As disabled people we’ve all been there. You’re getting on with life, caught up in the stream of what you’re doing, what you’re thinking, what’s going on. Then, from out of nowhere, some non-disabled person imposes themselves on your consciousness and brings back home to you the fact that there’s an enormous gulf between the self-you-think-you-are and the self-they-think-you-are. You’re busy relating to yourself as a complex, multi-faceted individual. They see you as someone whose most significant characteristic is that you’ve got something ‘wrong’ with you.
Like when Sarah, a young woman who’s a wheelchair user with cerebral palsy, went to a restaurant with her boyfriend, who’s also a wheelchair user, and had the occasion spoiled not only by the gazes of the other customers but by the waitress who expressed surprise that they didn’t have a ‘carer’ to accompany them.
Like when I had shown an official from the Sports and Arts Foundation to the building where his next meeting was at, and he reached into his pocket, drew out a pound and said “Here you are, son… Buy yourself some chocolate.”
Like when Donald, a blind man, was waiting to meet me at Chalk Farm tube station, standing having a cigarette, and a passer-by came up to tell him “You’re at Chalk Farm tube station,” and walked away again.
We’re taken aback at what’s been said and at the assumptions being made about us. It’s disconcerting, annoying, upsetting, and can be temporarily confusing as we try to figure out where they’re coming from and how to respond. It’s difficult, because often while the words themselves haven’t actually been intended to be offensive, the layers of meaning that underlie them carry a weight of oppression. Yet it is during encounters like these, in the flow and flux of life, that each of us has to choose who we are and who we want to become.
We know that many disabled people internalise the values which oppress them and end up identifying their own embodiment as the cause of the unwelcome intrusions and banal comments they receive. It’s tempting to try and distance yourself from your impairment, to try and act as if this is something of minor significance to your life experience or something you’ve transcended. Alternatively, it’s possible to affirm impairment as a core part of who you are, and to scorn the oppression manifested in the microaggressions encountered in everyday life.
This isn’t something that happens all the time, but it happens often enough to have an impact on how we are able to relate to ourselves. It’s very easy when we tend to experience these things as individuals to imagine that they happen because of who we are as individuals. The point of trying to draw together lots of stories is to be able to reveal something about the social nature of our experiences.
This website provides an opportunity to share your stories about disabling encounters. What happened? What sense were you able to make of what happened? What impact did it have on you going forward? The more we talk about these things, the better prepared we’ll be to understand and challenge them when they happen in future.
Everyday Disablism has been initiated by disabled activists, Dr Colin Cameron, Maggie Cameron and Andy Fletcher, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. It is inspired by the Everyday Sexism project developed by Laura Bates.