It was just one of those days. I was late, as usual. I finally got my butt in the car and, of course, I needed to get gas. When my Waze yelled at me for detouring to fill the tank, I yelled back at it to shut up! I pulled in, jumped out of the car, wrangled my crutches from the backseat, and went over to do the tiptoe game to see the screen on the pump.
Then it happened. “Can I help you with that?” Startled, I looked around and a smartly dressed older man was standing in front of his car with a hopeful look on his face. “No thanks,” I mumble, going back to contemplating whether my credit card had more available credit than my checking account had available funds. Choice made, I stretched up and put the card in and out of the slot quickly.
As I took the nozzle, the same gentleman, who had apparently stayed right where he was staring at me for the past 20 seconds, felt the need to say, “You really are amazing,” to which I responded (without looking at him and slightly under my breath), “I’m just getting gas.” Why does this bother me? Why do I want to turn to him and scream, “Amazing? I’m amazing? I am going to be sliding in late to a film I’m in, my finances are fucked, I’m not wearing underwear because I forgot to do laundry, and furthermore, I AM JUST GETTING GAS!”
What bothers me is this hang-up that many people have about people with disabilities being inspirational. It’s an incredibly high and exhausting burden to shoulder. It’s not as if I’m a professional athlete earning millions of dollars who realizes that there are kids out there that want to be like me. Granted, when I am working with kids I am a little bit more conscious of what I do. I am sometimes the first person with a disability that they have ever seen in a show, spoken to directly, or had as a teacher. But the adults? I would say put yourself in my shoes and see you how like it, but that is the essence of the problem.
They can’t imagine what it would be like to be me. Because I am nothing like them. I am the OTHER. And their expectations of me are so low. When I drive a car, I must be the only person with a disability who does because they imagine it must be a herculean effort to do so. They can’t fathom that I got my learner’s permit at 15 and my driver’s license at 16 just like everyone else. Wow, I must be brave and exceptional because I live by myself! Or, I’m 47 and am tired of living with roommates and won’t live with anyone else unless I’m sleeping with them.
But what happens if I am working with a new choreographer (boss) or come in for an audition (job interview)? This is when they suddenly become experts on my capabilities. I call it benign discrimination. Are they looking out for my best interests or their own? The choreographer wants to make me feel like I am part of the dance they feel certain I obviously can’t dance using crutches or a wheelchair. I had a great audition, but the show doesn’t call for an artist on crutches or in a wheelchair in that role, so the audience will not accept it. But how do I know that and to show them differently if I’m not offered the part? It’s the assumption of inability that pisses me off!
Therefore, when you tell me I’m amazing for pumping gas, it takes every ounce of my being to stop myself from screaming at you, not because I have a huge chip on my shoulder, but because letting it lie reinforces that benign discrimination. So next time you are about to tell someone with a disability they are inspirational, take a second and think, “Would I feel the same way if it were a person who doesn’t have an identified disability?” Or is she merely living her life, one day at a time, else.
Oh yeah, and the other thing that stops me is the fact that I don’t want to be thought of as one of those people with disabilities who are angry all the time. But that’s a subject for another time. lol