Last week I was home most of the time (I took a trip to the library on Saturday) so I had a break from commuting and dealing with strangers. This week I have been back at the office. There are some things I’ve noticed that I want to discuss. (I’ll probably have a post about the terrorist attack in SC up in a few days, too, though I don’t know if I have anything new to add to the discussion. It may just be a collection of quotes and links.) It’s taken me a little while to put my feelings about these things into words.
Monday was a rough day anyway. I was operating on very little sleep (for some reason my brain would not let me rest Sunday night/Monday morning, no matter how much I wanted to, and I ended up getting only 3 hours of sleep) and I was very short tempered. I also dealt with a few setbacks (ones I probably would have dealt with better on more sleep! So I was not sure if the things I noticed that day were so much a problem of me being temporarily disabled or of me being bitchy with lack of sleep.
It turns out it’s a little bit of both.
Now I want to say, before I get into what bothered me, that I am incredibly lucky in that I will be able to walk again and that this is just temporary. I do not want to talk over people who have to experience this, not just for a few weeks, but every day for the rest of their lives. Most of the disability blogs I follow are for people with chronic illnesses/chronic pain. Some of them do speak to the need of mobility aids but most do not. If you have suggestions for blogs or blog entries to promote, I’m happy to check them out and share them!
Over the week I’ve gotten a lot of people who are more willing to start a conversation with me (generally asking about my injury or my recovery). I’ve gotten walk-by well wishes, interest in my knee scooter, queries about how I hurt myself and when I’ll be better, and many, many offers of assistance. In and of itself, this is not a terrible thing. I can choose how much I interact with these people, and I know that they are trying to be friendly and/or helpful. But I am not crazy about the fact that I am suddenly seen as more approachable simply because I cannot, at this time, walk. Nothing about me has changed except that I have a splint on my leg. But now some people feel entitled to know things about me that they wouldn’t ask otherwise. (I’ve been on the metro with a brace on my leg that doesn’t prevent me from walking many times before and no one asked about it, or approached me in any way, so it’s not that I have a visible injury that causes them to talk to me.)
The offers of help are often friendly (although sometimes they’re not, which is weird) but cause a similar reaction in me. I can open the door, scoot through it before it closes, and be on my way without anyone helping me. Some people will ask me if I need help, hear me say no thanks, and be on their way. This is optimal. I love this. (And I know that Elsa over at Feminist Sonar has talked about this in regards to her blindness.) Other people ask me, then ask again a couple more times, but eventually go away. Some people ask but don’t even wait for an answer, they just hurry ahead of me to get the door or carry things for me. Some don’t even ask, they just assume I need help. Some refuse my help if I hold the door for them, as though I am suddenly less capable of doing so because I can’t put weight on one of my legs.
Both the approaching me and the forcing help on me aspects have had the same effect on me. I know they come from a good intention but I still feel belittled and dehumanized. I am totally capable and willing to ask for help when I need it, just as I was when I was fully able-bodied. If I need your help or want your attention, I will ask for it. By assuming I am not willing or able to do that, these people deny me my own agency.
In a similar but not exactly the same vein, I noticed that when I get on a train, be it WMATA’s Metro or MTA’s MARC, those people who are most likely to offer me a seat are overwhelmingly women (of any color), followed by men of color. White men, particularly late-middle-aged white men, not only refused to move, they refused to acknowledge me at all, in any way. Only once did an older white man offer to move for me during the 30+ train rides I’ve taken since the fracture. I say this is similar because older white men are the most privileged class in our society, and the least likely to experience such dehumanizing loss of agency, and in fact are more likely to be perpetrators of that dehumanization. They do not generally do so deliberately, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening. It’s the same with the able-bodied. They don’t mean to dehumanize me; but they still are.
I’ve also noticed that things that bother me in crowds (people not being aware of those around them, people aware of those around them but putting their needs before all else, etc) are so much worse using crutches or the scooter. I have a much harder time maneuvering or stopping than someone walking does, but I am forced again and again to yield to them because they don’t notice me. Sometimes people are down right angry at me for being in the crowd! I get lots of dirty looks on the metro platform during rush hour. Sometimes it’s just that they can’t see the splint and assume I am flouting the rule of no vehicles (bikes, etc) on the metro during rush hour but sometimes they do see it. The other day a woman walking toward me as I scooted to the other end of the platform straight up played chicken with me. She looked me straight in the eye and would not vary her path until the very last minute when a) she could see my leg was injured and b) she could see that I was gonna let my scooter roll right the eff over her because I won’t take that crap.
The anger I don’t really get, but the kindly-intended dehumanization…I’ve been guilty of it too! I’ve definitely felt comfortable striking up conversation with strangers who are differently abled. I am more comfortable doing so as a temporarily disabled person, too, interestingly. I’ve grabbed doors or tried to help people without asking them if they needed help. It’s something we all need to work harder at not doing. All the time. To everyone.