People will stare. Make it worth their while.

I found this meme on my wife’s Facebook wall today. At first I chuckled but as the day went on it kept sticking in my mind. Most of my life I thought I was a master of the art of making people stare. But at a fairly ripe age my wife would teach me how I knew nothing about it.

This is the story of how she lectured me in the fine art of making people’s stares worth their while.
People will stare
I grew up with the stares. There has never been a moment where certain people didn’t ogle me. Being so used to it I usually don’t even realize how much people stare at me. It has become second nature or part of living as wheelchair user in a bipedal world.

I still remember the discussions I had with my wife about it when we met. She was both surprised and slightly annoyed when we were out. I still remember how she would react by blatantly staring back at those who were most obvious about it. But after a while she changed tactics. She started doing exactly what this meme said – make it worth their while.

One of my favorite “make it worth their while” moments is when I ride an escalator. As most wheelchair users know, this is a pretty cheap trick. It’s fairly simple to use an escalator when you ride a manual chair. Get the track and when it starts going up, pull your wheels up to the step and your chair will rest nicely on the steps. All you have to do is to hold on to the railing all the way up like anyone else standing on their legs. I have always enjoyed the stares when I ride escalators. They go from the merely skeptical to the truly horrified.

The only trick that truly tops riding an escalator is doing wheelies down a short flight of stairs. For many years in my youth it topped the list of my “make it worth their while” moments. However as I have grown older I it has trickled down the list after I realized that witnessing it could cause a heart attack in some people – and then it suddenly not worth anybody’s while, after all.

Needless to say, my wife got a kick out of seeing me ride the escalators. She is hardly an exhibitionist but she certainly experiences a level of joy when I cause shock and horror in those who don’t know any better. So I wasn’t surprised when, after only having known her for a short while, she topped my escalator trick by putting icing on it.
She was standing behind me as we rode up to the second level of the local mall. Suddenly I feel her hand gently grabbing me by the chin and pulling my head back. I looked up and saw her face only inches away from mine. And when we made eye contact she leaned down and kissed me passionately.

I will not even try to explain what people think when they see us riding up and down the escalator, kissing like a pair of teenagers (did I mention that her perfectly plausible excuse is that we are at the perfect height when she is standing one step lower than me?) The stares we get are priceless. The looks of disbelief and puzzlement are mixed with surreptitious stares and snickers or outright laughter.

It is one thing to see a cripple ride an escalator – especially when the elevator is right next to it in plain sight. It is also – for whatever strange reason – an odd experience seeing a cripple expressing passion for a fellow human being (trust me I’ve tested it) in public. But to see both things at once apparently is so outlandishly absurd that most people don’t know what to do with themselves – and then they might as well have a good stare.

Truly a way of making all the stares in the world worthwhile!

Inspiration porn as othering

The last couple of months has sparked a lot of debate about inspiration porn outside of the disability world. It started with the now infamous Superbowl commercials from Microsoft and Toyota, both companies feeling a need to show how people with prosthetic legs are able to lead perfectly normal – albeit bionic – lives. Granted we have come a long way with prosthetic legs – and good for those who wear them.

Those commercials showed two people who live life to the best of their ability. They have managed well for themselves. They might have some extraordinarily circumstances that make them somewhat interesting. But most people I know have extraordinary life circumstances and in that light these two were not that special.

I know a single mother of 3 who has unbearable pain. So much so she can barely get up in the morning. She needs help from her daughter to put on her socks and shoes to leave the house every day. Despite that she gets up, goes to work where she is on her feel all day long only to come home and collapse in bed at night because she has spent all her energy making ends meet in her low paying job. She is an extraordinary woman in more ways than I am able to describe. But at the same time she is not potential for a Microsoft or Toyota commercial. Why is that? She is way more disabled by her chronic pain than those two people with hi-tech bionic legs have been for a mighty long time. She truly struggles with her disability and she manages magnificently.

What is the difference between the single mom I know and the now famous cripples in these commercials?

All three do everything they can to live life to the best of their ability. But there is nothing inspirational about the single mom who gets out of bed every day despite a pain level that is unimaginable for anyone who hasn’t tried giving birth while passing a kidney stone at the same time (yes, I know such a woman as well.) People see her as an ordinary woman doing what society expects from her. Not as someone in whom we can bask in our inadequacies in the holy name of inspiration porn. She doesn’t have a visibly ‘sexy’ disability like an amputation or a sexy wheelchair (I know, I am damn sexy with my one leg and my shiny wheels – no need to tell me)

Somehow society has decided what disabilities are deemed ‘legitimate’ and which ones we’d rather not care about. And when someone is perceived as having a ‘real’ disability that person is also potentially an inspirational hero for merely living their life.

Living life to its fullest is by no means wrong. It is the fact that others regard it as an inspiration that I find both wrong and disgusting. Unfortunately there are many non-disabled people who don’t get it when we protest and tell them not to use us as their magic mirror – telling them they ‘are the fairest of them all’.

In the last few years a whole industry has boomed around this idea that disabled people doing something completely ordinary are superhuman. We have become the unwilling heroes in an industry that make non-disabled people able to feel good about themselves because they can reflect their petty little lives in ours.

This feel-good industry is fueled by an objectification of people who implicitly are deemed ‘less fortunate’. And it seems to please the masses of the majority culture to no end when disabled people can overcome so-called ‘unfortunate circumstances’ and achieve some semblance of normalcy.

Recently I ran across an article by Josephine Fairley (JF) in the British newspaper, The Telegraph. The article is a poignant reminder of how people with disabilities are regarded as something different from human beings. JF not only regards inspiration porn as something good. In her view inspiration porn, is considered “progress.” The progress lies in the fact that we are now being used for her and other’s emotional absolution instead of being shunned and hidden away like we used to be in a not too distant past.

To me it’s nothing short of a tragedy. That another human being can see progress when all I see is exploitation. At the very best it’s trading one ill for another.

JF completely fails to see that inspiration porn is no better than the freak shows of yore where disabled people were exhibited and dragged around the circus ring to elicit a sense of horror from the audience. The only difference between the two types of freak show is the audience’s expected emotion. We have traded the sense of horror for a shot of feel-good, hooray for progress!

I am not blind to the fact that on the surface of things it’s better for the audience to feel good about itself than to feel horror. But regardless of the instilled emotion the result for the objectified person is not much different. We are still a symbol of that which is different, wrong and beyond the norm.

Looking at a few other articles to see what kind of woman could come to such a lopsided conclusion I was quite surprised to find out her big issue is women’s rights. How can a person be an adamant supporter of human rights for one group of people whilst joyfully gawking at another group in the virtual zoo of inspiration porn?

This can only be done through the simple mechanism of ‘othering.’ People with disabilities are essentially different from those without. We are not really people after all. We are ‘other.’ Those whom fingers are pointed at. We are basically regarded the same way people of color were 200 years ago, humanlike but fundamentally different and lesser than. We are implicitly seen as subhuman.

The fact that a (presumably intelligent) woman JF finds it in her to describe inspiration porn as progress while fighting for women’s rights tells me that we are viewed as subhuman whether it is acknowledged or not. We are simply reduced to stooges in the inspiration porn circus.

We are deviant and different by means of our physical bodies. Our deviance recreates us as a magic mirror for the majority to reflect itself in and feel good about itself. And when we are reduced to act as that magic mirror it is easy for someone like JF to fight for the rights of one minority and not for another since the other really is the Other. Subhuman and deviant.