Becoming Aware of My Ableism
So I have this friend. Let’s call her Laura. And she has cerebral palsy. She’s probably my first close friend with a physical disability, and she uses a motorized wheelchair to get around.
We met a few years ago, and I’m still stunned by the types of interactions I witness between her and other people. There was the time a woman with a dog stopped us in the street – Laura has a helper dog, a gorgeous black lab – and started speaking to her and petting her dog. Laura had to explain that the labrador was working, which you think would be fairly self evident with the harness and everything (though I admit, it is hard for me not to pet him when he’s wearing his harness as he’s the sweetest thing ever). When she left, I turned to Laura and asked, “Do you know her?” Laura’s sarcastic response? “No. But we all look alike.”
Then there are the comments about her being heroic or an inspiration. They happen often. This TED talk by Stella Young can tell you a lot more about inspiration porn and the objectification of disability than I ever could.
And of course there’s often – I can’t even count the number of times – a patronizing “You can do anything you set your mind to!” from well meaning people. I often want to respond with “Yes, thank you, she knows that.” But then I’d be speaking for her, and that’s not something I want to do.
Which brings me to this past summer’s World Pride parade in Toronto, when the patronizing and infantilization was the greatest I’d ever witnessed while being out in public with her. We went to one of the accessible sections along the parade route to watch the floats go by, and I was treated like the all-knowing (probably paid) helper, and Laura like the young child who couldn’t speak for herself. There was one woman in particular, who was there with her elderly mother who couldn’t stand through the whole parade, who would only speak to me. Asking me what happened to Laura, for example – was she born that way or did she have a stroke? Because she looked just like this person she knows who had a stroke. (Ugh)
I remember one point when she turned to me and said, “Oh I’m so glad they gave her some beads” referring to one of the people in the parade who walk along the floats handing out stickers or buttons or cheap glittery beaded necklaces.
I wanted to snap back with, “She’s not a child!! She’s twenty-fucking-six. She’s getting her Masters degree!! FUCK.”
But I didn’t. I was polite. I just smiled and gritted my teeth.
The most recent situation was earlier this month during the Toronto International Film Festival, Laura and I saw Margarita with a Straw, a movie from India about a young girl with cerebral palsy who moves to the United States for school and falls in love with another girl.
The movie had its faults, and many of us were surprised when the main actress walked onto the stage with no signs of any disability. As the Q&A progressed, we realized that she didn’t even have a mild form of CP. She was an able-bodied actress portraying someone with CP. Even Laura was convinced she had CP while she was watching the film. And that brought up a whole litany of issues like – why aren’t disabled actors used to portray their own stories? Is it ok that an able-bodied actress played the role flawlessly, with realism and depth? Is it ok to view the movie differently just because the main actress is able-bodied in real life?
I don’t know the answers to these questions; they’re great discussion questions, and Laura and I did discuss them as we walked out of the theatre, along with a couple of other friends. That’s when we passed a TIFF volunteer, an older lady, who stepped in to filter the traffic around us, with these incredible words:
“Please step aside for this poor lady.”
I wanted to respond with, “Ok, see that movie we just came out of? You need to go see that and then get some sensitivity training.”
For fuck’s sake.
It’s only when I’m with Laura that I truly see how much of an ableist society we live in. And how much privilege I have being able-bodied. The examples above are only the examples I’ve experienced of real, blatant ignorance when it comes to disability . And I’ll admit, before I met Laura and before I started to read about disability and ableism, I fell into some of those categories discussed above.
But I haven’t even mentioned things like accessibility. That would be a whole other blogpost – or 10. I try to notice how many times I use stairs to get into a building or an event. But really, it doesn’t usually cross my mind unless I’m with Laura. Because I don’t have to think about it in my everyday life, when I’m going about my business alone. Take the TTC for example. This map was recently posted of what the TTC looks like if you’re using a wheelchair.
And this is just my experience, as an able-bodied person with a friend who happens to have cerebral palsy. I can’t even imagine the frustration that my friend deals with on a daily basis. If you’re intrigued by what I have to say, please check out some of the disability activists who blog like Glenda Watson Hyatt, Dave Hingsburger, and Stephen Kuusisto.
Do you have some favourite writers in the blogosphere? Let me know in the comments!