I was in the park, enjoying the roses when a good-looking man said to me, “I’m an orthopedist. I’ve taken care of your type of people. I know what wrong with you.”
No, he didn’t.
I’m often short tempered, a procrastinator and not detail oriented. I’ve bombed out writing poetry and can’t seem to learn how to structure a novel. These are real flaws. Athetoid cerebral palsy, though, is just a physical difference. In a world free from prejudice, the issues it creates would only be logistical – how to get from here to there, how to pour without spilling, how to make yourself understood by strangers when you’re nervous.
The casual comment made me feel the invisibility that disability rights advocate Anastasia Somoza would later refer to at the Democratic National Convention.
Of course, being invisible, I made no response.
Attitudes about variations among individuals have changed considerably since I was born in the Wonder Bread Eisenhower era. From the 1960’s civil rights struggles to the current transgender rights efforts, society has been inexorably pushed to recognize the diversity inherent in the Constitution’s phrase, “We, the people.”
Disabled persons have shared in this progress to a degree, but only to a degree. There is much more opportunity than before. Yet, disability status is still generally seen as abnormal, perverse and substandard, a hardship for the one involved and those around her. We are the stepchild of minority groups, the faintest of presences at the social justice table.
Views about disability as a classification play out in odd ways. Educated people who would not make gay slurs make disability slurs – not about disabled persons – but about pets or themselves. My dog is a spaz. I have a retard cat. The hotel put me in a handicap room. Are they sending me a message?
People with disabilities get sent messages all the time. Babies with disabilities are labeled imperfect, as if anyone has ever been perfect. Disabled people are viewed as “not whole” even when no organs are missing. We are seen as living in the shadows, although studies have shown that functional impairment has no impact on feelings of quality of life.
A colleague of mine with a 4- year-old with spina bifida is always being furtively asked by other parents how he’s coming along. He is in fact doing the work of a preschooler superbly – learning letters and numbers, playing with peers – but that is not enough for his public. He must always be progressing on the disability front.
Adults such as myself who have had some success are seen as remarkable, amazing and inspirational. Nothing renders someone more invisible, obscuring the ordinariness of using one’s innate talents and capabilities than these over-inflated comments.
Managing disability and normal activities is like managing career and family. It does not take moral fortitude, just planning and arrangements. When the reliable co-worker who gives me a ride to work is unavailable, I have to improvise. When his children’s reliable child care is unavailable, he has to improvise. There’s really not much difference.
Then there is the thousand sibling’s phenomenon. It reflects the belief that some people cannot have equal social relationships. Everyone with a significant disability has experienced it. You go out with an able-bodied friend or intimate and strangers ask if she or he is your sister, brother, mother or cousin, anyone who may be with you out of familial obligation. The next assumption is that the person is deputized to make your decisions! That rum cake has rum in it. Can she have it?
Misperceptions or micro-aggressions? Either way, these incidents take their toll.
Fortunately, it’s not all dour. Society is as capable of changing its assumptions about persons with disabilities as it is about any other group.
Connecticut has always been a leader in providing services and access. The state can now seize another leadership opportunity. It should undertake a sweeping educational campaign which encourages people to see other people who are right before their eyes.
Lisa Blumberg works in the insurance industry and is a freelance writer.