Guest Post: Disability Dismissed
Este Yarmosh has Cerebral Palsy. She holds a B.A. in English from Eastern Connecticut State University and is currently studying for her Master of Arts degree in English at Simmons College.
I have what is, I believe, widely considered a “visible disability”: Cerebral Palsy. Yet it is of so slight a degree that most (able-bodied) people probably don’t notice it. So, this slightness in a way makes my Cerebral Palsy an invisible disability (which it really isn’t—I do not mean to offend those with invisible disabilities). The tension between the visible/invisible aspects of my disability causes me to reside in a sort of twilight world which constantly shifts between my ability to “pass” as “normal” and the very real experience of my disability. Granted, I walk with a limp and my left hand curves to the left because of my tight muscles, so my “passing” is really an illusion.
For instance, when my able-bodied step-father talks to me sometimes, he implies that he subscribes to such stereotypes as “overcoming your disability” – which is damaging because I can only adapt to my environment and circumstances, since my disability will be with me for the rest of my life. I say this last part without self-pity, which, it is said, is the refuge of the weak. Then I suppose I have a right to it; I say that sarcastically. There is a reason why my step-father would be so clueless in his dealings with me: he raised two boys, both of whom are able-bodied (let us be thankful for that! Ugh).
When I talk to my step-father about how my disability impacts my life, occasionally he will say that I’m using my CP as “a crutch.” A “crutch”? That is outrageous; I was upset by his comment, though I didn’t tell him so. He has tried to convince me to feel guilty about “using my Cerebral Palsy as a crutch.” I simply reject the invitation to feel guilty about an impairment that I was born with. I am just not equipped to see with able-bodied eyes, so to speak. I have known nothing else but my disability; I am stating a fact here. What my step-father is implying by saying that my disability is a “crutch” is that I am too dependent on my impairment and that I complain too much about it. Now, I don’t think about my CP every minute of every day and it’s not too big a problem for me much of the time. However, my CP is also real and is a legitimate issue for me. To say that it’s not would be lying to myself and to other people. And I think I have a right to complain every once in a while about certain things related to my disability, whether they are physical or social aspects. For example, sometimes it is very difficult for me to walk after I’ve been sitting for a period of time because my muscles have minds their own and thus stiffen up, as my Cerebral Palsy is of the spastic type. I think I should have the option of complaining about the fact that I can’t walk! I have cited the above personal example to illustrate how ignorant and clueless most able-bodied people truly are when it comes to dealing with people with disabilities, even if they think they mean well by saying the things they do.
I would like to compare the scenario of telling (or implying) a person with a disability that they’re not disabled with an incident from the life of Frantz Fanon, the great Marxist literary critic. To paraphrase, he was giving a lecture in France and a Frenchman, who was impressed, said, “at bottom, you are a white man” (Lodge 137).
Now, Fanon was of Afro-Caribbean descent. The Frenchman was changing, and thus, denying Fanon’s nature with his comment, whether he knew it consciously or not. Fanon’s incident illuminates white people’s ignorance not only of Afro-Caribbean culture and humanity, but it shows how people in general are ignorant of other people’s feelings as well. The Frenchman’s comment was really a back-handed compliment, which is ultimately insulting and hurtful. Once again, the Frenchman’s remark to Fanon is analogous to someone saying to a person who has a disability, “you’re not really disabled because you don’t look like it and because you are very skilled at what you do.” This denies the person with a disability’s basic nature and humanity, while the ignorant person who makes the comment thinks he/she is complimenting them and telling them what they want to hear (not always the case).
I feel like able-bodied people do not take me seriously when I tell them I have a disability – it is at the point where it seems like they don’t believe me. There may be some evidence for this, though, since I use inserts now as opposed to a higher-than-my-shoe brace I wore as a child. Because to prove to the able-bodied that you are disabled you need concrete evidence of it, which has to be seen! Again, I say that sarcastically. I feel like I’m lying to able-bodied people; this is ironic, since of course I have Cerebral Palsy. Here is an example of an able-bodied person not taking my disability seriously: back when I was in college, my roommate and I had an argument and I tried to level with her by telling her something personal about me. I showed her my leg brace which I used to wear when I was younger. She looked at it briefly and said, “Oh, I hurt my knee too,” and she walked away. The point is she completely misunderstood my situation, taking it (relatively) lightly and believing that I had an injury, the implication being it would heal in a matter of weeks. The truth is, on the other hand, I have an impairment which is life-long and which often gives me searing pain (I’m not pretending that, able-bodied people!).
It feels, for me at least, easier to “pass” on a daily basis. How dare women with disabilities offend the delicate sensibilities of able-bodied people by reminding them that not merely do we exist but that we have our own types of power and strength! Yet there are times when I sort of feel guilty “passing”, as though I’m denying a critical part of myself by keeping up this practice. Yet, it is my opinion that there is a barrier of silence separating me from the able-bodied people I attempt to notify of my disability. The barrier is built by them. We know that; it is nothing new. Yet that is why the social model of disability must continue to be written on and discussed, since it impacts our lives in such a major way. We can keep using the social model as a tool to scrutinize and critique the manner in which the able-bodied interact with us.
Lodge, David and Wood, Nigel. Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. Pearson Longman, New York: 2008. 846 pp.