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Friday, December 18, 2015

Micro Aggression's Rampant December Presence

Since class ended last week I have been trying to lay low. I do my best to avoid social interaction but sometimes I need to do the ordinary. Exciting stuff like grocery shopping, an odd trip to the post office or library, maybe even eat lunch out.  When I do this I am a target of opportunity. This is ever present and has been for over three decades. However the intrusion in my space and forced "help" is a real problem as Christmas approaches. I have read other people with a disability express similar sentiments. Dominick Evans recently wrote "Don't Just Say Hi to Me... Just Fuck off Instead". Link: Written in response to an ill advised add campaign by the Cerebral Palsy Foundation (Just Say Hi) Evans wrote the problem is not getting non disabled others to say hi but rather makes people go away. He concluded his post in a way that reassured me I am not the only one being harassed:

I am not here for you to be inspired by me. I am not here to make you feel better about yourself. I’m here because I’m a human being just like everyone else. So next time you approach me, or any of my friends with disabilities, don’t say hi, unless you would say hi to everyone else around you. You don’t know what I’m going through, where I’m going, or even if I want to talk to you. If you wouldn’t say hi to a non-disabled person, don’t say hi to me. Instead, just fuck off, because frankly that’s the way the majority of people would act around anyone else.

The bottom line is that people with a visible disability lose the ability to be anonymous. I always stick out. I stick out when I attend an academic conference. I stick out when I park my car. I stick out when I navigate my way through an airport and on and off a plane. I stick out when I eat at a diner. I stick everywhere because the world was built for bipedal people. My existence and the space I take up is out of the norm. The ignorant people I am forced to deal with have no clue what my life is like. When they meet me it is singularly unusual. My existence prompts a social response that typically involves rude condescending behavior. I have no privacy. None. Strangers feel free to ask any question that pops into their mind. These questions are typically inappropriate. A common conversation starter involves a stranger asking "Why do you use a wheelchair? or "what happened to you?" or "can you have sex?". The list of intrusive questions is a long one indeed. Some might think people are just trying to be nice. Wrong. I second Evans fuck off. 

Evans is not alone nor am I. At Crippled Scholar I read "In Defense of the Radical Idea of Letting Disabled People Exist in Public Without Comment". Link: People with typical bodies do not get it. There is a cultural divide between people who are typical bipedal humans and those of us with a profoundly different body who navigate the world differently. For me, my difference is using a wheelchair. For others it might be a person who is blind and forms a guide dog team. For those who are deaf, it is the use of ASL. Our difference makes us a target. We are not mere mortals. We represent every other person with a similar disability. I do not speak for myself, I speak for all people who use a wheelchair. What bipeds do not remotely understand is how inappropriate intrusive questions are because they are inherently dehumanizing. Crippled Scholar wrote "These interactions are entirely fixated around the fact that I am disabled. They have nothing to do with me as a person". This line was followed by:

The fact that disabled people are not seen as being entitled to personal privacy. The fact that our bodies deviate from the norm seems to give people the idea that their have the right to ask us probing questions and they don't take refusal very well. Perhaps this is why Evans says that despite his dislike of these interactions, he tends to reply with a  smile. In my experience attempts to deflect just leads to more probing questions. An out right refusal to comply is met with shock and frustration. It is also in my experience leads to them backing down because as I mentioned these people feel entitled to my personal information. They usually respond by attempting to shame me by saying something alone the lines of I'm just trying to learn, don't you want people to be educated. The fact that have been trying to teach them that I have the right to exist in public without being accosted is inevitably lost on them.

There are over three million citizens in the United States 20% of whom have a disability. That leaves millions of citizens in need of a remedial education concerning disability rights issues. That is not going to happen if we rely on people being educated one by one. What is needed is a social revolution. Laws have failed to make a difference. They have failed not because they are inadequate but rather there is no social mandate to enforce them. I hear again and again about how the ADA is an unfunded mandate. I find this infuriating. The ADA is civil rights legislation. When I point this out people look at me with a quizzical expression. "Really, I had no idea" is the usual response. This also ends discussions as my point about civil rights requires thought.  People cannot fall back on what they learned about disability. The idea civil rights and disability rights are one in the same undermines what most absorb and are taught about disability.

I have put great thought into how to respond to rude people and intrusive questions. Like Evans, I try not to engage. Rather than smiling I have mastered the placid look. I relax my facial features, remain silent, and am stoic as humanly possible. Think DMV employee like interest level. When I do not reply kindly and engage the responses can be swift and violent. I have had doors slammed in my face. I have had people scream at me that I was "a bitter ass hole". I get why Evans smiles. He is protecting himself. Unlike Crippled Scholar, in my experience people do not back down. Strangers insist on helping or get off on mere staring as though I am freak show. A few example should suffice. This week two people have grabbed by wheelchair when I was getting out to fill up my car with gas. A minor tug of war ensued. A more passive experience also took place this week. I was getting into my car when I noticed a man staring at me in the car parked next to me. I stopped my transfer and looked him in the eye. He lowered his window and told me "go on, I want to watch." I replied with a "You are rude. Stop staring." He replied "I have not seen how a wheelchair goes in the car. I am watching". I was mad at this point and said "The show is over. I will not get in my car until you leave or stop staring". This exchange is somewhat dangerous. As both Evans and Crippled Scholar pointed out it is not wise to refuse to engage with typical others curiosity. Such rejection is not taken well. Refusing to play the part of entertaining and meek cripple is unexpected. 

I find it impossible to imagine that I am the only average crippled man in America who rejects a stigmatized identity. Evans and Crippled Scholar demonstrated I am not alone. That feeling warms my soul. Imagine a world in which we cripples could blurt out "your'e a dick" or"fuck off". Bipedal people's head would likely spin off their body. The shock would be palatable. Instead we are deemed to be "bitter", "angry", "uncooperative", "nasty", or have a "cripple's disposition". This is correct. I feel all these emotions when I am perceived to be less than human. 


G. B. Miller said...

For what's its worth, I never inquire about why someone is disabled, because quite frankly, it's none of my business. I (usually) ignore similar questions about myself from people who don't know me (I have a neuro-muscular disorder called C.M.T. that mostly affects my hands). Like you, if I want help doing something, I'll ask. Otherwise, leave me to my own devices.

Deborah said...

Wow. I'm glad I read your blog. I was taught that people in a wheelchair might feel left out or ignored, so I should be nice and say hello to them. To make them feel a part of everything. To show them that I see THEM, and not just the wheelchair.

It never occurred to me that they might feel conspicuous and would prefer to be ignored - just like "everybody else." (Although my mother never ignored anybody, she would talk to a lamp post! It used to embarrass me.)

I don't usually offer to help a disabled person unless they appear to be struggling or actually having difficulty. (I ASK if they could use a hand, I don't just butt in.) But I would offer the same help to a mother trying to manipulate a stroller through a doorway, or a shopper having trouble getting a large package out the door or into his trunk.

Thanks for the education. Try not to get too angry with someone who doesn't understand what it's like to be in a wheelchair, because they've never been in one. And maybe it will be someone like my mother, who was just so friendly she couldn't help but say hello to (or actually start talking to) total strangers nearby, wheelchair or not. I miss her a lot.