Athena Stevens is an acclaimed playwright, actor, YouTuber, comedian and human rights activist. In her article for The Mighty, she shares her top-10 list of the most outrageous things she commonly hears as a wheelchair user.
Having a broken leg, a new health issue, or even the onset of arthritis can be a huge wake-up call to just how fragile the human body is. But until you have experienced the systematic discrimination most of us with disabilities have to face every day, please don’t call yourself “disabled.” If you are going to fully recover soon, you don’t have a disability.
2. “We tried to make it accessible.”
After about the age of 7, nobody gets graded on effort. If your event isn’t accessible to people with disabilities, you’re part of the problem. Would you ever host a party where someone couldn’t get in the door because of their race?
3. “You drive that wheelchair really well.”
And you balance on two feet pretty good yourself. It’s always a bit baffling when people are impressed with my ability to drive my chair. Of course I drive it well. I literally have practiced doing it for hours every day. My wheelchair is a part of me at this point; I know exactly what I need to do to get it to move in just the way I need.
4. (When dealing with discrimination.) “Just think of it as life experience.”
Uhh… Sorry. I’ve had loads of life experience and been taught humility many times over. When faced with discrimination it is not my job to chalk it up to “life experience.” Sometimes the life experience I need is standing up for myself, knowing I can help change the world for everyone rather than playing all stoic and chalking up injustice to “life experience.”
5. “I’ve never thought of you as being sexual.”
Just because someone has a disability doesn’t mean that they are any different from you in their hopes, needs, and even desires. We want romance just like you. We enjoy a good snog just like anybody else. If you lead us on, our hearts will be broken. Sure there may be a few more complications and it might take a bit of communication in the bedroom, but that doesn’t mean we are asexual. It is more likely that you are lacking some imagination.
6. “You should be thankful.”
There seems to be an ongoing belief that disability rights are about being nice. We need to build ramps or put electric openers on doors because it is a “nice thing to do for people who need us to be nicer to them.” Nope. That’s not how civil rights work. I have a right to be in a building like a school; that ramp or door opener protects my rights by allowing me access to that facility. Civil rights should never be looked upon as simply a “nice thing to have.”
7. “You inspire everyone.”
Whoa there… That’s a lot of pressure to put on my shoulders. First of all, why do I inspire you? Is it because I work hard, have great ideas and get you excited about life? Fine. Is it because I am disabled and you can’t imagine living life with my condition? Now we have a problem. I don’t have a disability for the sake of being an inspiration to couch potatoes, and being “inspirational” will never be enough compensation for dealing with my condition. I’m not here to smile and make you feel better.
8. “Fill out this form… and this one… and these…”
“‘Please provide proof of your disability.” You mean living with a condition for over three decades isn’t “proof” enough? How about my disabled parking permit? Or the letter my doctor signed last month with the name of my condition and how it affects me? Is the exact same letter he signed last year any better? How about the one from the year before? There is a constant burden on individuals with disabilities to prove they aren’t “faking it.” How about you quit wasting our precious time and energy by figuring out a more effective way to stop scammers?
9. “Sorry, you’ll have to go ’round the back.”
“Going through the back door” is a phrase that can make people cringe for a variety of reasons. For those of us with disabilities, it’s code for “we couldn’t be bothered to really make this place accessible, but you can go in the way we bring the garbage out.” Nice! Accessible entrances need to be clean, clear, and as presentable as would be if the general public was using it. Nobody wants to be demeaned by going through an entrance that’s, to quote “Speechless,” for “people like you… and trash.”
10. “It’s not that simple.”
I find that segregated entrances, objectification and half-hearted attempts at equality is how we are currently choosing to hide the systematic discrimination against persons with disabilities. Just like discrimination against a person because of their race is called “racism,” discrimination towards someone because of their disability is called “ableism.” Ableism is as bad as racism. If you find yourself saying any of the above, stop making excuses: you are part of the problem.
It really is that simple.