Jan. 17th, 2012

Disability is sort of like greatness. No, no, stay with me here for a moment. To paraphrase Shakespeare, some people are born disabled, some achieve disability, and some have disability thrust upon them. The one constant throughout for the people with these disabilities is the low expectations that non-disabled people have for them. I’m not speaking here of the countless fawning, gushing articles about people with disabilities who have achieved something truly remarkable, like going up Mount Everest (I don’t care if you ARE able-bodied, that would still be quite the achievement), but of the way people who are non-disabled are so inspired by seeing us out in public.

For instance, a Deafblind friend of mine regularly gets told she’s inspiring, for such awesome accomplishments as going out to coffee with a friend. Another friend of mine, who uses a wheelchair, inspired a passer-by when she valiantly hailed a taxi. Other people have similar stories of getting starry-eyed, goopy looks from the non-disabled who admire them as they heroically shop for cheese. Just this weekend a total stranger told me how great it was to see me working my service dog. I was shopping for beads.

All I can say about this is “Are you people really this easy to impress?” Seriously? If you’re inspired because I’m buying cheese, you really need to raise the bar. Instead of being floored by the amazingness of me working with a service dog, be impressed by the fact that I’ve devoted hundreds of hours to training dogs, including my service dog. Going out and getting coffee, hailing a taxi, getting up in the morning and getting dressed and going to work -- why are you being inspired by something you non-disabled types do all the time? Putting on your own clothes is an achievement when you’re two. By the time you’re an adult, and have done it thousands upon thousands of times, it is no longer so damn impressive that it requires total strangers to congratulate us on our ability to do it.

I cannot deny that some of us had to struggle to learn things that you non-disabled people take for granted. Sometimes it takes us longer to do these things, sometimes we do them differently than you would. Believe me, we didn’t learn our work-arounds because we’re exceptionally clever and determined to overcome our disabilities in a fashion guaranteed to astound and inspire every non-disabled person we encounter. We learned our work-arounds because like most people we experience an essential laziness -- why struggle to do something just like the non-disabled do, when that doesn’t work for us? Why expend more effort than we absolutely must? Do you go out of your way to tie your shoes in a fashion that frustrates you? Didn’t think so.

What it all comes down to, what I’m asking you to actually do here, is to give people with disabilities some credit for being functional adult human beings. Stop being so damn easily inspired that every time a disabled person leaves the house, you fall all over yourselves to congratulate us. Heartlessly, I must tell you that we don’t actually care about your approval, and in fact you have a tendency to disrupt a perfectly pleasant outing for us and add nothing but aggravation. You interrupt our conversations with friends, you crash into our contemplations on the best variety of cheese to use for dog training, you charge into our lives with sappy smiles on your faces and coo about how inspirational we are and then stand there, expectantly, waiting for some kind of response.

I never know quite what you’re looking for. Some kind of deferential gratitude for your interruption of my day to shovel your approval onto me without regard for whether I give a damn how much you’re inspired by my dairy product purchasing behavior? A chirpy agreement that indeed, it is very inspirational that I’m standing here in front of this refrigerated case trying to decide if generic extra-sharp cheddar will be more motivational for my dog than generic mild cheddar? My coping tactic, developed over the past year, is to flick a brief glance at the inspiree without making eye contact and to say “Thanks” without interrupting my activities. It’s better than my previous response of staring at the person like a deer in the headlights, because I’ve found that making eye contact just encourages intrusive questions about my body and my service dog and how they work together. It’s probably better for the inspiree than the gut reaction which I always have to choke back, which is “Go away” or possibly “WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?”

And yes, I do understand that they mean well, which is what non-disabled people explain to me every time I complain about the way being a cripple seems to mean that the non-disabled have carte blanche to interrupt my life and be inspired at me. I just happen to feel that “they mean well” is not a good reason, mostly because the unspoken second half of that is “but they just weren’t thinking about how intrusive and annoying their behavior is.” Nor, I would posit, are the non-disabled thinking about just how bizarre they sound, when they approach us and interrupt our lives to explain how inspiring they find us.

Aim higher, non-disabled people. Aim higher. People of all ability levels are achieving things every day that are jaw-droppingly awesome, feats that require skill, perseverence, determination, heart and will. I’ll even make it easy for you: here’s a list of people who have summitted Everest. I assure you it took a lot more effort for the most able-bodied climber on that list to reach the top of that mountain than it did for your average cripple to get out of bed and get out to visit with friends or purchase dairy products. Stop patronizing us by implying that there’s any equivalency.

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January 2012

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