This is something I have been writing for school. It’s still in the works but I wanted to post after a conversation I had with two friends about March being the time when all the Jerry Lewis MDA-telethon lovers come out to play (and ask you to donate money for our wretched souls.)
You’re so courageous. Brave. An inspiration. God bless you.
Can I buy you an ice cream cone?
Carry your bag [even though you show no sign of being ready to move?]
This is in the Atlanta airport. I am traveling to Memphis so that I can meet friends, hopefully write some poetry, and go to the Civil Rights Museum if everyone’s up to it. I am traveling with my personal care attendant [PCA], Em, and when she goes to check out some shops, I pick up my book and try to relax until the delayed flight finally arrives.
Except that I can’t relax—privacy is a privilege I don’t have. My body is different. My spine twists and turns in ways unimaginable to the everyday airport passerby. I breathe and talk differently. It’s understandable that people are curious but when people are constantly pulling over to where I’m sitting and telling me things like they can’t imagine living like I do, that I’m an “inspiration”, it’s no longer a mere curiosity about my body. It’s a strong statement on what disability means in this society. It’s the lens in which people view those who are physically “otherized.” It’s the Ashley X treatment and disabled women being sterilized and stunted to convenience [make things easier] their poor caregivers. It’s the high unemployment rate (sometimes estimated at 70%) for disabled people because Jerry Lewis tells them we’re charity cases, not contributors. And it does not matter if I am on vacation visiting loved ones, traveling to speak at a disability rights conference, or working on Capitol Hill, they will still refuse to believe that I wanted to get out of bed in the morning. To them, I am nothing but a modern Tiny Tim whose head seems to need some urgent head-patting.
I could go into my speech about how in the words of St. Augustine, charity is no substitute for justice withheld. I could tell them that I love this disabled body they deem freakish or that I wouldn’t trade the community I share with people who speak, think, visualize or move differently for anything in the world (this is the same bond that Dr. Carol Gill defines as the familiar, comfortable rhythm of shared meanings that Disabled people, even strangers, fall into when they meet.) I could tell them that I’m just like everyone else.
Just. Like. Everyone. Else. Except that particular statement never works. When people hear disabled people say that, they assume that we want to be able-bodied or that we want to somehow separate ourselves from disability. I am proud to be who I am and am not sure how this is message is confused with the wish to be treated equally, or just like everyone else. You will not hear me claim that disability does not define me, in fact, it is an integral part of who I am. Is identity not inherently connected to one’s experiences or how one is perceived?
This is not to say life is not a struggle when one does not fit into dominant culture. My life is one of resisting assimilation [being absorbed into another culture]and struggling to find pride in who I am. Assimilation comes in many forms. Sometimes it is subtle, like temporarily wishing I could take off the disabled/queer/Corean hat and just be a college student. Sometimes it’s more explicit, like the year I spent immersed in only country music and cowboy boots or whenever I choose advocacy over activism because I am buying into the messages that says it is the only way to do something.
Mia Mingus, a fellow queer disabled APIA activist, says that multi-issue politics are not just a winning strategy but indeed the only way that we will survive. Pat Parker, a black lesbian feminist writer, said that the day that all the different parts of her can come along, we would have what she would call a revolution. There is truth in the words of these two women and as I continue to shed preconceived ideas of what it means to be me, I will continue to seek this truth.
And until we meet again, beware of wishing a Chicken-Soup-For-the-Soulish God Bless you on any uppity cripples you run across in an airport.