My mom and I were in the store when it happened. It wasn’t the first time and it wouldn’t be the last, unfortunately. It was a common occurrence, “par for the course” as they say. An acquaintance of my mother (my mom’s real friends know better) had walked over to us and started a conversation with us. Just normal things until she switched the conversation to kids, she looked and my mother and asked “what subject does she like most in school?” Despite standing right beside my mother, despite having been introduced to me by my mother, despite the fact I had nodded quite attentively to what she had yammered on about, she decided to ignore my presence and address the question to my mother. For most abled people, this may seem like a momentary slip up in decorum, but for disabled people this is all to familiar: proximity to disabled bodies are confused with authority over them.
This is a larger problem than many able-bodied allies realize. When it comes to creating policies, starting the planning process or creating spaces for inclusion, too often, the voices of disabled people are overridden by those of abled allies with mere relational proximity to someone disabled. Where feminists see all-male panels on women’s inclusion in executive spaces, the same happens with disabled people and their able-bodied allies. To be true to the mission of disability inclusion it requires that you think of yourself as a vessel to pass along what those in the disabled community has expressed rather than being our voice. Taking up space in advocacy on for a marginalized group is a privilege; one that you can wield to make the public sphere more inclusive or one you can use to center yourself. Ally-ship requires you to do the former, anything else is a performance.
As well as frustrating disabled people, taking up space to speak instead of disabled people is ableism in itself. We are constantly being infantilized well into adulthood and speaking for disabled people reinforces that stereotype in the public consciousness. It also spreads the idea that we aren’t autonomous, are unable to give consent and aren’t knowledgeable about the factors that affect our lives. Before social media and online networking, there were little-to-no examples of disabled people we could look to as examples of what it meant to age into adulthood. What little space we had was overpowered by ableist narratives and the relatives and caretakers of disabled people. I hate to have to tell you (no I don’t), but the authorities on disabled people are disabled people.
No matter how close you are to a disabled person, you cannot completely know what it means to be disabled or experience the world and its people in a disabled body. There’s no way around it. You may bear witness to our daily lives and still not know what it is like to live as us. That’s why you immerse yourself in the words of the disabled people you care about and educate yourself with the work of disabled advocates. If you’re worried about a disabled person not being able to advocate for themselves when you’re not around, then talk about it. Have that difficult conversation and follow the advice on fostering self-advocates.
When sharing information about us, make sure you point to sources or specific disabled people who can expand upon it. Essentially, pass the mic. Because, no matter the way we walk, talk, communicate, no matter the medication we take, what our bodies decide to do, or what mobility device we use, disabled people will always be the first and last authority on disabled people.
So, what did my mom do each and every time an able-bodied person acted like I wasn’t there? She would smile the smile of a thousand black women trying not to turn the person before them to ash, nod to me and say, “she’s right here, you ask HER.”
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