As a disabled person in public, you quickly learn to be very grateful, and very sorry.
“Sorry!” I said, as they banged me into a stranger’s legs. “So sorry. Thank you.”
I was on a British Airways plane a few years ago. This airline obviously liked to maximise its money by dedicating the seats at the front to those who paid extra for leg room, and, though they knew I couldn’t walk to my seat they placed us right in the middle, as far from the doors or toilet as possible.
We were last onto the plane. I’d surrendered my wheelchair to the hold, and after the elderly guests had tottered onto the plane, slowly, their canes preceding them, it was just me. The airport staff made ready to go, and I began to panic.
“Excuse me? So sorry to be a nuisance—but I can’t walk to my seat.”
Most airports and airlines have really good systems in place for disabled people—so much better than previous generations when disabled people were prevented from public transport, but sometimes systems break down, or people are unkind.
The airport staff talked over my head in an unknown Eastern European language, and got out a narrow buggy. I sat on it, and pressed my knees together, because it was so narrow.
But there were straps. A man, obviously in a hurry, said nothing as he pulled straps over my head, my stomach. Then he pushed my knees apart, and roughly pulled up a strap between my legs, so that I gasped a little.
“Oh!” I said. “Sorry. Thank you.”
I was pulled backwards like a suitcase in the narrow plane aisle, bumping into strangers, who stared openly at me as I passed, and glared as the buggy bumped their legs.
I attempted my most charming smile, while lowering my eyes to the ground to indicate appropriate humility.
“Sorry,” I said as I passed. “Sorry. Sorry.”
All the way down the plane: bump, bump, sorry, sorry, sorry, apologising over and over for my physical presence.
I fought back unexpected tears as I reached my seat. They ripped off the straps abruptly, and I lowered myself into my seat.
“Thank you,” I said.
Like most labels, disability does not come unaccompanied. It carries a whole set of subsidiary labels.
The positive ones: Hero. Brave soul. Possible Paralympian.
The negative ones: Weak. Demanding. Stupid. Incapable of speech. Incapable of thought. A different species. A non-person. A burden. A should-have-been-aborted. (Thanks, Dawkins, for that one.)
Lazy. Disability can generate sympathy, but the sympathy must be “earned.” For example, most people like pizza and chocolate, and pay for the calories by working out at the gym. But if you still like pizza and chocolate but can’t walk anymore, you’ll put on weight. Then people assume your disability must be “just” obesity—and the fat-shaming follows. Voilà! You are lazy and fat, and must be pretending it’s a disability: you are the scum of the earth.
The lesson is this: If you’re going to be disabled, you’d better make sure you look attractive and tragic.
When everyone disembarked, I smiled at the airplane staff and waited for the narrow buggy to return.
I asked a couple of times about special assistance, and received blank or hostile looks, because the aeroplane staff, looking at my relative youth, my non-ill-looking face, and my clear command of the English language, had decided I could walk the length of the plane. They didn’t say this, of course, but their sighs and eye rolls did.
“You really can’t walk to the exit?”
“No, I’m really sorry to be such a nuisance,” I said.
The air hostess raised an eyebrow.
“It’s not that far.”
“I can’t walk it. I’m so sorry.”
I was puzzled why they huffed and sighed so much when they got out the buggy, and why they refused to look at me as they banged me unsympathetically down the length of the now-empty plane.
I could feel the shame rising red in my cheeks—I was such an inconvenience. Maybe I was imagining my neurological illness. Maybe I should have tried to stagger, despite my exhaustion. (I was only glad that I hadn’t needed the toilet halfway through the flight.)
Their hostile glances turned sheepish when they saw there was a wheelchair waiting for me. I finally understood what particular label they’d attached to me: Faker.
In the UK, “Faker” is rapidly becoming the most prominent label associated with disability. The media is full of stories of people who are faking an illness or exaggerating their disability in order to get welfare support. Despite the fact that these stories make up less than 1% of benefit claimants, they have become the new face of disability.
To avoid the shame of having been duped by a non-disabled “faker,” society have instead shamed disabled people by being less willing to help.
Like most disabled people, my disability arrived in adulthood, so it doesn’t feel like the core of me. I have adapted to being called disabled—after all, it’s an objective fact that I can’t walk more than a few metres. Being disabled is but a small part of my identity— though I know other disabled people are fiercely proud to have it as a larger part of their identity, and I respect that, too.
What I would love, though, is for people to strip away every sub-label that comes with disability.
- I am not a hero just because I can’t walk very far. (But by all means call me heroic for any heroic deeds I may do unrelated to my lack of walking …)
- When I wear make-up I look well, not ill. But my make-up skills shouldn’t penalise me as a “faker.”
- I have never been very brave. If I see a spider I’m a quivering jelly.
- I am as likely to be a celebrated Paralympian as you are to be Michael Phelps.
- I will confess that I am indeed high-maintenance, intense and needy. (But my friends can attest that I was already like that pre-disability—and I also have a lot to give).
My lack of walking-prowess does not make me especially weak or needy, manipulative or deceitful, high-maintenance or heroic.
So often we look at disabled people—and in that split second we judge. Fearful of doing the wrong thing, saying the wrong thing, or fearful they will depend on us, drain us, we subtly avoid them, adjust our body posture so we don’t have to talk to them.
In those moments of hesitation, we need to remember this:
We are all disabled. We are all weak in different ways.
We are all occasionally lazy, occasionally heroic. We are all needy, and rely on the kindness of others to survive.
So how should we respond to those with disability? Perhaps we keep the label “disability,” because it is a fact, but we rip away all the other assumptions attached to it. We look people in the eye as a person, an individual.
We fear doing the wrong thing, saying the wrong thing, and this is a valid fear—but don’t we also occasionally say and do the wrong thing in all our friendships? We stumble in our relationships every day, but the point is to continue trying to connect and respect.
All it boils down to is treating a person as a person; as someone uniquely created in God’s image, but simultaneously uniquely limited.
And doesn’t that describe us all?
Author’s note: I’m focusing mainly on limited-mobility disabilities, but of course there are many different forms of disability, from visual impairment, to Down’s Syndrome, to neurological impairment, to severe mental illness. Everyone has different experiences and attitudes towards their disability, and it is important to listen to a whole range of voices on disability. E.g. some like describing themselves as a “person with a disability.”