There is this space that exists between most people with disabilities and most people who don’t have them.
The trouble is, that space is mostly filled by media talk about disabilities, which create some very standard lines about what it means to have a disability. I think there are 6 basic lines of approach: person ‘overcomes’ their disability and triumphs; disability is So! Tragic!; caretakers for people with disability carry unbearable burdens and are angels if they carry it successfully; person with a disability is an angel (especially if they are mentally handicapped) nor “put here by god to teach a lesson”; person with a disability is cured (by hard work, by modern medicine, by non-Western medicine, by prayer, by meditation, by being positive, you take your pick); and people who do not have disabilities can imagine what it’s like to live with one.
But let’s break these down, shall we?
1) Person overcomes their disability.
Er, no. See, the thing is, a disability isn’t like a traditional horse handicap. Horse handicaps worked like this: the horse who was supposed to be the better racer had weights or distance added to try to even up the race. The goal of a handicapper was to get the horses to finish as close to the same time as possible. A photo-finish (that is, where the finish is so close a picture of the horses crossing the line must be examined to figure out who finished first) is the triumph of a handicapper.
We’re not like that. We aren’t carrying around some mystical extra weight to slow us down, nor are we running longer distances (most of the time – don’t get me started on how much longer accessible routes tend to be!). We’re just different. We do things differently. I don’t open jars with my bare hands, I have a tool that grips them and makes them easier to turn. I still get the jar open, just using a different method. I know of a number of people in wheelchairs, or people with dwarfism, who have lowered counters in their kitchen so that it’s accessible to them. I take the elevator instead of the stairs. Right now, with the newest knee injury, I get around on an electric scooter instead of on my feet. It’s just different.
If you want a handicap like the traditional horse handicaps, try looking at lack of accessibility! The number of stores you can’t get into on wheels, the ramps that are canted too steeply to be used safely, the way tilted sidewalks make it harder to move, the way handicapped accessible routes mean around the side or the back instead of up the front, the fact that we have to do better than our able-bodied counterparts to get the same jobs, and so on, then yeah, maybe we’re dealing with a handicap. It isn’t our bodies that make them, though. I’m not triumphing over my disability; if I’m triumphing over anything, it’s society’s views of me.
2) Disability is So! Tragic!
Let me say right off the top that while disability isn’t tragic, the process of becoming disabled (say, via a car accident) can be. It would probably be more accurate to say that it’s traumatic, though. It’s really damn hard to adjust to a new disability. That doesn’t make disability a tragic thing, though; that makes accepting new limitations and figuring out ways to deal with them hard, and it makes dealing with societal views of people with disability really tough to swallow.
I’m not saying that it isn’t hard to adjust. It is. Just like it’s hard to adjust to living in a new country when you haven’t learned the language and culture first. You have to figure out how the locals do things, you grieve for things you had in your old country but don’t have now, you have to figure out how to express yourself in different ways, and you have to break down all your old ideas about what that country and its people are like. So it is with disability.
If disability can be seen to be tragic at all, it is because of the way people with disabilities are treated. Social Security for disabled folks keeps them below the poverty line. Places aren’t accessible. Abuse happens to us at a higher rate because we’re seen as less-than. It’s harder to get, and keep a job because employers also think of us as lesser beings. There isn’t the kind of community support we need. Too many people think of accomodating people with disabilities as giving us special treatment. The Americans with Disabilities Act passed 20 years ago, but we are still not really equal in most people’s eyes.
The most tragic thing about disability is that because disability is viewed as tragic, murdering us is often excused or given a ridiculously light sentence.
3) Caretakers carry unbearable burdens and are angels if they do it successfully
Arrite, let me say first off – some 20% of people have a disability in my country; more in countries where there are things like landmines or severe environmental pollution that cause higher rates of disability. If taking care of us were some unbearable burden, then I think most of us would be homeless or suffering from terrible, chronic abuse – far more than actually are. Yeah, we have a higher rate of both of those than folks who are able-bodied, but it’s still only a fraction of the disabled community.
Now, I’m not saying that caretaking is easy. Even my easy-going, big-hearted boyfriend gets fed up with it occasionally – usually when it’s midnight and time for yet another late-night hospital trip. It is a lot of work, and the world as a whole does not give enough recognition for the hours our families and loved ones and employees put in. My aide isn’t paid even half what I think she’s worth. I think that family caretakers deserve a ton more respite care and financial support than they recieve. I think good caretakers are great people and should be respected for that…but I don’t think they’re angels. I think they have good and bad days just like the rest of us. I think they make choices and sacrifices like the rest of us, though those sacrifices are usually larger than the average. I think they’re human beings with a tough row to hoe.
Part of the reason I’m against calling them angels is that it says that only very few people can do it. And that’s not true! I think most people could be caretakers if adequate support were available. It also says that people who are caretakers don’t need support, which I think is even more untrue. People who are caretakers have more stress than the average person, so they need more support – family and friends who are willing to help and to talk, governmental support for respite care and aide hours, financial support to ease the cost of helping us.
The other part of the reason is that saying we’re an unbearable burden excuses abuse. People with disabilities are abused at a sickening rate. Why? Well, I think it’s a combination of a few things. First off, most abusers pick targets that are not as highly valued as they are – people with disabilities, children, women, and people who are trans*. Second, most caretakers do not have adequate support, especially in terms of respite care. Third, as a society, we have said that it’s excusable to abuse and kill people with disabilities because their lives are tragic and they’re huge burdens. It excuses teachers who abuse disabled pupils because “they aren’t trained to handle them”. It excuses aides and institution workers because “the work is just so stressful”. It excuses family caretakers because “they have to work so hard to take care of them”. It excuses murder because our lives are seen as having less value, especially if the person is mentally handicapped or has a terminal condition.
4) Person with a disability (especially mental handicaps) is an ‘angel’ or “put here by god to teach a lesson”
Wow. Yeah, that one just blows me away. The fact that someone is disabled doesn’t make them an angel, any more than a caretaker is an angel! I’ve witnessed plenty of kids with disabilities throwing tantrums. I know that living treated as a lesser being is enough to make yours truely rage pretty good sometimes. We aren’t angels any more than the next person. We don’t have some divinely kind and understanding souls, we’re just like you, but with a disability. And being of less than average intelligence doesn’t grant a serene disposition.
Now, for people who call all kids angels, I suppose I can sort of understand why they’d want to call kids with disabilities angels, but please consider that it may be construed that you think people with disabilities are angles and might just piss someone off!
The ‘here to teach a lesson’ bit is one that particularly riles me. I’m not your freakin’ lesson! I’m a person. Hey, once again, just like you, but with a disability. And perhaps a few less prejudices, if you see me as a lesson! If you treat me like a lesson, you’ll get one you deserve – that I have a temper! I am a person. I’m here for the same reason you are, whether you believe we’re all shaped in a creator’s image or whether you believe we’re just the most successful genetic mutation. People with disabilities aren’t put here by some greater being to teach patience, kindness, equality, or any other virtue you might associate with us. (though let me tell you, a great many of us would like to teach TRUE equality. In my experience, people who speak of someone with a disability demonstrating equality tend to mean that all souls are equal, not about equality in treatment, in housing, in funding, in hiring, or in any of the ways that people with disabilities are discriminated against) We are just people. We just exist. Same as you. Same as everyone else.
5) Person with disability is cured
Here’s a cold hard fact for you: most people with disabilities cannot be cured.
Hard work won’t cure a disability. It may teach you to cope with the disability in such a way that the disability is not obvious or is no longer difficult to deal with, but it doesn’t get rid of the actual disability. Even though I learned to spell by rote, I’m still mildly dyslexic. My spelling is far better than average because of the way I had to learn it, but I scramble things like phone numbers on a regular basis.
Contrary to the Zoloft commercial where the sad, depressed head bouncing around turns into a happy smiley head, medication doesn’t fix everything. It can help, but most of us don’t get fixed by a pill. And when you get to physical disabilities, the rate of ‘fixed by a pill’ or a surgery doesn’t get much higher. There aren’t many disabilities that can be fixed by surgery.
I believe in the power of healing energy and prayer and whatnot, but I don’t think they can make the body fix things that are impossible to fix. I think that if anything, they make the possible happen more effectively. The same for meditation and thinking positively. None of that will fix my genetic cartiledge defects, and to be frank I’ll get quite snippy if people start trying to push their prayer cure.
6) People without disabilities can imagine what it’s like to have a disability.
Um, no. No and no and no. First off, you can’t imagine what it’s like to have my disability because you can’t wrap your head around how pervasively it affects my life. It comes down to everything, even the way I hold my hands to type and brush my teeth, how I lay to sleep at night, what clothing I choose to wear. Secondly, you can’t imagine how I’ve adapted to it. When I busted my knee the first time, I hit the point where I could carry a tray and use crutches the first time within a couple of weeks. Humans are amazingly adaptable creatures – it is the greatest strength of our species. If I could learn something that required that much concentration and coordination that quickly, how much do you think we adapt to years of living with our disabilities?
If you sit in a wheelchair and push yourself around a bit, you’ll understand how much muscle you have to develop to easily push yourself around all day…but what most people will ‘learn’ is how hard it is to push yourself when you don’t have that muscle! (in all likelihood, they’ll have you sitting in the heavy hospital style wheelchairs that are really meant to be pushed by someone else instead of the low-backed, low sided, lightweight chairs that most people with disabilities use) Borrowing my forearm crutches may make your arms sore, but it only takes a couple of weeks on them to get used to it. Trying to wander around with blinding goggles or a blindfold on doesn’t teach you what it’s like for a blind person to navigate, it teaches you that you don’t know how to. I really, really hate those ‘disability’ demos that pop people into different kinds of adaptive equipment. All people really learn is that they don’t know how to use the equipment we live with, but they THINK they learn how hard disability is. And then they pity us. Yet more space that puts between us and them.
The space between people with disabilities and people without could easily be narrowed by real disability narratives – our stories, told by ourselves. How much better we might be understood with a few less ‘wheelchair bound’ narratives and a few more ‘wheelchair using’ stories! I wish that people could see Paralympic athletes as what they are – people who have trained and are at the peak of fitness and skill at their sport, instead of ‘poor crippled folks who have overcome their disabilities’. We overcome nothing but societal prejudice, and work WITH our bodies! One of the first things we have to learn is to stop fighting our disability and adapt to it. But your average journalist has never had to learn that, and doesn’t have the training to listen to us explain it. As long as our stories are told by people without disabilities, people who can’t really understand us, this gap will continue to be, and we – people with disabilities – will suffer for it.
(updated to add, whoops, I forgot point 4)