I haven’t always used a wheelchair.
I remember listening to a disabled friend who told me, with a smile, that her most hated experience was being asked ‘how she ended up a wheelchair’.
What a princess, man. Seriously. It’s curiosity, right? Surely people have the right to ask ‘the question’, and the right to know. Just natural curiosity about a condition that is unlike your own.
Now I know differently.
It’s a hard thing to explain, the effect of those subtle microaggressions of phrase that cause you to wince over and over and over again. And I’m hyper-aware of the differences in myself since becoming a wheelchair user – I think it’s important to write them down. It's a hard thing to describe, but I'll try.
It feels like this.
One day, a man came up in a shopping centre, apropos of nothing, and slapped me gently in the face. It didn’t hurt, and I laughed.
On the following day, another man came over and slapped me gently in the face. I laughed, but there was an edge to my laughter.
The day after, a man came up to me in a shopping centre and I winced before he slapped me.
On the following day, I stopped making eye contact with men and I wheeled a little faster past them.
Now imagine this. You’re a man, and a woman comes up to you every time you are in the shopping centre and asks, ‘Are you circumcised?’
You might laugh it off, or answer truthfully, or answer flippantly, or ignore the asker. But one day, you’re bound to snap. The imaginary woman isn’t asking other people in the shopping centre if they’re circumcised, and it’s actually none of her business. You feel a little like a dog that is kicked every day – mostly, you’re able to deal with it, but on days that you’re tired, upset, or already angry, you’re going to turn around and bite somebody.
I’ve found myself biting people over and over again. It helps not that I am dealing with a workplace discrimination case, nor that I am a more recent wheelchair user, nor that I have a complicated life. And on the days that I do not bite, I find myself falling into a toxic pattern of learned helplessness. I can’t control what people say to me in a shopping centre, so it is easier to fail to respond or wheel a little faster or refuse to make eye contact when they give the small, sweet smile that says, ‘I am so sorry that you are disabled.’
Learned helplessness. In 1967, the year I was born, a group of scientists discovered that dogs could be conditioned by adverse stimulus which they cannot escape from. Three groups of dogs were placed in harnesses and given electric shocks, and the dogs who learned that they could not do anything to prevent their situation simply lay down passively and whined.
There’s one difference between us and the dogs. Studies show that humans can ‘vicariously learn’ – people can learn to be helpless through observing another person encountering uncontrollable events.
Let’s think about that for a moment. Surely if it is possible for us to learn helplessness, it is possible for us to learn the opposite?
Sure it is. It’s called ‘peer support’ – people with disability watching other disabled people deal with attitudinal barriers with equanimity, dignity and humour.
I’m not sure how we make that happen, the unlearning of helplessness, the taking back of our power to deal with the big and little issues. To end the excruciating pain of powerlessness and support each other to release our capacity and strength and bolshiness.
I want a world where disability is unremarkable and where diversity is accepted. Where we're not helpless, and where a gentle slap in the face doesn't feel like a shocking blow.
“There is no such thing as helplessness. It's just another word for giving up.” ― Jefferson Smith, Strange Places