Ubiquitous Ableism Run Amok Department

The Finnish poet Tua Forsstrom once wrote “nothing terrifies us more than the godforsaken places” but I don’t think it’s true. I think disability frightens people even more than death or a profane landscape with goblins. A wheelchair or a blind man scares the pants off of most folks. They’re not even circumspect about it. “I think if I had to ride around in a chair like you, I’d have to kill myself” is a phrase heard often by my paralyzed friends. I kid you not. It’s in circulation, this idea that disability is worse than dying. Once, riding in a cab in New York the driver told me I must be the victim of voodoo. My blindness was living evidence of demonism. His subtext was clear: I’d be better off dead.

Lately we’ve seen several instances of disability murder—from Japan to California to the Middle East. From ISIS murdering children with Down Syndrome to a ceremonial garden party where tastefully dressed men and women say goodbye to their hostess who’s decided to end her life because she has Lou Gehrig’s disease, the idea that disabled lives ain’t worth living is absolutely everywhere and largely unchallenged. Of course there are plenty of us in disability circles who cry foul. We ask on social media why the news reporting is so ubiquitously one sided; why disability life remains so undervalued in our media. How frustrating it is for those of us who raise this question, since we already know the answer. We’re locked out of television networks; under represented in even the progressive press. Where’s the disability writer for The Nation or Mother Jones?

In our absence networks treat disability almost exclusively as inspiration. Recently NBC’s “Today Show” raised a guide dog puppy “on air” as a year long feature. While this was engaging the program never explored what blindness in America means, how real blind people live, what they do, how they do it. The treatment of the guide dog puppy was reduced to what we in the disability rights community call “inspiration porn” which is to say it was designed explicitly to make able bodied people feel good. That sweet Labrador puppy would soon change a blind person’s life. Fair enough but they missed the chance to interview blind computer designers, attorneys, school teachers—you name it. Who’d know blind people aren’t passively sitting in dark rooms awaiting the gift of dogs who’ll save their lives? Who’d know blind lives aren’t summed up by dogs?

When able bodied people don’t understand the richness and beauty of disabled lives they remain convinced disability is a calamity. Sometimes I think we should just drop the word disability and use calamity instead. Calamity Parking. Calamity seating. Calamity services.

Imagine the conversations. “How did you become calamitized?” “Oh, I played with dark magic…” Or: “God grew tired of me.”

I’m closing with a link to this terrific interview with disability activist John Kelly over at the website of Not Dead Yet. Disabled lives are not merely under represented in the mainstream, they’re actually under attack in movies and TV shows that suggest our deaths are better than our lives.


Disability, Airplanes, and My Life as an Object…

In her review of Jessica Valenti’s memoir Sex Object (see it in The Nation here) Lauren Duca suggests the book asks, “Who would I be if I didn’t live in a world that hated women?” Inevitably the most disarming questions are drawn from years of public struggle and I for one plan to read Valenti straight off. (I’ve long admired her work in The Nation and The Guardian.)

Just this past week, as I flew across the US on Delta Airlines I chanced upon not one, but two passengers who absolutely refused to sit next to me because I had a guide dog. Their requests to be reseated were directed to the flight attendants with outrage and sneering, so much so that other passengers were appalled. And I thought: “Who would I be if I didn’t live in a world that hated the disabled?”

As I say, I’m looking forward to Valenti’s take on the sufferance and diminishment that accompany her embodiment—suffuse it, cincture it, inculcate it. Instill, implant, impress, hammer.

I like Judith Butler’s sentiment concerning emotional intelligence. She wrote: “You will need all of those skills to move forward, affirming this earth, our ethical obligations to live among those who are invariably different from ourselves, to demand recognition for our histories and our struggles at the same time that we lend that to others, to live our passions without causing harm to others, and to know the difference between raw prejudice and distortion, and sound critical judgment.”

I tried to hold the difference between those passengers who threw their hissy fits and my own obligation to be a person of sound judgment. I kept silent as the angry French business woman and the angry Asian business man demanded redress. Let’s be clear: the dog was not in their way.

Perhaps they were allergic to dogs. But this they did not say. Such a response would have been understandable.

They were evincing raw prejudice.

I kept silent.

I kept silent as the flight attendant promised they would receive a thousand miles of free air travel if they’d just agree to move to other seats.

They didn’t want other seats. They wanted their outrage.

Presumably Valenti’s memoir covers such moments: one is expelled from the sphere of desire.

You were the wrong kind of date.

And then there’s the rub: “How can one who doesn’t love him/herself expect to be loved?”

One simply has to practice reality from the fringe.

The fringe after all, is just as real as the center.

Is it my job to make the fringe the center?

Can I live peaceably on the fringe?

How do the original words, original thoughts imagine the margins? Weren’t we always nomadic?

Didn’t we take the fringe with us wherever we went?

It’s cosmopolitanism hates your variant gender, disability, pigment.

Oh but I’ve met cruel people in the countryside.

Thoughts in my head while listening to the antithetical faux umbrage of snobs.

I think they were angry because I was sitting in an expensive seat.

“What would I be like if I didn’t have to endure this prejudice daily?” I wondered.

Trouble is inevitable in all political situations, and just try to find an unpolitical cry.