What does discrimination look like? Is it being told, flat out, that you can’t do this task or have this job or enter that building or raise a family? Is it using insulting words, raised voices, thrown objects? Or is it subtler? Is it the pervasive idea that our presence in and of itself – with minds or bodies that don’t function “correctly” – is unwanted?
More important than that, how can we combat it? Is education the best way to eliminate misconceptions? Or is confrontation more productive? Over the years I have believed that one or the other is appropriate, but I’ve done a lot of thinking recently… why is it assumed that the two are mutually exclusive?
Not long ago I found a couple of friends posting on Facebook a status that went something like this: “Maybe I’m the only blind person you know, and maybe you’re afraid to ask me questions. THIS is a safe place to ask any questions you have – big or small – about my life as a blind person.” It’s an interesting thought – something that I would consider doing on social media, for people who have already built up some form of a relationship with me. But I question the appropriateness of educating the general public… just because they are curious and don’t know how I live my life. It’s one thing for a prospective employer or university professor to ask questions about how the job gets done – but my life is my own, and I shouldn’t have to educate the passenger beside me on the bus how I cook, clean, live my life, just because they’re curious and are dying to know. If someone has the time and inclination to share this information, that’s absolutely acceptable. But not everyone wishes to do so, and should not feel judged by the disability community at large or by the general public for politely declining to answer what can be considered nosy, invasive questions when directed at a non-disabled person.
But what if someone says or does or asks something truly offensive? Is education appropriate? The answer is… yes and no. It does definitely depend on the situation – what was said, how it was said, and how willing the other party is to understand that what they said, did or asked was inappropriate or invasive. I recently had a really rough day, where someone I asked for directions talked over me as though I couldn’t talk for myself, an interviewer told me that my resume was just what she was looking for but she “just didn’t know if I could do the job”, and then a woman on the bus told me that I “looked so young and attractive” that she “never would’ve guessed I had any challenges.” With person number 1, I was admittedly abrupt and short, thanking him sincerely for his help but that I could take it from here and speak for myself (His response: “Really? You can?”) The job interviewer was much trickier, because I felt like I had to not only convince her that I COULD do that job, but also be polite in the face of that dreaded C word (“can’t“). When I was later advised the position had been given to another candidate, I requested more information about my interview itself and was able to explain why her comments and questions were unreasonable and inappropriate, and how it’s always best to presume competence; she thanked me for my feedback and promised to implement changes to her interview practices. The lady on the bus… I was so taken aback by her comment – that attractiveness, youth and disability couldn’t co-exist – that I thanked her for her compliment but told her that it was offensive, because disability is not just for the old and the unattractive. She thanked me for telling her and said she would choose her words more wisely in the future.
But not everyone is as willing to hear our answers, having their own ideas about our capabilities and the realities of our lives. More than once someone has made a statement of how sad my life must be, but when I try and explain, I effectively get told that I’m wrong – that I miss out on so many beautiful things. It’s frustrating on an emotional level, but when it comes to employment it becomes economically frustrating as well. So what do we do when others’ perceptions and ideas and design affects our ability to work, to study, to access facilities? We sometimes fight through legislation. Maybe it won’t change someone’s mind until they realize how serious it is that we’re denied job opportunities, academic pursuits, and the ability to move freely through cities, streets and businesses. I’ve never seen the picture of the “Capitol Crawl” – a public visual demand for passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act – but it’s an important image to keep in mind: access to some is not access for all, and until all citizens have access to the same products, services and facilities, a society is not truly free and equal. And even though not everything is a fight, it is important to band together as a stronger disability community – to support each other and the non-disabled who stand with us as we try and make a difference.
Sometimes it’s best to catch flies with honey rather than vinegar. But if you can’t catch them with honey because they just don’t care, vinegar is absolutely a valid option. It’s important to choose our battles wisely, to conduct ourselves with a strong will tempered by grace, wisdom and logic. Emotion, if channeled appropriately, can be powerful, but it can’t be the only way we respond to circumstance. And logic without personal experience is dry and boring and, frankly, no one wants to hear that either. Sometimes change is best accomplished through well-timed, well-tempered words; other times it means pushing back against ideas and thoughts and practices through personal or government advocacy. No one way is right or wrong for everyone, but it is important that whatever we do, however we combat discrimination and prejudice, that it improves life for everyone, not just one segment of our community.