My awesome blogger friend Lorna did a post on this video over at “Gin and Lemonade”: http://ginlemonade.wordpress.com/2012/09/18/the-answer-is-yes/. I had never seen the video before, and found myself nodding through most of it. People didn’t ask me these questions or make these remarks when I was in a wheelchair, but I wasn’t out in public very much when I was in my wheelchair. But I’ve hung out with enough people that use wheelchairs that I’ve seen examples of most of what’s shown in the video.
People that comment on the video rightly point out that people with other sorts of disabilities get treated in these ways, too. When I’m out in the community with the people with intellectual disabilities that I’ve supported, people do tend to ask me questions about the person instead of asking them. I’ve seen that this tends to happen less in smaller communities, where people tend to know who everyone is to a greater degree (uncomfortably so, sometimes, and you know what I’m talking about if you’ve ever lived in a small town). But it does still happen.
I’ve gotten a lot of these questions and remarks because of my cane and my arm. I’ve had people assume that because I have physical disabilities, I have intellectual disabilities as well. Many people assume that I don’t work. I’ve been called inspirational, which really only bothers me because I’m not sure how to respond to it. I don’t feel inspirational. I don’t feel even particularly noteworthy most of the time. I just live my life dealing with what I have to deal with, the same way that everyone else does.
What Bothers Me
I watched the video a couple times, thinking that, yeah, ignorance about disabilities has definitely resulted in some extremely problematic patterns of talking to people (and around) with disabilities. I remember hearing at a funeral once, about the deceased, from a friend who didn’t know I could hear her : “It’s better this way. He wouldn’t have wanted to be a wheelchair for the rest of his life,” and it gutted me. “Like I could have been?” I thought, running from the room. “Does she believe that about me?”
No one knew whether I’d ever be able to walk again.
But what really struck me, watching this video, was the sex question. Besides thinking that if someone asked me “Can you have sex in that chair?” I’d say, “I usually get out of the chair,” I thought, “What a wildly inappropriate thing to ask a stranger, disabled or not!” Who expects someone who’s presumably an acquaintance at best to answer a question about their sex life?
Apparently society feels entitled to ask people who use wheelchairs that question, and feels entitled to answer. And I’m *really* curious as to where that attitude came from.
I watched the video again, evaluating the comments and questions through that filter of social appropriateness. And I’m starting to wonder if the problem isn’t just that people don’t know what to say to people with disabilities, or don’t have an appreciation of disability etiquette…it’s that people somehow have gotten the impression that it’s okay to treat people with disabilities rudely.
It wouldn’t be considered remotely polite to:
- Ask an elderly male neighbour, “Can you still, uh, function like a young man, if you catch my drift?” So why’s it okay to ask a man that uses a wheelchair about his sexual functioning?
- Grill a woman in the grocery store wearing a scarf on her head about whether she has cancer, what kind, how long she’s had it, etc. So why are these invasive questions about a person with a disability’s medical history okay?
- Stare, in general. Aren’t people brought up not to stare anymore? (Caveat: I’d rather have a little kid stare at me openly and then be given the opportunity to ask me questions than have an adult stare at me and try to hide the fact that they’re doing it.)
It’s interesting when you looks at the video in this way. There’s all kinds of rudeness – some of it very disability-specific, others of it just…rudeness in general (like the pick-up line that ended the video). And I think how you categorize each comment depends on who you are your personal history. The “Jesus will heal you” thing, for example…I believe that this is ultimately rude too, yes. But more for the assumption that I want to be healed than for the imposition of someone’s religion on me. I can let the religion part roll off my back now. But that’s a very personal view, coming from years of work to come to terms with religion’s place in my life. Others may feel differently about it (as I did at one point in my life, when any perceived attempt to convert me would have made my blood boil).
Do you think that it’s become okay to treat people with disabilities rudely? What do you think has caused it?
Oh, and Canadians get asked, “My cousin/roommate’s brother/dog groomer’s son-in law lives in Canada…do you know him?” all the time…%-)