Reflections

If Only Your Stare Meant You Actually See Disabled People

I can feel your gaze. If you think you’re being slick, you’re not. I don’t even have to look in your direction, I caught your head on a swivel from the moment you heard me coming. Am I odd to you? What is the story you’re concocting in your head about me? What will you take from me? What assumptions are you making? Are you using my body to pull yourself out of your mediocrity? Did you get the motivation you needed? Is this when you’ll get to know my name? Will you even ask? Or will you demand even more? Will you demand to know what’s “wrong” with me? Will you yell at me; tell me I’m faking? Will you pull out your camera? How many likes do you think you’ll get? Followers? Words of encouragement? Will you pray over me? In front of all these strangers? I wonder how many will get to see it, will it go viral? Will you even get to know me, or do I exist as just an idea to you that you can use and discard at your convenience?

If you think I can’t possibly feel your gaze or this is all in my head, you’d be wrong. I’ve felt it before from others like you. I’ve felt odd in places where I’ve wanted to seem normal and I’ve walked with a cacophony of sound when I’ve wanted to exist in silence. I’ve listened as people have copied and pasted what they’ve viewed on tv and film and applied it to my life like that’s the only story they’re willing to hear. I’ve complied as people commissioned miracles on sidewalks so everyday sinners could be seen as saints. And, I’ve answered invasive questions about my body in public, so I could just move on with my day.

staring man
man staring into camera

But what would happen if you stopped staring and actually made an effort to see people like me? What if, instead of calling me an inspiration, you asked yourself why it is so rare for disabled people to be seen in the spaces you frequent? What if you took a critical eye to a society that ostracizes and isolates disabled people rather than picking and choosing only our successes, triumphs and daily wins and using them to fuel your own success story while discarding of us.

For the amount of time we are under the abled gaze, we should be further along in terms of accessibility, healthcare and inclusion, but when abled people are only focused on how disabled people might be of service to their own story, a barrier is created. While other marginalized groups have the ability to access the public sphere and represent themselves, disabled people are still begging. Society likely knows less about us due to media representations because they’re informed by how abled people see disability rather than allowing us to represent ourselves. The abled gaze can lie because it conflates the observation of disability with knowing what it’s like to live as a disabled person.

I wish people could see us. I wish people knew about the discrimination, the forced institutionalization, the inability to marry, the bigotry, the death threats, the violence, the sexual assaults, the police brutality, the invasive questions, the mockery, the inaccessibility and the fact we’re forgotten until the last minute possible. I wish people could actually see this, because the people we need to help us most are too busy staring and failing to do.

*If you identified with, learned from or enjoyed this piece, please consider pledging to my Patreon to keep this work going.

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