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Monday, April 9, 2018

Crossing the Street Unaccompanied

Disability based street harassment in Denver is minimal. This is, of course, a sweeping generalization. Afterall, just a few months ago a well-dressed businessman in a swanky part of downtown Denver stated: "Why don't you just die already". Such comments directed my way always take place when I am alone and have the audacity to venture out the door by myself. I never cease to be amazed how people react to my presence. Yesterday, however, I was truly stunned by one person's reaction to my presence. I was going to the train station--something I have done countless times. I am on the sidewalk when I hear a car jam on the brakes. I did not think much of this. The car was on the other side of the road median and going in the opposite direction. Something seemed odd and I looked across the road to see a woman come to a complete stop, put her hazard lights on, get out of her car and walk across two lanes of road traffic in my direction. As she approached me she said in a loud voice "You can't cross the street by yourself!" The woman appeared to be highly agitated. In a voice getting louder and more shrill by the minute she stated "You just can't cross the street by yourself. I will help you." I am instantly wary and somewhat concerned for my safety as well as hers. Is this woman mentally altered? She just crossed two lanes of traffic to help me cross the street--this is not remotely appropriate behavior. And then she said what were to me the magic words: "Where is your caretaker?" Guarded but relieved I figured this woman was just an ignorant ableist and not a threat. I simply gave the woman an icy glare, moved perpendicular to the sidewalk making it impossible for her to attempt to push my wheelchair. Realizing her failure to help, and I assume save me, the woman returned to her car. She was unhappy and decidedly unimpressed with me. The feeling was mutual.  Without further commentary or assistance crossing the street the woman returned to her car and I continued on to the train station.

Welcome to the wonderful world of paralysis. Social interactions for all wheelchair users can and often are severely skewed. Over the last day or so since the above interaction I have wondered where do people learn about disability and more specifically about wheelchair use. Many I have known without a disability need to think if I use a power wheelchair versus a manual wheelchair. To me the difference between a power wheelchair and a manual wheelchair is profound--they can never be misunderstood for one another. My frustration is that ignorance and stigma stubbornly cling to people that use a wheelchair. The fact is ableism abounds. Ableism is part of the fabric of society. All the laws in all the courts of this nation cannot root out ableism without the social demand for equality. No such demand exists. People with a disability are damaged goods, our existence profoundly inferior. My civil rights are always open to question. I am routinely underestimated and regularly congratulated for doing the ordinary. As I wondered about this woman, I had to accept a basic truth--such interactions hurt. I am filled with hurt. I am wary of typical others. Every time I go out the door I know I might be harassed. Frankly, I am sick of it. When, I wonder, is it going to end? The answer to the aforementioned question is a depressing never. The sort of ableism this woman absorbed is almost impossible to root out. Indeed, it will take generations.

The woman in question made me realize just how casual ableism is. Ableism is also as casual as it is deadly.  It is easy to internalize ableism. It is all too easy to think something is wrong with me--how else does one explain a never ending sea of insults, slights, and outrageous behaviors. It is easy to wonder do I have the right to get on a bus or plane or train? As I pass dozens of inaccessible restaurants on Larimer Street am I content that in seven blocks there is one restaurant without steps and adequate room to navigate the dining room aisles. Why is it that when I went out for a fancy meal a week ago I was stunned when not a single server or fellow diner bumped into my wheelchair? Should this not be the norm? Should I not be able to enter all restaurants? The answer is, of course, an emphatic yes. But casual ableism abounds--ableism is everywhere. Only once in a while is ableism over the top--the businessman who said I should just die. The unknown woman who stopped her car and insisted on helping me across the street. These people I do not fear. It is the closet ableist, the good-natured pillar of the community who has my best interests at heart that I fear. These people can justify anything. Justifying a lack of access and inclusion is quite easy--a litany of excuses have been used in the past and present. I just cannot be positive for I see the hard won civil rights we people with a disability fought for under attack on multiple fronts--from a complete stranger who harassed me to a GOP bent on eliminating all social services that enable people to live and work in the community.