There we were, on the dance floor, feeling slightly conspicuous. Drunk enough not to care, but conscious that we were in our forties (in my case, late forties) and far older than most of the twenty somethings on the dance floor. We danced at the outskirts – me in my wheelchair, my three friends in a group around me.
It’s a different thing, dancing when you’re older. You’re not dancing to please anyone but yourself. If you’re with friends, you’re dancing with wild-woman abandon, uninhibitedly, to celebrate your friendship and your own joy in the moment. There are those casual encounters with strangers, a shared dance, a conversation, but mostly it is about the music and the dance and the celebration of being alive.
We’d been there for a whole twenty minutes. And then it happened.
A young woman in a crop top and sneakers danced over to us, attracting every male gaze along the way. She saw me, made a beeline for me, and held her hands out to me, palms up. ‘High five!’ she said brightly. And I could do nothing but put my hands up to slap hers and keep a straight face until she danced away, smiling.
My friends were shocked and astounded.
‘That was a cripple high five,’ I said. It doesn’t happen often, the cripple high five, but I’m increasingly used to weird interactions with strangers. It happens all the time – not every day, but often enough to make more of an impact than it should. It doesn’t surprise me anymore, but it inevitably leaves me feeling humiliated. It’s a sign of condescension, of pity, of a misguided and patronising kindness that makes me want to crawl away and never, ever emerge from my home again.
‘Why did she do that?’ asked Peta over the music, eyes wide. She’s a disability activist who spends a lot of time around other disabled friends, including people who are far more visually different than I am. She’s watched weird interactions time and time again – it was a rhetorical question. We laughed a little. My friends apologised for the young woman, which amused me no end.
It took about fifteen minutes for it to happen again.
This time, a young woman approached Peta. ‘I have a cousin like that.’
‘Do you mean that she has red hair?’ Peta asked, knowing exactly what she meant.
‘No, she’s mentally disabled,’ the young woman replied. Peta asked her if her cousin used a wheelchair.
‘No, she’s mentally disabled,’ she repeated, looking confused. Clearly a change of tack was required, so she changed course. ‘It’s so sad that your friend is in a wheelchair,’ she said. Peta looked at her. ‘Why?’ she asked, and was met with a blank stare.
The young woman extricated herself from the situation quickly and turned to me.
‘Are you having a good time?’ she asked.
This is our online catch cry for Patronising Bastards. Always in capitals, because it’s rare that people don’t shriek at you (if you’re disabled you’re probably also hard of hearing, you see). You need to resort to humour, or you’d be drowning in despair. We use it often.
ARE YOU HAVING A GOOD TIME?IT’S SO GOOD TO SEE YOU OUT!GOOD FOR YOU!
My other two friends, less accustomed to condescending attitudes towards disabled people, were visibly shocked. So when the next person wandered over, smiling broadly at me, I could see Protective Girlfriend Mode being violently switched to ‘on’. This was never going to end well.
This was a young man who thumbs-upped in my face, clearly delighted to see me ‘getting out into the community’. ‘What is WRONG with you?’ one friend said. He looked confused. After all, he was just being kind. But nobody was thrusting upraised thumbs into my other friends’ faces, nor high fiving them, nor smiling pityingly at them on the dance floor. He was just being kind, but he was being kind because I am disabled.
Peta resorted to snark. ‘Would you like to give her a drink?’ she asked, and handed him my empty glass and water bottle. And he dutifully poured it and handed it to me whilst my friends laughed and gaped behind him.
When he eventually wandered off, he looked slightly bewildered.
As I said, it’s not unusual. But this night was unusual. In just under four hours, we counted nineteen instances of condescension and by the end of the night, we were unanimously discomfited.
What I wasn’t prepared for was how the barrage of micro aggressions made me feel.
Even surrounded by a posse of supportive women, I felt as though I had been slapped in the face nineteen times. Those misguided, well-meaning interactions weren’t born of any conscious desire to treat me differently, but they stung more than any personal slight. In their eyes, I was no longer a woman, or even an old woman. I wasn’t a slightly drunk person with a raucous laugh, nor a woman who you might make passing comment to without asking intrusive questions. I was an object of pity and charity and I was their good deed for the night. And every single time I was metaphorically slapped, my head dropped, my smile faded, I became bowed under the weight of my humiliation.
Cripple high five.
I have a cousin like that.
It’s so sad she can’t walk.
Thumbs up for being out in public.
Inappropriate hand kiss.
Personal unsolicited cripple lap dance from a boy young enough to be my son.
Over and over.
And this is at the heart of it all, isn’t it? The soft bigotry of low expectations is directly related to that perception that we are less than human, pitiable creatures. Those charities and that media that perpetuate those stereotypes about disabled people have a lot to answer for. It’s why we can’t get jobs, why disabled people find it hard to make friends or have relationships, why we’re not seen as anything but other. The head-patters and patronisers have learned their lesson of unconscious bias well.
Those pervasive attitudes are more damaging than any lack of a ramp. I understand wholly why one disabled friend has a framed, cross stitched sampler on her wall that reads, ‘I hate people.’
There’s not a lot we can personally do to change those deep seated attitudes across Australia. It takes a long time to create systemic change. And part of why we lobbied so vehemently for the National Disability Insurance Scheme was so we could be IN the world, working alongside non-disabled people for regular wages in regular workplaces, living in ordinary houses with ordinary neighbours and growing up with our non-disabled peers in inclusive education environments so that people would find disability as unremarkable as eye or hair colour.
I don’t think that change is going to come in my lifetime, because ableist attitudes are too entrenched. But I fervently hope that a day comes where the Cripple High Five is a thing of the past.
Image description - a packed dance floor in a night club