People have a lot of misconceptions about disabilities, and I understand why – the word spans a huge spectrum of life experiences. But one of the biggest misconceptions, which I can’t really get past, is the idea that our lives are automatically bad or pitiable.
When you find out that someone has a disability, all you know is that some part of them does not work in the same way it does in able-bodied people. You would probably be right in assuming that some aspects of their life are harder than they are for other people, but beyond that you can’t know anything about their intelligence, happiness, or level of achievement. There are probably disabled people out there who are happier than you. There are probably disabled people out there who have achieved more than you. There are probably disabled people out there who are kinder, meaner, prettier, uglier or better dancers than you, because all a disability tells you is that one part of them doesn’t work in the average way.
But this isn’t the message we get from the world.
Recently I read this article from Polly Gillespie, and it frustrates me immensely. I can see why she was angry at the man in the wheelchair, and I do think he was behaving badly. I don’t think she was doing anything wrong by using the disabled toilet, but I feel her description of disabled people as “you poor infirm, elderly, arthritic, mumps-bearing person” buying incontinence pads is childish and uncalled for, as is calling someone in a wheelchair “shorty”. The part that really bothered me though was the assumption that a disabled person’s life is “shitty” or that it is necessary to feel sorry for them. To be fair, we have all said stupid things in the heat of an argument, but I find it concerning that once she had a clear head, she and (presumably) at least one editor didn’t see a problem with putting this out there in the world.
My intention in writing this is not to have a go at Polly, as this does not stem from a problem within her, but from the way disabilities are viewed in general. I use this as an example, but this attitude is everywhere, and often the people making these kinds of statements do them with good intentions. People may believe that they are being compassionate or offering a kindness in feeling sorry for someone, but there is a huge difference between compassion and pity. If you’re confused about what that difference is, Brené Brown’s beautiful short film about the difference between empathy and sympathy might be a good place to start.
I really appreciate it when people show consideration and compassion towards the fact that some parts of my life are hard.
I hate it when people assume my life is shitty because of these things.
It makes me feel ashamed and embarrassed and question my own worth. It makes me feel as if my life is seen as something broken – that I will only be seen as worthy or whole if I get better or am fixed.
I can’t count how many times strangers have offered to pray for me to be healed, given me unsolicited (and almost always inaccurate) “medical” advice, or spouted diatribes about how a positive attitude will be my saviour. Years ago, I wrote about how a stranger had lectured me about how I shouldn’t accept walking with a stick, because I should be striving for something “better”. In that case, I asked him why he was so sure a life walking without a stick was better than walking with one, and he found he didn’t have an answer for that. In these cases every one of those people was coming from a well-meaning place of good intentions, so sure that their advice would make me “better”, but none of them took the time to find out what my life is like now.
Disabled people are not broken. We don’t need to be “fixed”. This might seem like a contradiction when we are often looking for medications, treatments or cures, but these are about making the hard parts of our lives easier or less painful, not about assuming a life without disability is automatically better.
Recently someone asked me why I was walking with a stick, and when I explained, he said “well I suppose a lot of people feel sorry for you.” I think I surprised even myself when the words “But I don’t need anyone to pity me, my life is awesome” came out of my mouth.
My life is awesome. It will be awesome if my disability goes away. It will be awesome if it stays. Yes, it is incredibly hard and painful sometimes, and compassion or help for that hard stuff would be welcome. But pity does not help either of us, so let’s leave that at the door thanks.
Thanks for reading
Little Miss Autoimmune