People with disabilities, particularly physical disabilities, are constantly expected to perform as inspirational cripples. They are, you see, so very brave for daring to come outside, so heroic, and thus, nondisabled people often feel the need to single them out, to let them know how inspired they are by the whole thing; an entire genre of inspiration porn has been created around the exploitation of disability to satisfy the needs of nondisabled people to feel better about themselves. Just getting groceries is ‘brave’ and you’re setting an example for us all, to not let your disability get you down.
And when there is a failure to perform for the narrative, things tend to get sticky. Because you are breaking the rules and reneging on the social contract—a contract you apparently signed when you were born with a disability or acquired one later in life. You’re supposed to perform, trick pony that you are, at all times, because you owe it to the people around you. In no small part because this is the sole purpose in your life, now; obviously, as a disabled person, you can’t hope to accomplish anything meaningful, but there’s always a chance you could inspire someone, and that might make it all worth it.
If you don’t play the game, people will call you rude.
People who are being rude, people who are grabbing your mobility aid, talking in a slow and patronising voice, calling you ‘inspiring,’ getting in your way when you are trying to do things, asking you intrusive personal questions, will call you rude if you don’t respond in the way they want you to. You’re supposed to smile while they touch your chair, and be delighted when someone pushes you; you shouldn’t ask people to let go of your chair because it endangers your safety. You should be glad they’re speaking so slowly that you can understand them, that they’re letting you know you have a reason to exist in life.
I’m a firm believer that rudeness is not the best response to rudeness, but refusing to perform the inspirational narrative is not rudeness. It’s a personal choice. Some people like to be inspirational and some people do not. For those who derive pleasure and power from it, more power to them, and I respect that although it’s not my path. I am troubled by the fact that their performance makes it harder for people who don’t perform, that they become the model people with disabilities and the spokespeople for the movement. And this is something that does need to be explored and discussed in more detail, because their actions do have an impact on other people with disabilities and it would be silly not to acknowledge that.
But for those who do not, it shouldn’t be a social obligation, because people should know better. Calling an adult grown up person a ‘poor dear’ and ‘brave soul’ for doing something fairly basic like going outside is rude. Anyone with even the most rudimentary of manners should know it’s offensive, should know that you don’t talk about someone as if that person isn’t even there; you don’t lean over to an aide in the grocery store and say it’s ‘so nice to see them out in public like that’ right in front of a person with a disability.
When you’re being rude, it’s not okay for someone to be rude in response, but that person isn’t obligated to play by your rules, or to be particularly nice and friendly either. A wheelchair user may snap at you for grabbing her chair and unbalancing you. You’d better be prepared for that, because your rudeness scared her, endangered her, and threatened her; grabbing her chair was like touching an extension of her body. Just as you’d be upset if someone forcibly grabbed you by the waist and dragged you ten feet, she has the right to be upset when someone pushes her around.
A disabled person may choose not to respond to you when you’re asking intrusive questions or making inappropriate comments. That’s perfectly all right; some people prefer to handle rudeness by not engaging with it in any way, and that’s definitely a valid choice for them. An aide may redirect you to the human being, the person who is standing right there, if you insist on talking to him instead of his client, or if you persist in talking about his client rather than to his client. That, too, is not rude.
People with disabilities are not required to perform for you, and you don’t get to lash them when they don’t by calling them ‘rude.’ It’s something I see time and time again in mixed social interactions; the nondisabled person makes an insipid smile, prepares an intrusive comment, gets ready to tell the disabled person about inspiration and hard work and who knows what else, and the disabled person makes her lack of interest clear. The response is ‘well you didn’t have to be rude about it,’ and I ask you: why do you have trouble differentiating between rudeness and human dignity when it comes to people with disabilities?
Nondisabled people are perfectly capable of understanding what’s polite and what’s not in everyday conversation with each other; some may choose to cross lines or may have trouble delineating them at times, but they still understand. Yet there seems to be a total breakdown when it comes to interacting with people with disabilities, something that causes nondisabled people to lose all sense of social decorum. That their response when their rudeness is gently highlighted is to whirl around and accuse their victims of rudeness is telling.