If Only Everyone Was George Takei

George Takei. If you’re not on his Facebook page, you need to be. George is witty, thoughtful and passionate – especially about human rights issues. George didn’t come out til he was an older guy, but his work in the gay rights movement has been outstanding.

As of today, George Takei’s Facebook page has 7,425,539 likes.

And today I liked him even more.

A week ago, Takei shared this meme. Unfortunately, I missed it.

Today he posted this incredibly thoughtful apology.

‘I’ve just come back from an extended trip to England, and I came home to a large number of fan emails concerning a meme I shared more than a week ago. In that meme, a woman in a wheelchair was standing up to reach for a bottle of liquor in the store, and the caption said something about a miracle in the alcohol aisle. To this I added a quip about her being touched by the holy spirits.

I did not expect the level of offense this meme caused. I had naturally just thought of those movies where the evangelical preacher miraculously cures someone who was disabled. What I’d never really considered before so many fans wrote in is how that portrayal of disabled persons is filled with ignorance and prejudice—two things I never want to promote, even inadvertently.

Now, before all of you go and start defending my right to post what I want, I want first to thank the many fans who wrote in with the hopes of educating me on the question of “ableist” bias. While I did not ever mean to suggest by sharing the meme that all people in wheelchairs cannot walk, or that they don’t need them despite the fact that they can stand on their own from time to time, I have taken the fan mail and criticism to heart.

After I’d posted the meme, I noted in the comments an inordinate amount of very uncivil behavior on the part of many fans, including both those who demanded I take it down and those who said I should leave it up. I also received a good deal of email IN CAPITAL LETTERS asking me if I would feel the same way if someone called me FAG or a JAP. Now, I took down the meme from my timeline shortly after it went up, but I admit I was decidedly irked by the tenor of some of those criticizing me. In that moment, I posted a follow up telling fans that perhaps they should “take it down—a notch” which, in retrospect, was not the most sensitive response.

The fact that I was surprised by the response the wheelchair meme received indicates that I do indeed lack knowledge, and some sensitivity, over what is clearly a hot button issue, and that I and others can take this as an opportunity not to dig in, but rather to open up to the stories and experiences of those in the disabled community. I appreciate those who took the time to write in. I wish I’d had the chance to respond sooner, but until today I was not able to go through all the mail I’d received.

So to those who were hurt by my posts on this issue, I ask you please to accept this apology. To those who think I shouldn’t have to apologize, I want to remind you that I get to decide what I apologize for, so there’s no need to come to my defense.

Very well then, carry on, friends. Carry on.’

And as of this minute, 45,487 have liked the post, and 1,235 people have shared it. But…then there are the comments.

Let me clarify something. This woman in the picture could well have been me. I mean, it would be me with a far trimmer rear end, a new hairstyle and a decidedly hospital grade wheelchair. But I can stand. I can walk. I didn’t break my neck. Nothing is paralysed.

I have a condition called limb girdle muscular dystrophy, and it could well have been me in the bottle shop. For a start, the woman is reaching for the stuff on the top shelf. Yeah, baby.

But the comments – there are comments beneath Takei’s post, despite his considered response, that make me understand WHY I drink. Comments like this.

Wow!!!! Get a life folks!!! I thought it was pretty goddamn funny George!!

Butthurt (repeat this witty comment x 1000 times)

Seriously ! it seems no matter what you do someone somewhere will take offence, and to them I say GET OVER IT! for god sake realize humor is not always kind, yet you laugh and i don't think it was in very bad taste, there are many frauds out there sitting in wheel chairs, I have a great , but sad story that emphasizes that very thing, George Takei you don't need to apologize to anyone ! And I don't have the time to retell that story... About a one legged black woman and her wheel chair in Vegas.

It must get tiring having to live politically correct. To the people "educating" George, kiss off and get a life. Half the disabled people I know are full if shit, just lazy and want pills. There, now give me crap cause I dont care.

And then there was this.

(Picture of a hamster, with the words ‘Ableism? Cic? I laugh at your made up words. You betas, manginas, thuglovers and alphacock carousel riding feminazis are hilarious’

About five percent of the comments were from people who thought that Takei was right to apologise, and thanked him for doing so. A percentage of others just loved Takei, but well over sixty percent of people thought those disabled people just needed to lighten up. They didn’t find it offensive at all, and didn’t think anyone else had the right to be offended.

Takei, as a gay man (and a man who had Japanese parents) understands microaggressions, the type I wrote about a few months ago here. But he's not disabled. Takei looked at this meme, like the rest of the world did, and he laughed. If I looked at it, I would have seen it differently.

This is what I would have seen. This is what I would have remembered.

I would have remembered every time that someone jumped when I moved my foot or stood or leaned far over and looked at me, wondering, speculating. Because all people in wheelchairs have a spinal cord injury…if you can walk, why do you use a wheelchair? Are you a fraud?

I would have thought about the conference I co presented at last month, and the incredible upset and hurt that I felt when a colleague told me that his co-worker had asked ‘Can she do a standing transfer?’ The equivalent of me asking of an able bodied male presenter – ‘Is he circumcised?’ All of a sudden, you are reduced to being not regarded as a professional, nor an advocate, nor a speaker – you are reduced to a disability, a body in a chair.

I would have remembered that it is getting harder for me to stand, and that when I get up from the ground, I need to straighten my legs and ‘ladder’ my hands up my thighs to get up. And that sometime in the future, I will not be able to stand up at all.

I would have thought about the lack of understanding and lack of caring that led to me losing my job, because there was not a place for me to piss at my workplace that was close to my office.

I would have remembered the daily speculation, the lack of understanding, the perception that people with disability are ‘slackers and slouchers’ who do not work and who bludge off the government. That’s the message sent by the meme. It’s an insidious one, one that is creeping into our media every day and into the minds and hearts of the masses. In May of this year, this headline hit the Daily Telegraph –

(A newspaper headline ‘NSW DSP Recipients: 270,415 Nations War Wounded: 226,016 – Slackers and Slouch Hats)

And I would have thought about the number of disabled friends who have told me that it will take 'one more thing' - one more check to see if you are 'still disabled', one more fight, one more slur, one more hurtful word - for them to enact their 'exit plan'.

It wears you down, eventually, that ableism. I wonder, too, if the experiences of other marginalised groups aren’t so different. The speculation about your sex life, the perception that a child should have a mother and a father, the questions to an Australian person of Asian descent about ‘where you come from – no, where you ACTUALLY come from?’

It’s not about political correctness, it is about thoughtfulness, and it is about respect.

If only everyone was George Takei.

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