Each Wednesday, I post my response to a question from the Redefining Disability Challenge. This is my response to the seventeenth question in the Challenge. As usual, I am not looking ahead to future questions, so I may inadvertently address some topics which will come up later in the Challenge.
Here is this week’s question:
Have you experienced discrimination because of disabilities? Discrimination comes in many forms, from refusal to employ or accommodate a person with a disability to treating that person with disrespect because of it.
As someone who has lived with a neuromuscular disease her entire life, of course I have faced discrimination. Everyone who lives with disability faces negative treatment from time to time due to their difference. I have also witnessed those I care for struggle against discrimination in their lives.
According to the United States Department of Justice, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) “prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, State and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation.” The rules and regulations have been updated and clarified since the ADA was first signed into law in 1990. The law protects my rights as an American citizen and grants me equal opportunity in many crucial areas.
It is not so easy to legislate attitude. The law can stipulate how many accessible parking spaces must be created but it cannot prevent someone from parking illegally in an access aisle just because “they will only be a second.” The law can require a physician to have an accessible examination table, but it cannot require the staff to treat me with dignity when I request extra time during my appointment for help with positioning and transferring. The law can mandate the percentage of hotel rooms which must be wheelchair accessible but it does not guarantee the maintenance staff will be kind and respectful when I ask them to remove the extra armchair from the room to grant me more floor space.
I boycott any business I cannot independently access, and I write letters to tell them why they will not receive my money. If a business does not wish to follow the law, that tells me they do not want or need my money. I am not shy about telling others if they ask why I do not frequent a certain business. I also do not attend functions held in places which are not accessible. If it is important enough for me to attend, it is up to the organizers to make it possible.
Gross violations of the ADA are easier for me to manage than the microaggressions I face. A microaggression is a form of unintended discrimination. They are messages said by a member of a dominant group (in this case, those without disability) to a member of a marginalized group (in this case, those with disability). Often, the speaker may even think they are making a compliment. As examples, I give you these statements I have heard repeatedly – as well as the responses I usually manage to keep inside my head.
It’s good to see someone like you out.
‘Someone like me’ how?! I see many people with brown hair and glasses here. I see several people with smiles on their faces. OH – you mean someone using a wheelchair. Because of course, all wheelchair users are supposed to sit at home and never be seen in public. I forgot the rule today.
You’re pretty good with that buggy!
First of all, it’s a wheelchair – and an expensive one at that. It probably cost more than your car and that is not a joke. Secondly – you walk pretty well for someone on two feet but I didn’t fell the need to make that the first thing I said to you. Why did you feel the need to make my ability to independently move from point A to point B the topic of conversation?
You’re so pretty for someone in a wheelchair!
This may be the most backhanded compliment of all time. If a person is attractive, she is attractive. Period. Wheelchair has nothing to do with it. Wait – I forgot the other wheelchair rule. Not only are we supposed to stay at home, we are also not supposed to care about our appearance. Now I’ve broken two rules.
Be good to your heart – take the stairs!
These signs, often seen near elevators, make me want to scream. So, because I lack the ability to take the stairs I can’t be good to my heart? I’d rather not have to wait for the lazy people to get off the elevator so I can access it, so I appreciate the efforts to encourage stair use. But the unspoken implication is still there. Lazy elevator users aren’t being good to their heart.
I would rather be dead than be you.
I’d die if I had to depend on someone else all of the time.
I’d rather be dead than have to use a wheelchair all of the time.
If I can’t walk, just pull the plug.
Really?! Does my life look that bad to you? Does it really look like I am THAT unhappy with my life? Is disability REALLY a fate worse than death? Do you even know how those sentences (which I’ve heard many times before) sound to someone like me? As if my life situation is helpless and not worth living – is that how you really perceive me? Because whenever I hear statements like these, that is the message you send.
I give these examples not to sound bitter or angry, but to hopefully help you to think about discrimination in a different way. We have all been guilty of saying the wrong thing, or inadvertently using language we did not intend to use. Just because I use a wheelchair does not mean I have not made comments I regret.
Discrimination comes in many forms. Sometimes the discrimination which is not as visible is the more challenging to face.