    Love the photos of your little girl!
    R.

  3. 3 Trish Tiffen July 19, 2010 at 5:42 pm

    Great read as always, and so much to think about and take on board. Regarding people raising their voices, my husband and sister raise their voices everytime they speak into their mobile phones. They speak in normal tones on land lines. Just a thought. Cheers T

  4. 4 barryb64 July 20, 2010 at 6:36 am

    Hi Rod,

    This is my first read, hee. It is nice to see you’ve discovered there is more to Jeanette then she’s blind. 🙂 Of course, you likely knew that.

    I had my own share of assumptions about what a visually impaired man can or can’t do. It helps and hinders that my parents raised me to be very independent. Independent is good; however not when it keeps you from asking for help. I’m looking forward to reading other stories. Have a blessed day.

  5. 5 roderickmallen July 25, 2010 at 4:45 pm

    Barry, thank you for your perspective. I’ve often wondered about the difference between growing up with a dissability and growing into one.

    R.

  6. 6 Jeanette Newman August 31, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    Hi Roderick,
    I have just listened to your blind reduction and really enjoyed it being read to the other student and me by my teacher.

    I’m in class learning to do different things to do with emails with a screen reader “Jaws”.
    My teacher read it with so much expression whereas the reader is a bit robotic.

    I’m about to subscribe to your blog.

    love from Jeanette

  7. 7 roderickmallen August 31, 2010 at 4:36 pm

    Hello Jeanette,

    Please give my warm regards to your class and teacher. You will be a master of email in no time!


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