To be visibly disabled is to become part of the public commons. People who use mobility aids like wheelchairs, canes, and walkers are obviously, visibly, evidently disabled, alongside blind and low vision people who rely on guide animals, canes, and other tools, or D/deaf people who sign or rely on hearing aids. Other types of impairments may not require specific accessibility devices, but they’re still obvious to the nondisabled viewer. This means that evident disabilities make it impossible to enjoy any degree of privacy, and since disability makes nondisabled people very uncomfortable, it creates a frustrating dynamic in which a nondisabled public attempts to skirt around a disabled body.
Maybe it’s saccharine smiles and ‘you’re so braves’ and patting on the shoulder. Maybe it’s avoiding eye contact and skimming to the other side of the sidewalk. Maybe it’s lurching uncertainly upon an introduction, a reminder that a disabled person is a person, not just a body floating through space for public consumption. Nondisabled people have an ever evolving and highly creative assortment of ways to express their distaste for disability.
Disabled people, of course, push back on this in numerous ways, and there’s a relatively recent initiative from the Cerebral Palsy Foundation, the ‘Just Say Hi‘ campaign, that speaks to…what happens when these campaigns go wrong. There are two ways to frame this campaign. One is positive, but one is negative, and the way the campaign is being presented leans towards the negative, which is worrying, because it’s being endorsed by a huge number of celebrities and it’s spreading throughout the internet as the latest trendy ‘ally’ thing to do.
Here’s the good way to frame it: If you are introduced to a disabled person, you should just say hi. You don’t need to feel awkward, you definitely shouldn’t ask intrusive questions or put your own stuff on the disabled person (amazingly, nondisabled people do this all the time), you don’t need to do anything other than say hi and embark upon a conversation exactly like you would do with a nondisabled human, or a human you’re coding as nondisabled who actually isn’t. If that was the kind of education campaign being run here, I’d be super into it, because people do not understand this and it can’t be said enough. Disabled people just want to be treated like human beings.
However, the framing I’m seeing more commonly is that it’s a great idea to wander up to random disabled people and say hi. Which, first of all, nondisabled people already do, because disabled bodies are considered public property, and said introductions usually initiate a series of awkward and unpleasant questions and comments. Second of all, people have a reasonable right to privacy in public when they are going about their daily business. Just as women strongly resist the notion that they belong to the public, so too do disabled people. Women are really tired of being catcalled and harassed, or just intruded upon by people doing annoying things like asking ‘what are you reading’ when they’re on subway trains, peacefully reading a book, doing their own thing.
This also applies to disabled people. Those with evident disabilities don’t want to be asked why they use mobility aids, whether their impairments are acquired or congenital, how they have sex, if they’re out on their own or if they have a carer and if so where is she, if they know some other random disabled person. They just want to be left alone, unless they run into someone they know, or they are embarking upon a transactional interaction, like ‘can you tell me where the dish soap is’ or ‘excuse me, would you mind moving this large object in the aisle of your store so that I can actually navigate it.’ Or maybe they’re being introduced to someone at an event, in which case that person would, wait for it, just say hi.
To me, this campaign seems to be suggesting that people should feel okay just randomly assaulting disabled people in the street with intrusions on their privacy. It’s actually not okay to ‘just say hi’ to someone who don’t know merely on the basis that they have visible disabilities. If you see a wheelchair user on the bus, that doesn’t entitle you to anything. She’s not your property or something to gawk at, she’s just another passenger on the bus (BTW, you should get out of the disabled seating). If you spot a blind person in the library, don’t have a cow. If you see someone with a service animal, don’t race across a meadow to ask if you can pet her. (The animal, not the person. Actually, don’t ask if you can pet the person, either.)
Just…leave everyone alone unless specifically invited to do otherwise, okay? At a speed dating event? Totally say hi, unless someone is obviously a waiter working the event (you can tell by indicators like work uniform or trays full of glasses!). Boarding a plane? Skip it. Riding to work on the subway and spot a friend? Definitely go for it. Walking down a peaceful mountain trail with friends? Sure, nod and wave, because it’s conventional. Shopping at the drug store? Uh, no.
So no, it’s not as simple as ‘just say hi,’ and the presentation of this campaign, regardless of intent, rings alarm bells for me. Disabled people do not need you to ‘reach out’ any more than women on the subway or anyone else does. They just want to be treated with dignity.
Image: Literacy, Brian Wolfe, Flickr