At a New Jersey town hall meeting a woman in a wheelchair attempted to speak about the financial issues she faces because of the medicine that she needs to deal with two incurable diseases. The crowd was decidedly not empathetic as they shouted the whole time that she spoke. A man was questioned as to why he chose to shout down her testimony and he stated, “I didn’t come here to listen to peoples opinions, my rights are no less important than a woman in a wheelchair.”
He is right that the able bodied and the differently abled should have the same rights, however; we know that this is not the case in many circumstances because society was designed to privilege the needs of the currently able bodied. When we ( read:the differently abled) speak about our needs, we are summarily silenced because it is read by many as whining. The differently abled are expected to rise above our limitations and no such demands are placed on the currently able bodied.
The very fact that they could shout down this womans testimony serves as evidence of how little the lives of the differently abled are considered in everyday discourse. Many seem to think that as long as there are ramps and that sidewalk curbs are slanted, that we should have no other “special concerns”. The differently abled are expected to be invisible and therefore, when this woman dared to speak of her experience, it seemed natural to this crowd that she be denied the opportunity. If the commentator truly meant that his concerns were equal to that of a differently abled woman, her truth would not have been considered threatening.
The way in which the world is designed creates the differently abled as special needs. If from the very beginning we started with the concept that not all bodies are designed the same, we would be living in an equal society. We throw around the word equal, however; the very idea of a reduction in privilege often results in anger. This is true regardless of what social marginalization that we are discussing.
Our bodies are understood to represent sickness and death regardless of the degree of productivity that we are capable of. Much of the commentary actually originates in the subconscious fear that we may transfer an affliction. In a society that privileges a certain understanding of what constitutes health, differently abled bodies are decidedly problematic.
What people must begin to understand, is that what seems like a special issue for a relatively small segment of the population, is much larger than it appears. As people age, regardless of health, at some point they will need assistance to access the most basic services. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that this will be actively realized until a larger percentage of the baby boomers reach retirement age. Those that are currently in the position to deny the necessity of change may one day find them themselves in need of the very services that they earlier decried. The irony is readily noticeable to those of us that currently struggle to negotiate an ableist world.
This womans speech was threatening because she dared to say I matter. It had to be silenced because she would not quietly disappear despite the obvious power imbalance. Privilege controls what is and is not seen. Though she spoke about healthcare, the issues extends far beyond that. Ableism asserts itself every time we are assumed to stupid, or inept and each time a person stares or demands that we give way, we are diminished.
It is assumed that most are courteous to the differently abled, however; what often occurs is condescension or a disgusting display of pity. Even within so called socially progressive groups like feminism, anti-racism, environmentalism, gay rights and animal rights, we are invisible. It would simply be easier if the currently abled stopped using the word equality because it is quite obvious that what counts is not shared humanity but their ability to use power to erase our existence.