A cautionary tale, of sorts: Back when I was a young, naive college freshman, I decided to attend one of those campus service/organization ‘fests (meant to introduce many other naive young things to the services available to them at university)–mostly because it was right in my dorm’s common room. Oh, and they were going to have free food. I would have been remiss to pass that up, as the dining commons food at my school was absolutely awful.
One of the organizations at this rather paltry excuse for a festival was the Center for Disability Services; as a burgeoning Women and Gender Studies major who was just coming into the “disabled” identity at the time (a result of having read Susan Wendell’s essay “The Social Construction of Disability” [which you can read on Google Books here] in my Intro to Women’s Studies class), I was rather excited about this. Context is probably necessary here: I was born three months prematurely and had a very mild case of Cerebral Palsy as a result. The CP, which left me with a permanent limp on my left side and a pronounced case of Supercrip syndrome during my childhood and parts of my adolescence, was something that I simultaneously wanted to claim as a disability and maintain as “not that big a deal”–the latter being something I had been taught to do in various capacities, by various social and cultural structures, throughout my life. In short, the Wendell piece had given me a little push toward claiming an identity as a person with a disability.
So, with good intentions and something resembling pride in my heart, I walked to the CDS table, where a woman was standing. The numerous info sheets and pamphlets on the table were perfectly arranged–a sign that this table had not seen too much “business” compared to some of the other tables. I introduced myself, and then took a pamphlet, adding with a smile, “I have CP, so I might be giving you guys a call soon.”
What I received in exchange was a look of skepticism so intense that I quickly lowered my eyes, and then backed away. Had I made a mistake? Was this a sorority table, and not the CDS table? Did she need my medical records, or the many photos my parents took of me in the ICU incubator during the months I spent in the hospital, as proof? Would my hospital ID bracelet–which, at one time, had managed to fit around my wrist, but now barely slid around two of my fingers–have been sufficient?
Many of the reactions to my CP from (seemingly) abled people had, up until that point in time, had generally conformed to one of two types, both of which irritated me equally: “Wow, you are so brave! That is an amazing story!” or “You don’t look disabled/like you have CP. You can’t really be disabled.” This woman’s wordless reaction to my (admittedly overly-friendly) “outing” of myself as disabled had fallen into the latter category.
I can’t say that I was surprised that I had gotten this sort of reaction yet again; what did surprise me, however–and struck me as somewhat ironic–was where it came from.