I used to do physiotherapy at a local pool. It wasn’t official — a qualified friend had offered to help me while the insurance company was dragging their heels over how many sessions I could do per year.
After a few months, I’d been there often enough that my wheelchair, tattoos and unfashionable-for-the-time beard were no longer attracting attention, so I was surprised one evening to see a guy giving me odd looks. I didn’t know what his deal was — I’m not good at reading looks — but something was on his mind.
I was changing into my street clothes when he approached me and, vaguely waving at my tattoos said:
“…what?” I replied
“Motorbike accident. The wheelchair… do you need it because of a motorbike accident?”
“…no… no I didn’t have a motorbike accident.”
“Oh. Weird… I just thought… the tattoos and all…”
That wasn’t the last time I’d hear that. It happens to this day: people see beard + tattoos + wheelchair and they try to bond with me by showing they recognize my motorbike past. And it’s not the only assumption that I’ve heard. “Car accident,” “multiple sclerosis,” “stroke” and (bizarrely) “bar fight” round out the top five.
There are also social assumptions. For example, “all wheelchair users are unemployed,” which I’ve heard a few times while occupying the designated wheelchair space on a commuter bus. Once, a passive-aggressive pair of passengers loudly discussed how terrible it was that I was taking up space during rush hour instead of waiting till after 9 a.m.* Another time, I was directly confronted and called a selfish @#$% for that same reason. “Why the %$#@ are you even on the bus?!? Stay home!”
How about these: “wheelchair users can’t have kids,” “wheelchair users can’t have sex,” and “the person that wheelchair user is talking to must be their carer”? Or “if we hire this wheelchair user, we’ll have to hire a carer”?
I have never ridden a motorbike, I’ve been employed or self-employed since I was 15, I could have kids, and I’ve never had a carer.** People’s assumptions don’t change those truths or affect my identity. That doesn’t mean they’re entirely without impact.
Assumptions about why I use a wheelchair have the least impact on me personally. People usually verbalize them because they’re trying to make a connection (“My aunt was in a motorbike accident”) or prove their detective skills (“I’m like the Nancy Drew of disabilities”). That’s a conversation-starter, if I’m in the mood.
However, if they’re drawing conclusions about how I’ve lived my life and what level of sympathy I deserve, that can be a different story. I’ve had some stern conversations with healthcare professionals who decided I was “to blame” for my physical state.
Assumptions about the level of care I need or my strength and endurance levels lead to ableist decisions about my employability or ability to participate in social events. My ability to teach English was called into question based on my use of a wheelchair. I didn’t even know how to answer that absurd question.
Hearing all the things people have thought about me over the years hasn’t broken my self-image — but it could have under other circumstances. I have nothing but empathy for any person with disabilities who’s been shaken by such experiences. It’s not a sign of weakness. Those commuter bus and job interview situations deeply upset me at the time. Not being seen as a viable partner is hurtful when you’re single. I couldn’t quickly laugh them off and I was lucky enough to have an online community of wheelchair users at the time.*** Their empathy really helped.
Ultimately, I’m actually glad that I’ve experienced all that “other people’s nonsense”. It taught me a lot about the insidious interactions of assumptions and identity.
People make socially impactful assumptions about Veronica — about her mental and emotional state, her health, her employability, her intentions. Drawing on my 20+ years of dealing with ableist assumptions, I feel better able to tackle that impact — to listen to her with empathy, to realize they can hurt, to speak up with her (or for her if she asks), to help push back, to be a better ally.
And it’s not just the ableist assumptions that help me. There are also 40+ years of hearing other ideas about who I am (man, geek, nerd, gay, tall, Irish…) and what that means.
If you’re ever struggling to empathize with someone who’s feeling hurt, victimized or rejected because of assumptions, just scratch the surface of your own memory. I’m sure you won’t have to dig too deep to find resonant experiences. If you can do that, I guarantee it’ll make you an even stronger ally.
*Quite a few women I know have experienced similar treatment when they were commuting while pregnant or taking their kids to daycare before going to work.
**I shouldn’t have to say it, but just in case: those are just neutral facts about me. I’m not better for not having had a carer. I’m not special for having been employed. My fertility isn’t a unique value proposition.
***I miss the Apparelyzed community so much. The forum closed a couple of years ago.
Credit where it’s due: Bwahahahahaha comes from Keith Giffen and John Marc DeMatteis’ run on DC Comics’ Justice League International.
So true that it takes simply scratching the surface of our own experiences to empathize with others.
The added benefit to looking beyond the surface (in ourselves and others) is that our relationships are so much more interesting and enriching, even satisfying. ❤