Severely Belated Blogging Against Disablism: In which I over-analyse an uncomfortable incident at the grocery store
One of the reasons I'm late writing anything is that until I'd read other people blogging against disablism I didn't quite have the framework to talk about what was so uncomfortable and why that might have been. So take this as the thoughts of someone who's in the middle of a learning experience and writing about it as a way of trying to get it.
So I'm at the grocery store and as I come into the cleaning products aisle there's a guy in a wheelchair at the far end trying to reach the Comet. It's quite an effort because the Comet is up pretty high, and on top of that, the bottom shelf is quite a bit wider than the other shelves, so he has to reach not only way up, but way over. He manages to just brush it with his fingertips, knock it over, and then catch it as it falls. As I pick up my laundry detergent and head down the aisle, I see that he's still in front of the bathroom cleaners, kindof craning his head back and frowning.
Now at this point I should mention that I'm short. Not ultra-short, but short enough that the only thing in the world that seems to built with people my height in mind is economy-class seating on airlines. If you see me in front of some tall shelves in a store kindof craning my neck back and frowning, it means I want something from the top shelf, and I'm wondering (1) how long will it be before someone walks by who's taller than me so I can ask them for help, and (2) if nobody comes by in a reasonable amount of time, are these shelves sturdy enough that I can risk trying to climb them.
So I go up to the guy and say, hey can I reach something for you. He says no thanks, it was Comet he was after, but he was reading the labels to see if anything else looked better. I say no problem, Comet's pretty much the best anyway.
In a perfect world untainted by crappy -isms, he would have said have a nice day, and I would have said same to you, and we would have gone our separate ways and that would have been that.
In the real world, he launched into profuse thanks (using words like "charity") for noticing him and offering to help and I felt really uncomfortable because I thought I was just being neighborly and there was really nothing special about it - just one person who sometimes has trouble reaching things trying to help out someone else having the same problem. But I couldn't figure out how to say so without sounding really insensitive. I mean, if I can't reach, I can climb the frakking shelves.
And then he just wanted to talk (about the relative merits of different cleaning products, the weather, and other non-threatening topics), and told me his name and wanted to know mine, and so we talked about various things, and then on top of the discomfort I was already feeling, I started feeling a much more familiar discomfort that caused me to gesture a lot in ways that the ring S. gave me would look prominent, and try to find a way to end the conversation, which was harder than you might expect because he started thanking me for taking the time to talk to him.
So, lessons learned so far, if any?
1. I blame the patriarchy for being unable to enjoy a conversation with a stranger, just because he's a man. It's quite possible I just missed out on making a new friend. It's just that it's happenned too many times before, where I'm just being (I think) polite and friendly, and then I have to shake off an "I'm entitled to some pussy or at least your phone number because you talked to me" asshole, and I'm pretty much permanently suspicious.
2. I blame my own unconscious attitudes about people with disabilities for a lot f the discomfort that happened. There's got to be a way of expressing "I sometimes can't reach stuff, and you sometimes can't reach stuff, so I feel solidarity with you right now" while still being sensitive to how incredibly lucky I am, finding a way around my privileged attitude.
3. Worse than (2), it seems that I bought into the popular notion that people with disabilities are asexual. I would never have stopped to help a man who didn't have a visible disability who was frowning at the cleaning products - see (1).
4. While I've had some periods of temporary mobility limitations due to my bad knee, I didn't realize just how privileged I am to have a body that functions fairly well most of the time, until I had that conversation, and started reading through the Blogging Against Disablism posts. Not only can I climb the shelves if I have to, I am also fortunate in:
- I have never felt self-conscious about asking for help or having someone offer to help me. If I need a hand reaching something, lifting something, holding a door because my hands are full, or whatever, I ask for help, someone helps me, I say thank you, they say you're welcome, and that's that. I would never even think the word "charity", let alone say it.
- People talk directly to me, not the person I'm with. I've never even considered thanking someone for just talking to me.
Clearly I have a long way to go in learning and understanding and shedding all the subtle and not-so-subtle prejudices and mental sets related to disablism. But this blogging event is a really good first step for me and for other people like me who are so privileged they don't even know what privilege is.