A conversation

Recently, I was on the commuter train home. I happened to be reading Susan Schweik’s book Ugly Laws: Disability in Public for a research paper. Two middle-aged women sat down opposite me, and one inquired as to what book I was reading.

Me: It’s a book about 20th-century ugly laws in the U.S.

Woman #1: What’re those?

Me: Oh, they were regulations that prevented people with visible disabilities from panhandling in public, but more generally, they also kept people with disabilities out of the public eye.

Woman #2: Wow, that is so interesting! Are you in school?

Me: Yes, I’m reading this for a grad school paper.

Woman #1: You’re lucky you’re in grad school! The great thing about being in school is that you get to learn about things you might otherwise never learn about.

Me: Yeah, I suppose so.

Woman #1: And…why are you interested in that topic?

Me: I’m interested in feminist theory and disability, and how those things intersect with race, gender and class, and other stuff. That’s the short version, anyway.

Woman #1 [After a long pause]: Of course, I didn’t mean to imply that you are disabled or have a deformity

Me: Uh, okay. [Pause] You can’t see it, but I do have chronic pain.

And the conversation sort of stopped after that. For some reason, I suspect that this is not an uncommon occurrence.

8 Comments

  1. Sounds like that felt about like most of my are-you-training-him? conversations about my service dog go.

    Onlooker: Are you training him?
    Me: No, he’s my dog.
    O: He’s your dog? Are you blind or something?
    Me: No, not blind. Disabled.
    O: You are? You don’t look disabled.
    I usually end up just saying it’s genetic, I have bad joints.

    But those conversations leave a bad taste in my mouth. I used to get questions about why I was walking with forearm crutches when I didn’t look disabled, but those at least didn’t start with the presumption that I was doing a gee gosh darn nice thing by training a dog for some poor disabled person. I really, really hate the way the dog-related conversations turn from congratulatory glee to confused pity in under 10 seconds.

    ~Kali

  2. Incidental, but I just wanted to say that I met Schweik and she is a seriously kickass lady in person too. Also, yes, I just love it when people think that they can comment about disabilities in front of me! Because everyone who is disabled is in a wheelchair or something, naturally.

  3. And that sounds exactly like what I’m getting flack for with my undergrad thesis. Even my advisor wants me to talk about race and not disability when it comes to the sterilization of women.

    (If I get one more, “Students here aren’t interested in disability theory and history. Why are you?” I may start screaming. It’s something that seems important to me. Isn’t that enough of an answer?)

  4. I go through a similar experience almost everytime I meet someone new.
    new person: that’s a pretty accent, where were you born?
    me: St. Louis
    new person: but that doesn’t sound like a St. Loius/Missouri/Midwestern accent.
    me: it’s not. I have an articulation disorder.
    new person (after an awkard silence): I’m sorry.
    I’m never sure if they’re sorry because I have a speech problem or because they mentioned it, but I don’t hold them accountable on either account.
    Sometimes they will instead insist that it’s too pretty to be a problem or that it isn’t really a disorder. In that case, I’ll explain to them that what they hear today is really more the resualt of 12 years of speech therapy and the fact that I can’t pick up language just by hearing it and as a resualt my “accent” is really a lack of an accent.
    If they do continue talking to me. Then heaven forbid I should later refer to myself as disabled, becuase then they will inist that I’m not really disabled because they themselves or their son or good friend spent a year in speech therapy or couldn’t pronounce the ‘s’ sound until they were five. In that case I have to patenitly explain that when strangers can’t understand you until second grade, that’s a disability and that having a speech problem doesn’t exclude me from other disabilities.

  5. Wellllll….. why is anyone interested in the topics they study in grad school or even beyond? It’s a combination of factors, right? A personal stake in the topic might be one factor, but it’s only going to be part of the story at most, along with available resources, a topic your advisor and committee will support, a project that shows your strengths and appeals to your preferences in research methods, etc. etc.

  6. “Why do you have a fan?”

    “Why do you have a heating pad?”

    “Why are you wearing flip-flops, woman it’s 40 degrees!” (Fahrenheit)

    The other 2, I usually bring up myself before questions can be asked – and once looked at a classmate like what, is my heating pad a problem?

    The flip-flop thing (thongs, they’re called in Australia?) gets to me a lot. It’s not freezing in our classrooms and we spend more time in there than we do out here. And when the heater’s on overdrive, sometimes putting my foot on the tile or linoleum can be a quick cooling method. (Also, changing in to shorts in the bathroom before class.)

    Or when I’m walking across campus without a jacket. Or in shorts. Or in flip-flops. “Aren’t you cold?” There is no answer, unless we’re already inside, in which case it’s “Aren’t you hot?” I don’t have the secret to staying warm when it’s cold out!

  7. I. HATE. THIS.

    Disability is, like, one of the final frontiers. You come out as disabled and the world just freakin’ stops. Even people in the most progressive communities don’t know how to deal with it… Is it because it’s the one marginalization that isn’t just problematic due to social construction (i.e. no matter how we structure society, things like chronic pain are always going to suck) and they don’t know how to address that? Freakin’ LEARN how to address it all ready, people! Yes, having various mental illnesses (as I do) sucks, but the world goes on– the conversation can go on too. Promise.

  8. Sorry for the rant-iness of that previous comment. I realized I should clarify that of course the way society is structured makes being disabled a lot more problematic and that not everything classified as a disability (e.g. Aspberger’s) is necessarily inherently bad.