I don’t see you as disabled

A few days ago I was talking to my co-worker. We were discussing an upcoming event (I work at a patient organization) and she says to me, “Remember, there is going to be a lot of people in wheelchairs.” I said, “Yeah, I know.” and then suddenly her eyes became twice as big and her face turned beet red, and she said, “I forgot you are also in a wheelchair.”

Now, I was sitting in my chair right in front of her with nothing between us. The evidence was right in front of her. She quickly starts explaining how she doesn’t see me as disabled and how I was different from most of our members. I understood her. I have tried it so many times. But should I be offended? I very much see myself as disabled, it’s part of my identity. I can’t imagine not being disabled, I’ve never tried it. I am proud of my disability, it has made me onto the man I am. In a sense I had every right to be offended. She didn’t see me for who I am. What is wrong with her? Is she blind or just plain stupid?

But I didn’t feel the need to be offended. There was no need for that simple reason that I have been in that situation so many times in the past. And it always happens when people become so close to me that they no longer have any defenses towards my disability. When it is the most natural thing in the world that I am who I am. So I told her that I knew she wasn’t just a co-worker anymore, I considered her a true friend. Of course I had to explain it to her, but I think she got it.

I know what goes on with others on a subconscious level. It has to do with what social psychologists call the ‘in-group, out-group model’ which is the basis for all social injustice, be it sexism, racism, or ableism. My co-worker didn’t see me as a representative of an out-group but part of her in-group and she got embarrassed because she so blatantly made me see her bias towards others in wheelchairs.

But I have also been offended in the past when people say “I don’t see you as disabled.” Often people will say it in a way where it is blatantly obvious that they do see me as something other. I think to myself, yes you do, but you might be on the road to where you want to be. If the need to say it is strong enough to be voiced, you are just not there yet. Some are sincere while others just want to be cool and feel the need to say it. To me it is such a cliché. But I can’t confront people with it. I have to be PC and just eat it. Once I answered an acquaintance, “I don’t see you as disabled either.” Wrong reply! The lady started bawling. I should have known, she was rather overweight. So here I was, a chance meeting in front of a strip mall and I had a crying lady on my hands. Just because I wanted to be a smart alec.

So back to those who truly don’t see me as disabled and don’t talk about it (first rule). They tend to forget the few instances I do need help. One friend was notorious for leaving me in his car. He’d get out of the vehicle and expect me to follow even though he had put my chair in the trunk. I have sometimes sat there for a full five minutes before he would return to pick me up. He would never excuse himself, most of the time he would give me a hard time for not having followed him into wherever we were going – he always had a wicket sense of humor, that might be the reason for or great friendship.

I travelled from Denmark to Bulgaria with another long-time friend. We drove in my van and he helped me time and again on the way there. But when we arrived at the house we were staying at that had six steps up, he started just going into the house and go about his business, not looking back and helping me. When he had done it three or four times, I decided not to say anything or make him aware of my presence – just wait in the yard. After a few minutes he came out and asked earnestly what I was doing there. Later that evening he confessed he was ‘the world’s worst aide’. Since I never paid him, all I could reply was that he was worth every penny.

So why are these deeds of apparent neglect Something positive to me? Shouldn’t I be annoyed when they don’t grant me the common courtesy of helping the that little bit I need when I need it?

No. Because they see me as I want to be seen. As a person. They see no difference between me and them, so they forget that the difference does exist when it comes to tackling certain physical barriers. They no longer practice othering when they are with me. In classical social psychological terms, I am a member of the in-group.

Othering is a difficult thing to tackle. I am convinced we all do it. I do it myself every day. If I see someone with a different cultural background I automatically have assumptions about how he or she is and what I can expect from them. I do it with people with different disabilities as well. I think it’s a biological defense mechanism, we need to be wary of those who are different, they might also be dangerous. Othering is not racism, ableism or any other -ism, but it is the basis for all of them. It is a subconscious way of acting towards those who are not know and therefore potentially not safe.