It seems that people lose all perspective on the nature of human interactions when visible disabilities are at play.
Last week, I read this blog post about just such a loss of perspective.
Apparently, a newspaper decided that two college football players sitting with a visibly disabled fellow student in their school cafeteria was newsworthy.
karin of claiming Crip gives a brilliant analysis here. She offers the clearest, most concise, most down-to-earth deconstruction of ableist thinking I’ve seen in a while–the most honest, most no-holds-barred explanation of exactly why it’s unacceptable–and inaccurate–to view disabled people, and the nondisabled people who associate with us, as inspiring.
It’s pretty apparent that, in this story, the perspective of the student these football players sat with wasn’t terribly important. There are quotes about him, but not from him.
It’s further apparent, to me, anyway, that this reporting is also a reflection of the cultural view of college athletes.
College athletes are often held in hero status in general, lauded at a level and for things far beyond their age and degree of life experience. Lauded in a way that actually negates their humanity. Here, praising them for–even reporting on the fact that they did–choose to sit with a visibly disabled fellow student in the cafeteria is ridiculous, and sends a larger message. Sitting with, spending time with, disabled people is inspirational.
Between the elevated status of college atheletes, and the reduced status of people with disabilities, there’s a real lac of balance in the way this was reported, never mind that it wasn’t worth reporting at all.
Having what is usually a visible disability–blindness–and having had numerous people sit with me while I ate alone in my university’s cafeteria, I certainly hope no one ever saw them as inspiring.
Yes, I even had a college hhockey player join me a few times. We had really pleasant, down-to-earth conversations, and he’d even say “hi” to me if he saw me other places on campus. Did this make him inspiring? I sure as hell hope not! He was a pleasant, well-spoken, intelligent guy. Lauding him for being friendly to me would just have degraded him, on top of what it would have said about my equality as a human being.
This inspiration credo is incredibly dehumanizing to disabled people (and to the people who genuinely care for or love us). It’s dehumanizing on an individual level, yes, but also in collective cultural consciousness.
One or two isolated incidents of being out in public with an able-bodied person and hearing that person’s actions praised can make one start to doubt oneself. One may look to others, ask about their experiences, start observing interactions in which they are not involved; one will see and hear the same story. That pervasiveness leads to the message that we are less than human, or that we’re superhuman for drawing friends to us who will be patient and caring for us, in spite of our subhuman disabilities. It also negates any caring or kind actions or feelings on our parts, making relationships with us appear to be one-way.
Sometimes, it doesn’t even take experiences to send this message; it’s built into the underlying consciousness: you are object, to be feared, admired, inspired by, but not equal in your humanity.
When I was getting ready to leave home for university, I was told by many well-meaning adults that people at college might be afraid of or put off by my blindness, that they might not know how to interact with me. I was told that I might have to go the extra mile to make friends, to be willing to meet people beyond halfway.
I believed this! Ironically, this belief trampled my confidence and led me to be more afraid, more timid, less friendly with folks. It led me to behave in ways that were probably seen as weird, rather than just settling into my shy, slightly nerdy,, but ultimately sweet and friendly self. It led me to question everyone’s interactions with me, to hold them at arm’s length rather than to welcome.
Remember that hockey player? I never asked if we could co-ordinate to meet at the cafeteria some time, or if we could hang out somewhere else. perhaps if I’d had more confidence, rather than feeling like I had to apologize for myself and avoid any awkwardness, perhaps if I hadn’t felt like I was a bother to people, I would have felt more comfortable making connections when they presented themselves.
I could have become friends with many people, or at least gotten to know them better if I had known how to step beyond my appreciation and gratitude that he had gone the extra mile, had met me more than halfway, by choosing to sit with me.
These messages elevating the actions of able-bodied people to hero status can leave their mark on we disabled people.
The idea of nondisabled people being brave, stepping outside themselves, even inconveniencing themselves to be nice to a disabled person is harmful in the extreme, both to the self-esteem of many disabled people and to how valid relationships (of any kind) are seen between disabled and able-bodied people.
I know of one situation where a lesbian couple- comprised of a Blac woman in her forties and a blind white woman– in her twenties had a lot of problems because of how they were perceived in public. The older partner felt that she was always seen as the caregiver of her younger partner, not as her equal, let alone as her partner. Given the history we have in this country (and others) of women of colour being in caregiving roles related to white children, elderly people, or sick people I can certainly see how this perception could have really hurt, on so many levels. Ultimately, from what I understand, it was one major factor that damaged the relationship beyond repair.
With all of these meanderings, the one thing I keep coming back to is humanity. the humanity of people in a romantic relationship. The humanity of people just headed off to college. The humanity of college students eating lunch in the cafeteria.
I don’t want to say we’re all the same, because we’re not–and that’s a good thing. I’m not saying that there aren’t really special, generous people out there–because there are.
They’re just not generous and special in who they choose to eat lunch with in a public space with multi-person tables and general seating.