Today I came across this article from The Huffington Post about people raising money for various disability causes and raising awareness about the stupid hurtful things that people say to the disabled such as “You’re so pretty it’s a shame you’re in a wheelchair.” I had interesting experiences with that at a very early age.
Most of you who know me know that I went to a special all handicapped school from kindergarten through high school (1960-1972). One of the reasons we were isolated in such an environment rather than being mainstreamed was that they wanted to protect us from the hurtful things that kids would say to us. But I recall an incident in kindergarten where we proved that we were more normal than they gave us credit for. You can read more about that school and my experiences in an article.
I’m sure it was from the constant nagging of my grandmothers and aunts asking me “Have you got a girlfriend yet?” just days after entering school. So to get them off my back I picked a classmate named Cheryl to be my girlfriend even though neither of us really knew what that meant. One day I was drawing this really cool picture of an airplane and for whatever reason she decided to reach over and scribble on it. She did so by holding one of those chunky kindergarten style crayons between her toes because she had no arms. When I tried to return the favor and scribble on her picture she pulled it out of the way where I couldn’t reach it.
Verbal insults flew back and forth and I don’t really know who was the first to get really personal about it so when I tell the story I give her the benefit of the doubt and take credit for the first verbal punch when I said to her “Nobody would ever want to be your girlfriend because you can’t hug them because you haven’t got any arms.” To which she replied “Well you’re never going to get married because you can’t walk down the aisle because you’re in a wheelchair.” At that point the teacher stepped in and broke it up. I think I played the handicapped card because she took advantage of my disability and wouldn’t let me get my revenge by scribbling on her drawing as well. As a side note I think it’s funny that a couple of five-year-olds perceived romantic relationships to be based on hugging and walking down an aisle but that’s a different story 🙂
In later years when the whole issue of special school versus mainstreaming was debated whether recall that incident and realized that they weren’t protecting us from anything. I won’t debate whether it’s nature or nurture that makes us attack what is different from us but that incident leaves me to believe that it’s pretty much universal.
Of course all of that comes from simple ignorance. In the article linked above the person didn’t really realize how insulting it was to say “You’re so pretty. It’s a shame you’re a wheelchair.” My girlfriend and I and age 5 really were trying to be cruel to one another. If someone is trying to insult me and using the disability as the mechanism it doesn’t really bother me because they’re just being stupid and I say fuck them. And if they do not realize they are being insulting I dismiss that as well.
The only thing that really bothers me is when you’re in the shopping mall and some little kid points that you start asking questions “What’s that?” Or “why are you in that thing?” and then the parent slaps the kids hand for pointing and tells them to shut up. That really pisses me off. They are stifling the kids natural curiosity. The parent is also sending the not too subtle message that “people like that” should be avoided, not talked about etc. I’m not sure which bothers me more: Teaching the kid to avoid me or stifling their natural curiosity. Let the kids ask questions. Answer the questions openly and honestly. Just maybe when they grow up they won’t think it’s a shame that we’re in a wheelchair. Then they can just make fun of us for other reasons 🙂
One afterword: Much of what some disabled people find offensive doesn’t really offend me at all. They get hung up on the words handicap, disabled, differently abled, challenged etc. For an overview of my thoughts about what each of these words mean, check out this article.