The post-insult age

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on April 19, 2018 # Mobility

I can’t tell you the last time I felt personally insulted or disrespected because of my wheelchair. Walking-around people do irritating things all the time but they’d do most of them whether I was walking or riding. I’m still an unusual sight in most public places – something that continues to baffle me – but even so, most civilized humans today, including you, would never go out of their way to trash someone because they are disabled. (The outrage over Trump’s mockery of a disabled reporter only proves the point.) It is gauche boarding on immoral.

In the first two or three years of paralysis, I was on high alert for insults of any kind. I was ready to push back at the drop of a slur or slight. Then I gradually lightened up. If I’m polite, I realized. the world is polite. Occasionally there are exceptions to this dynamic. Even after 20 years, it is still shocking when some blowhard on the street disses you. There was the day I was driving down Westwood Blvd in LA and in making a right turn, was cut off and damn near hit by a bloke driving a jacked-up Ford F-150 truck. I honked loudly. He gave me the finger, then pulled alongside me to tell me to stop so he could beat the holy crap out of me. I immediately played the crip card, pointing to my placard and my useless legs. He didn’t miss a beat, yelling, “I don’t give a fat f***! I’ll beat you over the head with your own wheelchair!”

Most of what I encounter are less insults or life-threatening thumpings than acts of obliviousness. People walk around living inside their own heads and accommodating you is not their first order of business. You may be the center of your universe but not theirs. Whenever someone stands in your way or leaves you to open your own door or closes the elevator in your face, you can’t be like Ratso Rizzo in “Midnight Cowboy” and yell, “Hey, I’m rollin’ here!” Just sigh quietly. They’ll get the point.

The opposite reaction is much more irritating and would probably classify as insulting except it happens so often as to lose its power to surprise or upset. This would fall under the heading, “Infantilizing The Disabled.” I’ve been railing about this for years, but I don’t see the tendency disappearing any time soon. It’s taking the kindness approach a bridge too far and turning it into death by kindness. My own personal favorite are the people on the elevator who feel you need a pat on the back and a pearl of human wisdom, e.g., “Always stay positive!” or “God only gives us what we can handle,” the obvious response to the latter being, “Funny, I’m having a little trouble handing you.”

Recently an on-line article from a site called “Lovin’ Malta,” described as a publication “celebrating the island of Malta” delineated “11 Ways You Treat Adults With Disabilities Like Children Without Even Knowing It.” I don’t know what this has to do with the Maltese lifestyle, but they nailed some common faux pas. Number seven, for instance: “Getting over-excited when someone (disabled) does something.” “You drove here by yourself!” “Your wife is taking a trip, leaving you to take care of yourself!” “You can fry an egg!” You keep waiting for the follow-up lines: “What a big boy you are! Let’s see you tie your shoe!”

A lot of this patronizing patter comes when you’re doing absolutely nothing. Just being in the public square elicits gushing compliments like, “You are doing a super job!” or “I wish my lazy son could see you!”

Feeling insulted is easy when you are being treated like a helpless, mildly imbecilic six-year-old. If you are of a certain age, you will be doubling treated as such.But – as I have noticed over literally thousands of such encounters -- the moment you open your mouth, the condescending demeanor and the unnecessary deference and the head patting and the waitress asking your table mate what you would like to order – it all stops. All these unintended affronts, experienced repeatedly, are much less troublesome than say, asking a woman of a certain physical profile how long she has been pregnant. Now that is insulting.

There is a whole other level of insults experienced by Americans with disabilities, from an insane health care system to pathetic representation in public media to a still-enormous employment gap. Systemic insults, I guess you would call them. Until these glaring deficiencies are remedied, we won’t really have arrived at a post-insult age.