Around thirty years ago, an unexpected event occurred that led me into a tangled web of a well-intentioned lie. As a newly totally blind woman navigating my kitchen armed with new skills, I inadvertently found myself dancing around stereotypes, fearing the judgment that often accompanies perceived limitations. What follows is not a comedic tale but a reflection on the lengths one might go to in order to challenge societal expectations, and, admittedly, now the whole thing is funny to me for so many reasons.
In the space of our then-small kitchen, armed with cooking skills acquired through training, I was sautéing vegetables when a seemingly innocuous pot holder hanging from the side of the microwave, situated next to the stovetop, decided to get in on the action. Unbeknownst to me, it caught fire, setting off a chain of events that would reshape my approach to navigating the world as a blind person for several years.
Even before the smoke detector went off, our dog Coco, who was not a guide dog, started barking furiously. The smoke detector joined in with its blaring chorus, and my nose quickly identified the source of the trouble; it no longer smelled like sautéing green peppers and onions. In a panic, I grabbed the portable phone and Coco, and we ran out of the house. As I reached the driveway, calling the fire department, I think I mentioned that I was blind.
The fire department, which was just five minutes away, arrived quickly. One or maybe two firemen rushed inside, leaving another outside with me. Despite my efforts to keep it together, as soon as he asked me if I was okay, I threw myself into his arms, sobbing like a two-year-old. I may have lingered in his arms a bit longer than necessary—he was very tall and very muscular. I’m blind, not stupid!!
After the firemen left, I called my husband, who arrived just a few minutes later. Within moments, a call from one of my best friends came in, as her son had been driving by my block and saw the fire trucks and called her concerned. And here is where the unexpected twist began—the inception of a little white lie.
My husband, recognizing my vulnerability and knowing my fears around the societal stigma attached to blindness, made a compassionate decision. He took responsibility for the kitchen fire, not as an act of deceit, but as a shield to protect me from the judgment that often befalls those with disabilities. He was fully aware he wouldn't be judged as a sighted person in the same way as I would be as a blind woman.
In that moment, the lie became a defence against perpetuating stereotypes that I was desperately trying to avoid. For the next three decades, we held onto the story that my husband accidentally caused the kitchen fire. It wasn't about evading responsibility but rather about challenging preconceived notions about the capabilities of blind individuals. family, Friends, and neighbors, were told the same story, all in an effort to protect not just my dignity but also to advocate for the broader understanding of what it means to live with a disability.
In the midst of this narrative, it struck me how even sighted people have accidents in the kitchen without facing judgment about their capabilities. No one questions their ability to cook or suggests they should stay out of the kitchen. It highlighted the disparity in perception, emphasizing the need to challenge assumptions and foster empathy across the board.
The decision to fabricate our kitchen chronicle wasn't born out of a desire to deceive but rather as a strategy to navigate a world that often judges individuals with disabilities by a different standard. I didn't want to perpetuate stereotypes that suggested I couldn't handle the heat in the kitchen and should stay out of the kitchen simply because I couldn't see (my apologies to Harry Truman for the liberty I took with that quote).
This is a story of adaptation and coping strategies, but more importantly, it's a testament to the societal challenges faced by individuals with disabilities. The lie, born out of a desire to shield myself from unfair judgment, speaks to the broader need for understanding and dismantling the stereotypes that can limit opportunities and reinforce misconceptions about the capabilities of those living with disabilities.
As you read this story, and we begin a new year I invite you to challenge assumptions, foster empathy, and recognize that the flames of judgment can burn more intensely for some than others.
Michelle Friedman is the board chair of Keshet in Chicago, a member of Disability Lead and has been a disability advocate for 40 years. She has written two children’s books and is a frequent speaker for elementary and high school-age students.