I cannot express my distaste for this phrase often enough. Since I became disabled, which has only been for the past nine months, I have heard it again and again and again. Before I continue, let me tell you a story of a time I went out shopping.
I was very newly disabled. So newly disabled that I had just received The Disabled Crutches (also known as Loftstrand or Forearm crutches) and was using them for one of the first times. I loved them. My armpits didn’t hurt, my shoulder blades weren’t out of whack, and I could even do simple things like grab things with my hands and open doors. I was thrilled.
At that point, I hadn’t fully accepted myself as disabled, so when I had to use the restroom at a Kohl’s, I looked at the handicap accessible bathroom that was adjacent from both the “ladies” and the “men’s” restrooms, and I had an internal debate. I could use the accessible bathroom and not have to maneuver around any TABs* or I could pretend I was still like a TAB but just with crutches. Guess which I chose?
Happily, I opened the door to the “ladies” restroom, and went in and out of the stall without too much of a problem. While I figured out how to wash my hands and keep my crutches clean, a woman came out from another stall, washed her hands, and finished before me. While I was drying my hands and crutches, the woman was quietly waiting, while holding the door open.
I realized she was waiting for me, so I tried to wave her off, and said, “Oh that’s okay, I got it.”
“No it’s fine, I don’t mind,” the woman said while still holding the door.
“Really, I got it,” I said more pointedly. I had hoped that she would just leave. I knew how to open the door, hold it open, and get through it myself.
This went on for a few times, (“Really I can get it!” “No, I don’t mind/I have nowhere to be”), especially as I take an inordinately long time to wash and dry my hands. But the last line she said was the kicker.
“This will be my good deed for the day.”
Now, I’ve told this story to a few people, and the most that has come from it, is that I should’ve been grateful because they were “just trying to help”. And isn’t it better that they’ll help rather than ignore you?
If I had to name the most important thing that I’ve learned since becoming disabled, it would be this: My body is no longer mine; instead, it has become the source of public discourse. It’s no longer what I think or know about my body, it’s what everyone else thinks.
The conversation ended with a dehumanizing effect. I was not a person, but someone’s good deed for the day, whether I wanted to be or not. I existed only for the sole sake of the woman wanting to feel better about herself.
It hasn’t even been a year yet, and I’m already sick of it. I was sick of it the first time. And I grow more and more tired of people telling me that I shouldn’t care.
People stare at me. They lean over cash registers to get a good glimpse. They watch me as I get in and out of my car. Sometimes, they stare so unashamedly that when I get the nerve to stare back, they continue to stare at me. My body is on display for their amusement, for their curiosity, as if there is something amazing about my disabled ass going to the grocery store.
People who have never once before talked to me, run up as fast as they can, so they can know what happened to me. I feel compelled to answer them, so that I’m not seen as impolite, never mind the fact these people are always complete strangers who ambushed me in the middle of aisle twelve. If their remarks aren’t pitying, their remarks become about how they had it worse for a couple months.
And if people aren’t staring or talking to me, they are completely ignoring me. And I don’t mean ignoring me, in the ‘hey, you’re just a random person’ way, I mean completely ignoring me as if I don’t exist, telling a friend about an event, giving her a flyer, and not even giving me a second look. I mean ignoring me, as in I hit the door opener buttons at school, and everybody walks in through them because I’m totally not trying to go out of the doors.
There is a thing as common decency. There is a thing as polite etiquette in society. I was once allowed common decency and polite etiquette. People acknowledged me without staring. People said ‘hello’ without asking me about my bodily functions. People knew my name before even thinking to ask me a personal question.
No one ever showed me the fine print that states that disabled people are not allowed the same politeness or common decency as able-bodied people.
*TABs: Temporarily Able Bodied (people)