Activism vs Advocacy


Duality, paradox, is how I view my experience with blindness. There are things I can do and can see in some contexts and there are many many things I can’t do or see no matter what. I was challenged in a discussion, am I an advocate,?“a person who speaks or writes in support or defense of a person, cause, etc. (usually fol. by of ): an advocate of peace”. Or am I an activist? “an especially active, vigorous advocate of a cause.” Denotative definitions from

My immediate response was that I am emphatically an advocate. Walking down the street it came to me. As an advocate I work to create bridges, build language, making connections, having conversations. Its not that easy though. I don’t strive to be an activist, “All blind people unite and burn your white canes in protest!!”. Funny but ineffective in getting the message across. Peace is the word to focus on. In my endeavours in my life I work for peace. Sometimes finding peace is removing the blind man from the equation.

What I’ve realized is that my advocacy has duality. The duality is context based. I’ve come to realize that my existence makes me extremely visible. I’m a big tall loud obnoxious man walking down the street with a great big stick, white cane. I take up space I have presence I have energy. I’m not invisible no matter what I do to try to be. Everywhere I go I’m visible.

What I’ve observed is the context the expectation is everything. In some contexts a blind man is expected and accommodated. In some contexts a blind man is not necessarily expected but tolerated. In some contexts a blind man is not expected at all, or accommodated. That’s the subtlety. I’m an advocate in contexts where I am expected or tolerated. I’m an activist when I’m in contexts where I’m not expected. The degree of how expected I am determines how much of an activist I am and how accommodated I am and how much advocacy I must demonstrate.

There are many contexts that exist where a disabled person is not, “expected”. In my experience I find the level of accommodation in a particular context is directly proportional to how expected a disabled person is in a context. In many public places a diverse set of people is expected, the library, schools, the office, public transportation. Accommodation is either provided or available. In many other public places diversity is not, “Understood”. Accommodation is not thought of or available, your on your own Blind Man. Going grocery shopping for instance. It surprises me to no end but I am convinced that stores don’t expect disabled people. The layout of the store, the shelves, the tags. I can’t shop without someone else. Unless I do it all on-line on the computer over the internet. I can’t price compare, I’m not supported to be pulling a shopping cart. I do and have my white cane out in front and people are, very confused. Its all very frustrating. Disabled people eat too, no really we do. When I am hiking I use my white cane with the magic wheel. When I’m on a well established trail I’m “accommodated”, “expected”, when the trail gets rougher and narrow with cliffs etc. The other hikers are not “expecting” a big blind man with a white cane. Conversely there is little to no accommodation.

You might think what is a blind man doing hiking. I hate to tell you look around you and you figure out how many visually impaired or blind people there are in your world. I challenge you to broaden your horizons and look for all the visibly disabled people around you. Go on to look and see what they are doing and involved in. The answer will surprise you they are doing everything and anything you do and sometimes more. So don’t go thinking, “well its not safe that disabled person shouldn’t do that!!!”.

Recently I joined the Chamber of Commerce, I can tell you disabled people were not, “Expected”. I’ve gone to a few functions and used my adaptive gear, I am much more of an activist in this context than an advocate. I, the disabled person is, totally unexpected. I find the same response in many professional settings. A disabled person is not expected. People are generally terrified at first, “What the heck is that and what are you doing”. Once you get the obligatory conversation out of the way, “Its an adaptive device and I’m disabled”, people will generally relax. What I’ve found that once we get to the point in a professional setting people forget very quickly about my disability. I add a lot of value.

Personal approach has an impact on advocacy / activism too. The personal dynamics that are important are the same for the disabled person and the people in the context that expects or doesn’t expect the disabled person. Your, intent, are you going to be an activist and raise hell or an advocate and start a conversation? Your, approach, are you being open respectful and polite, or are you being bitter, off the cuff, closed minded. Your, expectations, “Are disabled people accommodated here or not?”, make a huge difference. If you expect a diverse group its easier to deal with diverse participation. If your spouting diversity and don’t expect diverse participation. Your, intent, approach, and expectations will be apparent, your not hiding anything, creating an activist confrontation as apposed to an advocate conversation.

There is not one answer, it is a duality a paradox, to the question, “Am I an activist or an advocate?”. I can tell you my approach is always peace but the intent, expectations of a context and the people in it are going to determine whether or not I advocate or I respond by being the activist, burning my white cane in protest.

About the Author:

Kyle has ocular albinism and has been legally blind since birth. Kyle leads a very active live and is besides his professional career involved in many projects for persons who are different.

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