There used to be a time when I could simply wheel down a sidewalk or be in a public area and not be harassed. Sure, my wheelchair and I always garnered predictable stares from children and stealthy glances from adults. However, by the time I’d reached my 18th birthday, I treated such rudeness as par for the gimp course. Then, beginning in the 1990’s, an insidious plague spread across America.
Political Correctness, or PC, disguised itself as a way for people from different ethnicities, sexual orientations, or “differing abilities” to comfortably interact. By and large, PC labels were created for groups of people who have been persecuted or marginalized by society. We know all the substitutions by now: “African American,” “LGBTQ+,” “Differently Abled,” etc… Unfortunately, PC turned out to be the quintessential example of a cultural Trojan horse.
Whenever we run across someone who falls outside of what’s considered “normal” we quickly attach a corresponding PC label. But, even with new-fangled branding, we still subconsciously package the old stereotypes with them. Moreover, until we begin treating each person as a unique entity–and not an embodiment of their subculture–nice sounding labels will never change anything. So, PC can be thought of as a cheap mascara applied to society’s blemishes for purposes of mass delusion.
During my 55 years on this planet, there have been many iterations of socially acceptable terms for a person with my condition. I believe the sequence is as follows: gimp, crippled, handicapped, disabled, physically challenged, differently abled. As an aside, “differently abled” is a very weak term because it describes practically everybody.
Do you know how exhausting it is for me to keep up with my latest label? A few years ago, I was having a conversation with a stranger and I referred to myself as handicapped. He quickly cut me off, with a petrified look on his face, and said that the word “handicapped” is offensive. He said to use “physically challenged” instead. Now, “physically challenged” has fallen out of favor for the latest label, “differently abled.”
Personally, I use the word “handicapped” because—given my speech disability—it’s easier for me to pronounce. PC has become an acceptable conduit for labeling. People who don’t fit a “norm” are labeled by people who do. Remember the saying, “Good intentions pave the road to hell.”? Well, here’s my real-life example.
My usual routine is to go to the gym in the morning, have a 90-minute workout, eat lunch out, and come home to write. I’ve been going to a local gym for three decades. Before the days of PC, I could exercise in peace and everything was great. But, these days, people in the gym feel empowered to walk up and label me as an “inspiration” or “courageous.”
At first, the conversations were based upon my, “physical challenge” or, my “racer” wheelchair or, comparably acceptable euphemistic prattling. As people became more emboldened, they’d walk over to my stationary bike, and pat me on the back, while admiring my “determination”, and telling me that they’d rather die than be “confined” to a wheelchair.
How the hell is that supposed to make me feel? Are they really complimenting me or, are they wondering why I don’t put my wheelchair on our nearby train tracks and wait for the next high-speed train to end my suffering?
To a degree, I suppose, how a person acts or responds in a given situation depends mainly upon two factors. First, if they lack essential knowledge surrounding a situation, their decision to avoid or engage rests primarily on each individual’s ability to interact with others. Secondly, within a specific situational construct, previous experience, or lack thereof, determines whether they display aptitude or ignorance.
For example, from an ambulatory person’s perspective, encounters with people in wheelchairs are rare. To them, a “funny” off the cuff remark is useful in lightening a “downtrodden” disabled person’s perceived burden. An ambulatory person thinks he’s said something clever, witty, or uplifting. Unfortunately, to a disabled person’s ears, such remarks are akin to Chinese water torture because they’ve been heard countless times from other ambulatory do-gooders.
Now, I’m not trying to discourage ambulatory people from interacting with me. To the contrary, most of my friends aren’t wheelchair users. Additionally, I have had quite a few productive encounters and discussions with people of the walking ilk. All I’m saying is that when someone comes across a person who uses a wheelchair, they should interact with the human being behind the eyes, not their means of personal transportation.
In an odd way, attractive women suffer from a similar social typecasting. A woman can have degrees and professional certifications yet, if she’s wearing a tight fitting business suit the first thing that her male colleagues notice and, unfortunately, judge her by, are either her breasts or her bottom.
To a lay person, it may seem that I’m making much ado about nothing. So what if some people say stupid things to me? Why can’t I simply slough off these ignorant and insensitive comments and just move on with my life? After all, you may argue, each individual is responsible for their own self-esteem and identity. Shouldn’t I be grateful that people are finally trying to reach out to me?
While you might think these are valid points, I would like to present some current societal examples of how dangerous it is to allow ignorant statements to pervade a culture. We all have a father, uncle, or acquaintance—who grew up in an era before PC was in vogue—that delights the crowd with jokes based on racial or sexual stereotypes. All of these jokes are essentially passing down stereotypes from generation to generation. Unfortunately, people laugh at these jokes not because they want to but because certain stereotypes are so ingrained in our cultural brain that even when we hear offensive humor our impulse is to laugh.
On the surface, these types of jokes seem innocent enough. However, at the root of every joke is a perceived truth. By and large, people aren’t innately cruel and vicious. Children are born innocent and accepting of everyone and everything. We learn to be: ableist, racist, and sexist. Moreover, as long as conversations transfix upon a person’s: wheelchair, cane, guide-dog, attitudes towards disabled people will be slow to evolve.
Fortunately, over time, social constructs are dynamic not static. The first step is to interact with the person, not their external packaging such as a wheelchair or other adaptive device. Once this is accomplished, we can successfully build a bridge in order to organically transform society’s perception towards disabled people. Finally, if you meet a person in a wheelchair, and you want to know more about them, just strike up a conversation–about anything.