Opening My (Shortsighted) EyesPosted: May 1, 2009
Today is Blogging Against Disablism Day. I’m not currently disabled, which is to say that I have not so far personally experienced any disability. But of course, to say “I’m not disabled” is rather naive, considering the myriad of things that could affect my body in years to come. My family has a history of thyroid problems, for example, and while I don’t know whether that comes under the “disability” category, I do know that my mother is on pills – and will be for the rest of her life – so that she can stay awake past 8 at night, and get up earlier than 9 in the morning, and so that she can actually remember conversations that she’s had.
Anyway. At the moment, my thyroid is functioning properly, and so am I. I’m shortsighted, sometimes in more ways than one, but I’m able-bodied.
And recently I’ve had a few things bring home to me just how pervasive (dis)ablism is. In myself, yes, and that’s something I’ve been working on ever since I had it pointed out to me. But there’s other things, too. I saw a post on Hoyden About Town which should really be read by everybody, the gist of which was “don’t compare your colds to a chronic illness”. I’ve started to see things. Things like the way that you might find a supposedly progressive space, where perhaps one or two of the toilet door signs have the braille equivalent underneath, but there’s no way of knowing how to find them, because there are no braille signposts. Things like stairs in weird and stupid places, which are fine for me, because I can jump down two steps without thinking, but which I notice when I’m walking with an older woman and her grip on my arm tightens.
Things like my university accomodation. There are lifts to every floor, and every floor is level. But unless you can stand up, it would be very hard to open doors from the inside, because the handles are too high up. There’s no storage space in the kitchen that you can reach without standing up, unless you want to put your food under the sink, which leaks. We might have a wet room for a bathroom (really to save space), but the showerhead isn’t detachable, and there are no handles to help people with.
Things like big public events. I’ve been temping, and one of the places I was temping at was a horse race. All of the seating was up a hill, up stairs and almost completely inacessable for anybody with mobility issues. I was a security officer. One of the people I met was a man with mobility and speech difficulties – some of my colleagues had driven around the course to make sure that nobody was left in places that were about to be shut off, and found him. Since there wouldn’t have been time for him to walk back unassisted, they gave him a lift. They asked me to take him wherever he wanted to go, but it was clear to me that they hadn’t really talked to him, probably assuming that his speech impediment and odd walk meant that he also had learning difficulties. I was fairly certain that he didn’t. And, as it happens, if he did, it was certainly not severe enough to impede independent living. He was also – unlike some other men that day – perfectly polite and considerate, and very interesting to talk to. All he needed was somebody who had the time to let him finish his sentences, and could lend him an arm over grassy areas, which he found difficult to cross. I saw then how well-meaning assumptions can be damaging. I made a connexion between the way my colleagues that day treated that man, and the way my colleagues in the past had treated a regular customer with mild Downs Syndrome. There again was somebody who was pleasant and friendly, who just wanted a bit of a chat, and something cheap to eat, and he became my customer simply because nobody else worked out that they could treat him just like any other customer. Their loss, because it guaranteed me – and him – one pleasant interaction in the day.
Things like public transport, too – things I’d seen but not really registered. There are lifts now at most big stations that I’ve been through. There are announcements on some London busses, informing everybody where the next stop is, and what route the bus is on. But it’s still not really geared up for people who aren’t able-bodied. The big stations are horifically loud, and disorientating even if you can see. On the transport itself, if you’re in a wheelchair, you’re lumped in with either buggies or bicycles. Charming. And on commuter trains, people who are quite capable of standing sit in that space. If you wanted to travel at a peak time, you’d have to be going from one end of the line to the other, because you clearly wouldn’t get to that space once the train started to fill. And when you do find somebody in a wheelchair using public transport, you start to get a weird space opening up around them. Not just enough space to let them move properly, but a gap that looks like the entire crowd wants to distance themselves from that person.
I can see enough to realise that I’m likely only picking up on the most visible examples, rather like the way that one of my male aquaintances has worked out that I get treated differently to him at pubs, but still doesn’t see that the wage gap exists for reasons other than the tired old stereotype of “women take time out to have children”. And I can see enough to know that I ought to find out more.
Lucky for me that it is Blogging Against Disablism Day, which gives me the opportunity to sit down, shut up and listen to so many different accounts all at once. It’s not my story that’s important. I know enough to know that.