Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Power of Choices

When I go to a movie theater using my chair or walker, or when I go with wheelchair using friends, we usually can only sit in three or four different spots.  In smaller movie theaters, there is often only one spot that can accommodate a wheelchair user, resulting in an awkward dance of politeness or perhaps a duel to the death when - god forbid - there's more than one wheelchair user wanting to see the movie.  After my best friend (who blogs at The Squeaky Wheelchair) was forced to wedge herself sideways behind the back row of seats, nearly knocking off a fire extinguisher in the process, because the lone wheelchair spot was already occupied, we resolved to never go back to that local theater again.  But others aren't much better.  Sometimes the wheelchair seats are clustered together in one row, making those who need accessible seating feel like we've fallen into some sort of cripple ghetto.  Other times, in big multiplex theaters, there are theater rooms that aren't accessible (Roosevelt Field movie theater, I'm looking at you).  If the movie you want to see is in that theater, sorry, you're out of luck.  And of course no one ever thinks to mention when you're buying your ticket that the theater you're going to is up a flight of stairs...

It's not just movie theaters, either.  When I get on a public bus with my wheelchair, there is a grand total of two spots where I can sit.  Both of those spots require that the bus driver ask anyone sitting in those seats to move and then fold up the seats to create space for a wheelchair. People are usually quite annoyed when they are asked to move.  It's almost like there's no other spot for them to sit....oh wait, that's me!  I don't know of any other minority group that has to force people out of their seats just so they can ride the bus.

And if I'm traveling with, say, my boyfriend, who is a fellow wheelchair user, the absurdity is doubled.  Two wheelchair users, two wheelchair spots on the bus.  You do the math.  There is no room for error, no room for any other wheelchair users.  My boyfriend and I have sat at a bus stop and waved two perfectly good buses on without us, because the bus already had one wheelchair user on board.  On the flip side, I have seen drivers turn down other wheelchair users at a stop because they already had two wheelchair users taking up the spots.  And I have felt an irrational squirm of guilt for taking up one of those precious spots.

Sound familiar?  Black people didn't stand for being relegated to the back of the bus.  They weren't simply grateful that they could ride the bus at all.  They recognized what was happening as segregationist and discriminatory.  And they made change happen.  Have we become so complacent in the post-ADA generation that we fail to remember that we deserve the same rights as everyone else?  Have we become hangers-on, clutching at the coattails of the able, thankful just to be breathing the same air as them?

The power of able privilege is the power of choices.  You can sit in this seat or that seat.  You can sit in the front of the bus or the back.  You can go to that subway station or this one.  You can watch this movie or that one, never mind if they have captions or not.  You can read that book or this one, regardless of whether the book is available in an alternate format.  You have the luxury of moving through a world that presents an endless array of choices to you.

We have fought for and won our rights.  Now it's time for the post-ADA generation to take up the mantle of another fight - the fight for the right to have choices.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Trouble With Ableist Metaphors

"I was blind to the consequences."

"You need to learn how to stand up for yourself."

"Her pleas fell on deaf ears."

I'm not usually one to language police other people.  There are a few terms that I absolutely despise (such as the r-word or "wheelchair bound") that I will usually make a fuss over.  Then there are terms like "handicapped" or "special needs" that make my skin crawl, but aren't bad enough, in my mind, to the point where I will speak up.  I need to choose my battles carefully, and despite being a word nerd (I have now spent several minutes pondering over the grammatical structure of this sentence), language usually isn't one of them.

But I was struck recently when, in the course of emails back and forth about inspiration porn and ableism, a colleague used the metaphor "I was blind and now I see."  I'm sure he had the best of intentions and didn't even stop to consider the ableist nature of the metaphor - but that's sort of the point.  Ableism is so incredibly deeply ingrained in our culture that people use ableist language - yes, even people who should know better, I fully admit that I probably invoke these metaphors far more often that I should - without a second thought every day.  I'm not sure that happens with any other form of oppression (feel free to correct me if I'm wrong).

But wait!  I should stop being so literal, shouldn't I?  After all, it's just an expression!  No one actually means them!  Which is all well and good, but as my dear friend K says often, intent is not magic.  But the problem comes when we take both the literal and metaphorical definitions and step back to critically analyze what we mean when we say such things.

The problem with metaphors like "I was blind and now I see" is they overwhelmingly position the disability as the negative.  When you're "blind to the consequences", when your voice "falls on deaf ears", when you need to "stand up for yourself", those are all negative situations that should be rectified.  In contrast, having your "eyes opened", being "all ears" and "standing your ground" are situations that are generally applauded.  Sadly, I never hear anybody being told to "sit their ground".  Disability is synonymous with lack of insight, inability to communicate and not having the power or the intelligence to have agency over your own life.  Sound familiar?  Those are all stereotypes that are associated with all kinds of disability.  And now you start to see where, perhaps, the metaphors came from.

I'm not saying that everyone should automatically cut these types of metaphors out of their vocabulary.  What I am saying is that people need to stop and really think about their intended meaning - and then think about how the metaphor portrays disability.  If the metaphor is one that positions ability as positive and disability as negative, you may want to consider another term.  Because that's the great thing about language - the possibilities are endless.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Find Out What It Means to Me

When I was being forced out of the education program at my school the spring before last, during a two hour meeting with both my adviser for the field experience portion of the program and my overall adviser, I was told, among many other things, that I was, and I quote:  "on the verge of being disrespectful to two women in this room who have PhDs in Education".

Disrespectful!  They were the ones telling me to change my major or graduate without teaching certification.  They were the ones telling me I was "belligerent" and that my students would not respect me if I could not stand on my feet to teach a lesson.  They were the ones who had upset me so much that I spent the entire meeting sobbing.  They were the ones who were effectively telling me that I could not be a teacher.  And yet, somehow, I was the one being disrespectful to them.  It was like their magical PhDs somehow shielded them from being the ones in the wrong.

Let me be clear, respect is a two way street, in my view.  No one is automatically entitled to respect, regardless of age, job position, or familial relationship.  Or maybe it would be better to say I respect everybody - until they disrespect me.  Once you disrespect me, all bets are off, because you have shown you are not deserving of my respect.  I will not waste my respect on someone who doesn't deserve it.

And in many ways, my views on respect are shaped by being a woman with a visible disability.  Society at large does not respect me and my body.  I am expected to submit meekly to the non-disabled population, who, after all, are just trying to "help" me.  I am expected to be grateful when I am able to go out and live my life like any other 20-something, because to accommodate me means work for other people.  Yesterday, while my boyfriend (also a wheelchair user) and I were out and about in NYC, we experienced so many ableist microaggressions we lost count of how many there were.  These included, but were not limited to:

  • going into my school and having the security guard ask us if we were going to disability services, despite the fact that I had said at least twice previously that I wanted tech support.
  • being interrupted in the middle of a conversation with another friend (also a wheelchair user) and being told that if we moved, we wouldn't be blocking the way (note that no one else was told they were blocking the way)
  • approaching a subway elevator and having a woman who was also waiting for the elevator go in a shocked tone:  "Oh my god, two of them!!!" When I pointed out that wheelchair users do actually go places (shocking, I know), she tried to defend what she said.
  • being told, randomly, in the subway station, that I would be cured if I ate natural foods
(On a side note:  My last boyfriend, while also disabled, visibly presented as much more able-bodied than my current boyfriend.  It's interesting to see the difference in reactions.)

This all happened within the span of 12 hours, and while yesterday was a bit extreme even for my life, these type of things happen to me EVERY. DAY.  You can see how that might wear down one's patience.  Hence, why I may not always come across as the nicest or most respectful gal on the block.

Respect, to me, is earned, not given.  I feel I have a right to be somewhat wary of people in a world that does not view me as a human being with the same feelings and desires as anyone else.  I am, of course, always joyful when it turns out I was wrong, and someone treats me well.  It is sad that I have come to view basic human decency as a cause for celebration.  Perhaps I am a bit jaded.  

You want to be respected?  Show me you respect me first, because I cannot operate on the assumption that you respect me when so many people don't as a matter of course.  I don't care who you are.  If you respect me, I will respect you.  Simple as that.