Things That Make My Life Easier, A Reintroduction (Part 2 of 3)

Part 1 Part 2 — Part 3

In the realm of disability, there is a lot of terminology like: assistive device, accommodation, care services, mobility aid, various sorts of therapy/treatment (physical/behavioral/occupational/speech/etc.); and so forth, about things/people/services which fill various common needs that people with disabilities share. The unfortunate thing about these terms is that they imply particularity to disability. But in truth, these things are not special to disabled people.

What are the needs being met? Things like: mobility and transportation, mental function, physical wellness, self-care. But we do not name the things abled people use to fill those needs as being special to abled people. This is because ability is an unmarked identity. That is, ability is seen as normal. The needs and behaviors surrounding ability fade into invisibility; they are not about ability, they just are. But disability is marked — it is special, notable. It can never just be; it is always about something, always representing and signifying something particular.

Along those lines, consider these examples:

  • When an abled person wears shoes, they are not called “mobility aids.” Shoes are just things that normal people wear to do normal things. But canes, wheelchairs, and braces are special “mobility aids,” rather than just being things that normal people use to do normal things.
  • When an abled person rides in a car, bicycle, or public transportation, they are not using “mobility aids.” They are just using transportation.
  • When an abled person gets their hair cut, the stylist is not called their “personal care assistant.” Only disabled people need assistance with personal care tasks.
  • When an abled person eats a meal cooked for them by someone else — a spouse or parent, a cafeteria or food court, a restaurant — the person preparing the food is not their “personal care assistant,” despite doing for the abled person the same thing PAs do for PWD every day.
  • When an abled person uses a remote control on their television, this is not called an “assistive device.”
  • When an abled person types out words on a plastic board with small key blocks indicating letters of the alphabet while staring at a screen, or speaks words into the bottom area of a plastic-and-metal hand-held electronic device while holding the top to their ear, this is not called “facilitated communication.”
  • When an abled person is put through training at their place of work so that they can learn the tasksĀ  they will be performing for pay, this is not called “occupational therapy” or “vocational therapy.”
  • When an abled person wears a bra, or a jock strap, or any clothing at all, this is not considered in the same category as slings or braces.
  • When an abled person climbs the stairs, they are not considered to be a special device thought up just for abled mobility.
  • When an abled person takes the escalator, they are not considered in the same category as the elevator or wheelchair ramp.

The trend evident here is that there are all sorts of things that help people live their lives. Having help to accomplish things — basic or beyond — is not special to disability. It is a fundamental part of humanity. Our society would not exist without all the little things we do, from products and tools to techniques and tricks to other people and relationships, to help us get through this world a little bit easier.

I want to emphasize this for a reason. A common trope in mainstream discussion on disability is that disabled people are helpless, and abled folk must take on the noble burden of keeping them alive, afloat. Disabled people need help with doing things, and it’s such a pitiable condition to be in, dependent on other people and things to get through life. Abled people pat each other on the back for the strength and courage and sacrifice they make in helping disabled people in their family or community. They often lament that would kill themselves before living as a person who needs help with things! And some of them take their considerable platforms to argue that because disabled people need help with doing things, their lives must not be good-enough-as-they-are, therefore their lives are not worth living at all, and we (the abled world) should withdraw all help and let them all die like they should have done as infants. (No, seriously, if your name is Peter Singer and/or you are the New York Times, this is what you say in all seriousness.)

In short, this idea of help-as-special-to-disability can be dangerous.

This is why I’ve come to like Things That Make My Life Easier: because that’s what they are. They aren’t super-special things that only people with disabilities can use. They aren’t super-special things that only people with disabilities need. They also aren’t things to be ashamed of. It shouldn’t be a hit to anybody’s pride to take shortcuts or to do things in an unconventional way. It shouldn’t be a possible insult to disabled people to associate themselves with icky, pitiable disability, and it also shouldn’t be a point of anxiety for disabled people who have concerns about admitting any sort of dependence or need for help. We can admit that we need things — or even just that those things are nice to have around — without it having to be a referendum on our identity, on our worth as a human being.

Or at least, I’d like it if we were able to!

So some of the things I post about are silly little things. Because they help me. Some of them are things that are particular to my disability — things that an abled person will likely not have to ever deal with, and may not be able to relate to — but that’s part of the human experience. I am a human being; there are other people like me who share these concerns, and they are human too. Part of the human experience is our experience. Because we are human. It shouldn’t have to be repeated like that, but it does. Disabled people have claim on the human experience. We can talk about our experience as disabled people, and it is not only about disability-in-particular, but about humanity itself. No matter how much it flames the insecurities of abled people, this is truth.

Next: An Invitation

Cross-posted: three rivers fog, FWD/Forward, Feministe.

6 thoughts on “Things That Make My Life Easier, A Reintroduction (Part 2 of 3)

  1. This is wonderful. Precisely what I needed to wake up to today!

    A common issue in talking about autism acceptance is the idea that, as you said, the supports an autistic will need are excessive and somehow Very Special and that, for some reason, needing these supports is degrading and makes the autistic less than human. I think it’s rooted in the ableist ideas you address here, and I’ve tried to address them before, but not nearly as well as you have. (And it’s difficult, because autism is apparently, according to some “advocates”, the one dis/ability where human and dis/abled rights and basic dis/ability theory Do Not Apply, which is the main issue.)

    You’ve inspired me to blog more about general dis/ability issues, however, on an autism-specific blog. Which I know I’ve needed to do for a while, but the clarity of this piece really helps crystallize things.

    (Finally, have you read “Critic Of The Dawn” by Cal Montgomery? It says a lot of very similar things very well, and that’s an extended passage towards the middle which tackles the ideas of dependency vs. independence extremely well.)

  2. Such great examples, and such a strong conclusion: “disabled people have claim on the human experience.” Oh yes. Thank you!

  3. The body of this post had me nodding repeatedly, but some of the examples left me confused.

    For example, shoes aren’t called “mobility aids” because most of the time they aren’t actually important for mobility. Most people (able-bodied or otherwise) who wear shoes can move around just as easily without them. In many cases, it would be reasonable for a host to ask visitors to remove their shoes — but it would be pretty unreasonable to tell them to put down canes or remove braces.

    Similarly, it is perfectly justifiable for a city to put up a “no cars allowed” sign on a park – or even a “no bicycles allowed” sign – but definitely not a “no wheelchairs allowed” sign.

    We all have things that make our lives easier. But sometimes the ethical implications of denying those things differ.

    In the above two cases, I wouldn’t say that the devices in question should be socially equivalent in terms of perceived “specialness” – I would say that the shoes, cars, and bicycles should be viewed as more exceptional (“special”?) because they are less necessary.

    The stairs/elevator example seems to match the general point most clearly, because both are tools for accomplishing the same purpose, but stairs are taken for granted while elevators are arbitrarily framed as “special.”

    Maybe I’ve diverged from the topic. If so, I’m sorry.

  4. To add to your list, most people don’t consider the pills I take everyday significant, much less essential, but take any of those away and I can’t function. They are almost never seen and frequently dismissed or diminished when I discuss them, but those pills are the difference between me getting out of bed and me not moving.
    However many other people take vitamins, supplements, and other voluntary pills, drinks, etc, choices which are held up by the mainstream culture as good, essential, and wise.

  5. When I was still abled, I thought seriously about getting a reacher to go to the grocery store. At 5’2, I could not consistently reach items on the top shelf, and often had to ask for help. The only reason I ended up sticking with asking for help rather than purchasing an aid like a reacher/grabber was cost. At that point, the cost of the reacher/grabber was high enough to make the need to request assistence seem like the lesser burden.

    But I do remember that – the fact that I, as a healthy, abled person, wanted to use an assistive device because things were arranged in a way that I could not get to them.


  6. This post totally rocked. I love it. Gonna bookmark it. Very educational for the masses. (How can I get it to the masses?!)

    Also, IMO, shoes can be mobility devices — depends what kind of shoes and what you’re walking on. If you’re walking on hot pavement or gravel, you need something to protect your feet. In some situations, you might need boots, etc. I mention this not to argue, but just to point out one of the things I like so much about this post — situationality. It’s all about the context.

    As far as signs banning vehicles: One of my favorite places to go (almost the only place I ever do go!) is a pond/wilderness area near my home. At the front gate is a sign that says, “No motorized vehicles beyond this point.” We make jokes about my being illegal there, cuz I use a powerchair. Sometimes I see people looking irritated when they hear me powering up, not knowing it’s a chair, and then when I come into view, they get that OOPS “look” on their face, which can be fun.

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