Progressives struggling to grasp the concept of ableism often want to be pointed at specific, real-world examples of how ableism works against disabled people. Despite the fact that disability-based discrimination is a huge social construct that contributes to everything from how policy is made to how spaces are laid out, they want a crystal-clear thing they can understand.
Here’s an example of how social attitudes can act to keep people at home, which is a direct illustration of why ableism is a problem, and why we need to fight it. Because people shouldn’t be trapped in their home by anything—not crappy policies, not inaccessible structures, not point and stares on the street. Right?
Some disabled people need to use mobility aids like canes, walkers, wheelchairs, scooters, or mobility assistance dogs. They do this because the nature of their impairments makes it difficult to get around bipedally for whatever reason; maybe they have neurological impairments that interfere with motor control, or a spinal cord injury that’s resulted in loss of sensation in the legs. Using a mobility aid, though, means that you run a gauntlet every time you leave your home.
Not just one of inaccessible surfaces; ‘just one step’ doorways, bad paving, lack of curb cuts, people parking at awkward angles, roads with no sidewalks so they’re forced to be in the street or on a rocky, rough shoulder. But a gauntlet of responses from other people as they move through the world, and those responses are both irritating and dangerous.
The irritating is obvious; most people want to be left alone while conducting their daily business. They don’t want people to point and stare at them, gawking and drawing attention. They don’t want to be subjected to intrusive personal questions about how their bodies work, or gooey comments about how nice it is to see ‘people like them’ out in public, and they don’t want people making a big production of the fact that they exist and are, shockingly, daring to venture into the outside world. It’s annoying. It’s really annoying when it happens over and over again, every time you leave the house.
And yes, it’s still annoying when you say ‘I know I’m not supposed to ask, but…’ This is actually more annoying, because it indicates that someone, at some point, informed you that you shouldn’t discuss disabilities and mobility aids, but you decided to do so anyway. In progressive circles, it’s often done as a way to show that you’re oh-so-educated and aware. If you want to impress a disabled person with your awareness, treat that person like a person, and ignore whatever that person is using to get around; believe me, a service dog user will go into private rhapsodies with a friend over ‘that lovely chat I had with someone in the hall who acted like my dog wasn’t there the whole time, didn’t bring him up, and actually wanted to talk to me about astrophysics instead of my legs.’
It can get to the point where you weigh your decision carefully before leaving the house. You want to go to the library for books. Do you want to do battle with the inaccessible paths that force you to take the long route to get there, and members of the general public who will insist on making you their business? Maybe you’re up for it, so you set out. Maybe you’re not, in which case you just stay home. The attitudes of other people have forced you to stay in your house.
When it’s pointed out that this stuff is irritating, people often get it, because it can be easily framed in a way that they understand. Women, for example, understand how upsetting it is to be approached by random strangers who start talking to you when you just want to be left alone. Using that as a base, nondisabled women can see how it’s a problem to be making a big production out of disabled people; they may modify their own behaviour as well as encouraging others to do likewise, because a line of empathy has been established. They don’t know what it’s like to be disabled, but they do know what it’s like to feel constantly under scrutiny in public.
It’s harder to get people to understand that their interference, well meaning and otherwise, can be dangerous. When people grab mobility aids, which they do, they can not only break them, but also endanger the people who are using them. A wheelchair user who’s operating her manual chair just fine doesn’t need help; and your unexpected push could throw her out of her chair, unbalance her, or hurt her. A cane user doesn’t need you to grab his arm while he’s attempting to use his cane; he’s already got his balance down just fine, thank you very much. In both of these examples, you’re effectively kicking someone’s legs out from beneath.
This is an especially big problem for people with mobility assistance dogs, because they endure a combination of fascination with disability and ‘ooh shiny look at the puppy!’ Like other service dogs, they are not pets. They are working. They should be left alone. And that means not just not petting them, but not distracting them by making kissy noises, trying to make eye contact, pointing at them, waving food at them, or otherwise acknowledging their presence in any way, which includes asking the handler about the dog and redirecting the handler’s focus from work to your annoying questions. These activities are irritating for their handlers, but more than that, they are dangerous. If you see someone using a mobility dog and you shout and the dog gets distracted, the handler might fall. If a dog is distracted because the handler is agitated or focused on conversation, that dog can’t act to quickly counterbalance the handler if she loses stability.
Which means that people using mobility aids need to think about this, too, when they go out. Despite the fact that they know how to use their mobility aids just fine and can ask for help if they need it, they must ask themselves if they’re ready to advocate for themselves in public when someone attempts to interfere. And that is a when, not an if. Are they ready to deal with being endangered by a random member of the public? Because if not, they’re going to have to stay home.
And the thing is that the more this happens, the more you start to think staying home might be a pretty damn good idea.