Why Canada needs more Disability Stories

I grew up in a small town of about 6000 people in rural Ontario. There were a few of us with disabilities in the area, but a small enough number that it was possible for those of us within that group to be at least vaguely familiar with each other. One I remember very clearly was a young man I’ll call Ted*.

Ted and I were not friends, in fact we had never met, but he was very much the nemesis of my childhood, by no fault of his own. At some point his parents had met my parents, where they heard all about his story and from that gleaned grand visions for my future. Ted used crutches, had plans for his future, and was a poster child for a disability organization. I was a rebellious, struggling stubborn kid in a power wheelchair. We were not close in age, and we had different disabilities. I was nothing like Ted, and I wasn’t really sure I wanted to be.

My parents just wanted what was best for their child, and with very few stories to draw from I can see why Ted’s story gave them hope. Eventually I carved out my own pretty awesome story, but there’s still something to be learned from Ted’s impact on my parents.

When I did interact with other children with disabilities, it was usually at summer camp. There, for a brief but blissful period of time all labels seemed to disappear. Of course there was still discrimination between kids, but there was also comradery in those shared experiences that I couldn’t find anywhere else. Brothers and sisters who knew what it was like to constantly be seen through the eyes of able-bodied people, and the loneliness that creates.

I moved away from that small town, and into larger urban areas where I met disabled adults who taught me important things about disability history. These were people who started disability organizations, and had protested for disability rights in their younger years. I was fortunate to have them as role models.

Not everyone is so lucky. Recently I saw a post on Facebook, in the picture a mom was sitting next to her physically disabled son in a public transit station, and she was crying. The post explains that she and her son were treated badly by fellow commuters while trying to use a public washroom. They felt her son was in the way and taking up space. It reminded me very much op my parents. What were she and her son to take from this experience? How would she use it to arm him for the world ahead?

The stories we share as disabled people might not be passed down through families, but they are still an important part of disability culture. Sharing stories of our leaders, the people who made it possible to where we are today, is an important part of how disabled people see themselves, as it is for the society that looks back at us.

When all else fails, think of Thestrals

How do you talk to the people you love about privilege? It’s like trying to explain Thestrals to someone who’s never experienced death. It’s not in their reality, and therefore does not exist except as a sort of belief system by those of us who are actually oppressed.

Consider the following:

Quotes like “black and white people are not responsible for the mistakes of the past” (see “white privilege doesn’t mean what you think it means”. There’s also “let’s not take this Confederate flag business out on my favourite childhood show” (I’m paraphrasing here).

Or in a discussion about climate change, and that some of the world’s wealthier folks are taking out insurance against it while denying the existence of climate change publicly. This occurs while others are likely to perish do to events that were cause by the societies those same wealthier people reside in. The answer in this conversation? That “in history there is always been people who make it and people who don’t”.

These are the moments where a try not to vomit. I start a very angry blog post, delete it, take a deep breath, and think about the Thestrals.

How do I explain that my complaints about these comments, are not a claim to righteousness, but an understanding of history?

While we might not be directly responsible for that history, white people benefit from it.  One of the many benefits of privilege is that the people who experience that privilege never have to openly acknowledge it.

The history classes we’re given in school leave a lot out. They’re written by the oppressors, the folks that did the segregating, othering, abusing, and murdering of other people. Our whole society is built on those things, and it would take too much explaining for a public school classroom. Or at least this is what we’re lead to believe. It’s easier to turn the page then let it in.

Ok that was a little dark, and you’re probably about ready to close this page, but please don’t. Or at least if you must, read some history Consider why in 2015 it is still acceptable to overlook the wrongs of the past, and assume that people simply struggle because of choices they made.

Rights on paper are just paper. Rights are not simply granted, they are not earned or given. No legislated measure creates them. They are acknowledged by the people, and that is when rights have power. No justice can come without first acknowledging that or power and easier transition though life comes at the expense of those who are oppressed.

The fact that you’re encouraged not to see this is not a conspiracy, but a maintenance of the status quo, so someone can keep the upper hand.

If you feel powerless, don’t despair, we’re meant to feel powerless so we don’t create change.

Is this the kind of world you really want to leave behind?

A better world comes with a better understanding of ourselves and our history.

Strange Situations – June addition

Between the double-takes in office buildings and people who think they’re “helping” when trying to push my wheelchair without asking, there’s a few amusing/uncomfortable stories that come up. These are real interactions I’ve had, just in the month of June 2015. Aside from the last one, none of these situations involved people who seemed as though they might be impaired in any way.

The Streetlight Guy

I’m waiting for the pedestrian light to say walk so I can cross. I’m looking at the light, just waiting on a nice clear sunny day when a man with his dog, standing a few feet away yells out “I’ll let you know when the sign says walk!”

I look directly at him and say “That’s ok, I’m fine, thank you”

As I’m just about to cross he shouts “It says walk now!”

As far as I can tell, he genuinely thought I couldn’t sort this out on my own unless other people were crossing. I guess that’s how you fail a pay it forward.

 

The Subway Guy

Sometimes when I can’t find an accessible space on the subway I’ll park right up to some empty seats, where there’s a lot of room around me and lots of other seats. People don’t try to sit there, because I’m out of my way and there’s space, so I read my book in peace. Except for this day.

I’m reading my book on the subway and I’m about halfway home when I notice someone staring at me. I look to my right, and notice a man sitting in the seat I’m parked up against. Again, there’s lots of other seats and space, but this guy chooses the one seat with so little space he has to tuck his feet under the seat, which is strange, but the fact that he’s staring at me with a grin on his face is weird. I decide not to draw attention to the situation, stay put, and go back to my book.

A few minutes go by, and then I feel someone poke me in the shoulder with their finger. I look up, and it’s the same guy.

He says “I’m sorry, I was just curious. How’s it going?”

What?! Personal space, it’s a thing, chair or no chair.

The College Cat-Callers

Last but not least, there is no good cat-call EVER, but those guys who whistled and shouted “Hey hot wheels” at around midnight one Saturday; I appreciate the diversity, but it’s no less creepy, sad, and sexist when compared to the next cat-call. Also, a fourteen year old boy thought that one up decades before you.

Just don’t do it.

That’s it for June. I wonder what July will turn up.

Disability…the final frontier for marriage equality?

This week Americans finally achieved marriage equality, and my fellow Canadians cheered (and quietly gloated over the fact that we’ve had it for the last ten years). While this is truly awesome, it also tugged at a small quiet chord of pain for myself and many others.

Amongst the cheers, some quiet whispers: we’re not quite there yet folks, not yet.

For those of us who live in poverty, are disabled people, or are otherwise oppressed, marriage means giving up certain safety, and reassurance that the what dignity we still have will be protected. It is a right that is given to us only if we meet certain normalizing criteria, incomes, or self-sufficiency. It means making ourselves vulnerable not only to our partners, but to the harsh oppressive voices we’ve worked to block out as single people. To join the club, you have to belong in the club.

Now don’t get me wrong, marriage is amazing. I am happy for those I know who are married, and for those who are happily getting married as a result of this recent decision. I believe that if society values marriage so highly, then all those who choose to enter it fully should be allowed to do so without fear.

For disabled people, the fear comes in two forms: society and policy. The society part is what we often talk about. How society still views disabled people as burdens, and how that plays out in our gender roles. For example, when I was growing up I was told that if I’m lucky I’ll find a good man who could see past my disability and take care of me, and when I do, I’d better hold on to him. Now I know that any person I choose better value my disability and see me as an equal partner. The point is that messages like make good partners hard to find, and keeps us vulnerable to less healthy partners.

Even if we do find healthy relationships, social policies still stand in our way. These things are hard to talk about because it involves programs that we’ve been conditioned to feel lucky to have, like social assistance and affordable accessible housing.

This American author had the courage to say what I did not, but it’s still true in Canada, including Ontario. While disabled people can technically marry, to do so they give up already meager social assistance, or certain kinds of accessible housing (like what I live in), or supportive housing. Many programs for disabled people are designed around the assumption that disabled people are not marriage material.

While not nearly as profoundly damaging as an outright ban on marriage, these policies still impact the public view of marriage. It is an injustice to pretend these polices do not exist.

What follows is one of my favourite quotes from the Kennedy decision, taken from Mother Jones:

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

Don’t we all deserve that much?

Helen Henderson

A bright light in the disability community has left us. Well maybe she hasn’t really left us.

I didn’t know Helen well, but I did have the honour of working with her a little bit. One day, she was encouraging the work I was doing with the Toronto Disability Pride March, and I couldn’t quite work up the nerve to tell her how much of an influence she was in my life. I thought I would find a better time. She was someone I looked up to, and though she was a humble person, I felt humbled in her presence.

Her writing taught me that people wanted true stories of disabled people at a time when it seemed like those things were invisible to the wider world. Her ability to cross that border, and show non-disabled people the truths of our lives was uniquely powerful.

Thank you Helen for sharing your cleverness, your quiet strength, and your warm encouragement. There are eyes more open, and lives made brighter, because you dared to share your world with us.

The following is a You Tube video of Helen at TedxRyerson:

The Grocery Shopping episode

My attendant mentioned that she hates grocery shopping with me because people stare at her with pity. I can’t say I blame her, it happens every week. What I did find strange was that she’s been working with me for a year, and only mentions this today. Maybe because when I backed out of the elevator some guy thought it would be funny to pretend like I ran over his foot. Yes, people do that. It’s on the scale of things that makes me wish I was bold enough to actually run over their foot and sit there for a few minutes. You start to wonder if you could’ve done things differently. I’ve seriously considered wearing make-up to the grocery store, or at least a “Piss on Pity” shirt.

We shouldn’t need such armour just to avoid a side of contempt with our cornflakes at the grocery store.

There are people I’ve known my entire life who think I’m somehow exempt from things like this, because they couldn’t imagine it. They dismiss it as unintentional or ignorance, but its objectification. Treating people like less than human beings. Small on their own, but like a steady leak that eventually leads to rot.

People wonder how big acts of oppression, discrimination and violence occur. It’s through the build-up of those small things, day after day it wears on your soul, your energy to act, and how your people are seen over time. Before long the raised voices become quietly archived history.

Disabled people are under constant threat of erasure. Our experiences undermined, our stories told through someone else. I heard today that in response to the assisted suicide decision, there’s talk of developing a list of disabled people. I think they could use a history refresher. Society in general has not been kind to those who get asked to register their status. People who’ve never had to worry about these things have a remarkable ability to ignore the lessons of the past.

I was at the Art Gallery of Ontario today with a friend. There was a section that was about art and politics, and it said that focusing on the positive leads to greater change. It got me thinking that maybe people need to hear more about who disabled people really are. There are many disabled people doing great things, and most of us are pretty quiet about it. I think it’s time we got louder, but more importantly, it’s time for the non-disabled to start listening.