Ever since infant-hood I have been praised by 'outsiders' for completing simple tasks - such as tying my shoes, zipping up my jacket or crossing the road - that are mundane in nature. Partly because, having grown up with a visual impairment, there has always been - for those who don't know me, at least - a predefined misconception about my abilities. This misconception has, for the most part, derived from an historic view of disability and ability coupled with stereotypes and societal, and/or cultural, beliefs.
I have been praised for simple tasks right into my adulthood; paradoxically, however, I have also been glorified for doing significant things, more than my sighted peers would be. I've sailed oceans, I've won international music competitions, I've performed to thousands and I've travelled the world, but why do these acts deserve an abundance of praise? In many ways, it's actually easier to do these things with a visual impairment - you can't see the dangers or the overriding fear factors (such as large audiences). Praising normality is almost as bad as, if not worse than, praising simplicity.
Ever since I was at school, I've always been encouraged to do 'different' things. From skiing in France or playing goalball in a school hall, we were always encouraged to think outside the box. Why? Because it gives us something interesting to talk about which isn't our eyesight. More often than not, the elephant in the room is the prevailing eye condition, but it doesn't have to be. This is one of the reasons why I go sailing...
Well, actually, it's one of the reasons that I participate in sail training. Sail training is broadly described as an adventurous activity for young people. A more in-depth description would be as follows (taken from the ASTO website):
"Sail Training is a fun and exciting adventure. Sailing offshore as part of a team that is responsible for the running of the boat will open a whole new world of challenges, skills and discovery. You don't need any previous sailing experience as the staff on board will teach you everything you need to know. You will meet new people and work together to set sails, steer, keep watch and even cook. Together you will meet the challenge of the sea."
Basically, take 12 (or more) adolescents, shove them on a boat, take them sailing, teach them to cook and clean, teach them to work in a team, tire them out, make them sleep in dormitory style accommodation (often at a 45-degree angle), send them home happy and exhausted after a week. Sail training teaches much more than sailing. It teaches life.
Sounds a bit strange, but I've had some of my best experiences on board a boat. There's nothing quite like sailing across an ocean at 02:00 in the morning, surrounded by phosphorescence fuelled glow in the dark dolphins and with a star filled sky above you. I hadn't seen the stars until I was 21 - mostly because I lived in light-polluted areas, but also because of my eyesight. Indeed, I've sailed through storms and gales, I've sailed from Spain to Dublin and I've sailed the world's best sailing ground, the West Coast of Scotland, all of these things have been accomplished on a 70-foot racing yacht that's been around the world. But why does that deserve exuberant amounts of praise?
I go sailing because it's something that I love to do, and it's something I can talk about with other people. I don't go because I find it overly-exciting (on the contrary, when you're sitting becalmed at 3am in the morning on anchor watch, it's one of the most boring things in the world) or because I want an adrenaline filled adventure. After thinking about it, I enjoy it so much because, when sailing, everyone is equal. Disability - whilst it is a safety concern and a risk-assessment nightmare - doesn't exist on board a boat. Hard work; determination; team work; camaraderie; friendship; trust: these are the things that matter on a boat, not how much you can see or how quickly you can walk from one end (the bow) to the other (the stern). Couple that with the fact that, through sail training, you get to meet some truly outstanding young people who are each facing their own difficulties. How could anyone not love an environment like that? I shouldn't be praised for doing it just because I'm blind. I'd argue that it's because I'm blind that I'm doing it. My life would have taken a completely different path if it wasn't for my visual impairment.
Without sounding cliché, I like to use the old Mark Twain adage as a general life rule, with a little bit added on:
"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover... and enjoy!"
Disabled people don't need praise for accomplishing something that a non-disabled person would, too. They, just like everyone else, should be praised for doing something they enjoy; anyone should be given praise for doing something they enjoy and not letting their own personal difficulties stop them.