Since coming out as having a disability, the posts that I have written have served as a way to organize my thoughts. I can only speak from an experiential point of view, as I have never done any real disability studies. I have been trying to understand how this identity intersects with the others that are encoded to my body. Now that there are more visible signs of my condition like the scooter and the cane, how people react is very different.
Today I had a doctors appointment and to treat myself I decided to pop into Timmys and grab an ice cap; sinful I know, but what the hell. As I was trying to manoeuvre my way in, the woman in front of me closed the door in my face. At first I thought this very well may have happened whether or not I was in my scooter because people can be rude on any occasion.
As I waited at the counter to be served, I noticed how people seemed to do their best to avoid me, as though I had some communicable disease. One parent went as far as to pull his child away from me. I was extremely aware of how different I was. I knew without doubt that the elephant in the room was not my gender or my race, even though I was the only black person in Timmys at the time.
When I was ready to leave, people practically did back flips to help me, even though I was more than capable of negotiating the doorway by myself. As they were “helping” me, I noticed that quite a few of them felt that it was appropriate to pat me on the shoulder after I said thank you, as though I was some dog that had returned a ball in a game of fetch. Ok what the hell is up with that?
Why would you randomly think that it is okay to touch a stranger because you had the good manners to hold a door? This is not the first time that I have noticed the assumption of the right to touch. It seems paternalistic and it feels insulting. On one hand my body is disturbing because it is not like the so-called “normal people”; therefore , giving rise to revulsion and on the other, the pity that passes for empathy is palatable.
When I am out and about on my scooter, I am not thinking about the fact that I cannot walk great distances; I am enjoying the weather and the moment like everyone else. Sometimes, I might even be inwardly laughing about the fact that my scooter not only facilitates mobility, it allows me to move at a far greater speed than the average walker. My scooter allows me to participate in most of the things I would like to do access permitting. It is only an unwieldy appendage to those who have never had the misfortune of being trapped in their home.
When I take my children to the park, I am more than able to keep up with them, in fact being on a scooter means that I will be able to reach them faster than someone who is walking or running and yet if I move to go after them, someone is quick to tell me to rest and that they can do it for me. I am quite certain that pushing the accelerator button on my scooter to get it to move 20 feet will not exhaust me.
I appreciate every single time that I have been helped when I needed it and this applies to the time before I became disabled as well. However, I cannot help but feel irritated with those who believe that they are helping when it is clearly not necessary. This does not come out of a desire to be a good person; in fact to me, it seems to originate out a desire to infantilize me. Not being able to walk great distances does not mean I am completely incapable. I think I would just like to be asked whether or not I need help; rather, than someone insisting on doing something for me because my scooter supposedly renders me incapable. How difficult is it to utter the words, do you need help? Disability does not necessarily mean incapable; it may simply mean doing things differently.
I have learned that to the able bodied my disability means helplessness unless it requires a real concession on their part. If it is a matter of holding the door, even when an automatic door opener is available, the list of volunteers is usually quite long. If it means displaying patience to allow me to move at my own pace suddenly the empathy disappears. If my disability requires a real show of patience it is almost certain that it will be deemed time for me to play “super crip”. Though I think that I would make a very cool super hero, (what with the long dred locks and all) how I negotiate my limitations should be up to me and not subject to the desires of those of have become accustomed to having the world tailored to them.
My needs are very simple. Don’t assume you have the right touch me and don’t assume that your help is needed. My life may be different than yours but that does not mean that I don’t have the right to go about my business like everyone else.