It's Not You, It's Them

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on November 30, 2022 # Lifestyle

WheelchairMany, if not most of us in wheelchairs and otherwise disabled, are notably self-conscious, especially in public. Even for the most seasoned of us, it is hard not to internalize the stares, the patronizing “you are my hero” sentimentality, the needless solicitations of help, no matter how well-meaning, or the unspoken uneasiness you often encounter. Or sometimes, it’s just the rude or uncomfortable questions you get. I once had an acquaintance ask me point-blank, “So, how do you go to the bathroom?” When I told him, in explicit detail, he just nodded and said, “Interesting…” I felt completely exposed and never wanted to talk to him again.

This is why many of us don’t venture far from home or far from a small circle of friends. Secure in the familiarity of close ones or perhaps other disabled people; you forget you are disabled. Even after 26 years of paralysis, I’m guilty of this myself. Part of it is just the physical hassle of going out, but the largely unconscious part is psychological discomfort. (I just got a long, unnerving stare in an elevator this morning.) There are some public places where it makes no difference, like at major-league baseball games. No one cares about your wheelchair. They are all drinking overpriced beer and having fun.

It’s the knee-jerk reaction of being reduced to one-dimension – disabled, i.e., damaged and pitiable -- that is the most grating, something every discriminated-upon group encounters. Among polite, middle-class Americans, it's something that no one would readily admit. “I think the disabled are just like the rest of us!” (And there is no implicit racism among the “good” people, either.)

Look at America’s favorite pastime, TV. With rare exceptions, you will never see a disabled person who is angry or sexual or giving orders instead of taking them. Even in the best of shows, they tend to be agreeable, pliant, and doers of good works. And no “normal” person on TV ever questions their own honest feelings about the disabled. Virtually every character is disability “woke.”

I wonder how much cultural memory plays into this general disregard. In watching the latest Ken Burns film, “The US and the Holocaust,” the other night, I was reminded of the treatment of the disabled. I know, these are Nazis, the worst of the worst, but even a cursory look at history shows you a universal disdain for the disabled across time and culture, from Leviticus 21 (“No man who has any defect may come near to…offering the food to his God”) to the 1881 Chicago “Ugly Law” that prohibited "diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed (people), so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object" from being in the "public view."

No matter how it is expressed, until very recently, to be disabled was to be cursed. It went from cursed by God to cursed by the fickle finger of fate. It makes sense that this attitude can be passed down from generation to generation. After all, the original meaning of the word “meme,” coined by biologist Richard Dawkins, is that much like biological genes, an idea, behavior, or ideological bent can be transmitted from one mind to another and inherited. Racism is a case in point.

We now know, or at least some of us do, that a disability is not a curse. It’s a variation of the human hood. The curse comes from those who can’t see that, who is skittish and nervous or even fearful around disabled people in the public square or simply can’t see them for who they really are.

Is the “disability-bad meme” fading, even slightly? It seems like it is, in certain quarters, like parts of the US, Australia, and Great Britain, but if you don’t live in those quarters, is the attitude any different? I’d have to ask the one billion disabled people around the globe.

I’ll get back to you.

Allen Rucker was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, raised in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and has an MA in Communication from Stanford University, an MA in American Culture from the University of Michigan, and a BA in English from Washington University, St. Louis.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.