Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Appropos of Nothing

A while back, I posted my incredulousness that a woman was more perturbed that an upcoming surgery might paralyze her than the notion that whatever the surgery was for might kill her.

Well, I watch a lot of science, nerdy type shows. In fact, my suggestions list on my TiVo is full of astronomy specials, history channel specials, and Extreme Engineering (Sky City sounds way cool, and is likely the future of cities).

At one point, I saw a special about a woman who had been born with a condition that required her to have both legs amputated at a very early age. It was...meh. There are lots of more interesting things out there, but when there's nothing else on, there's nothing else on.

Then I saw a preview for some upcoming shows that featured the same woman, who gets around by pushing herself on a skateboard.

She says, "I couldn't imagine being confined to a wheelchair."

Putting aside my issues with the phrase "confined to a wheelchair" for a bit, I have to boggle at that comment. What on earth would the difference be between using a skateboard for mobility and a wheelchair, besides eighteen inches or so?

But, I mean, really, how ingrained in our culture must this notion of wheelchair=bad be for someone who already uses alternative means of transportation (a means that, one could argue, is more unusual-looking than using a wheelchair) to reject it out of hand?

Further googling led to a few people who reacted to the documentary with admiration -- she can drive a car! She has a job! How amazing that she doesn't "allow" herself to be convinced to use a wheelchair!


Here's a bit of logic for you.

A wheelchair is a four-wheeled device upon which one sits. One propels oneself either manually or with electronic assistance. One uses it to get from one place to another. One does face the inconvenience of being at stomach-level with most people without disabilities.

A skateboard is a four-wheeled device upon which one generally stands, but upon which the aforementioned woman sits. One propels oneself manually. One uses it to get from one place to another. One does face the inconvenience of being at knee-level with most people without disabilites.

I. Just. Don't. Get. It.

It's a thing. It's the short-distance version of a car.

Think about it. You could, if sufficiently motivated, walk anywhere you can go in a car -- but it would take you a heck of a lot longer, use up more energy, and is just not practical.

It gets you from one place to another.

That's all a wheelchair is. It's a thing. It's a device.

And, for many people with physical disabilites, it's a liberating device that's the difference between going places and being stuck in bed at all times.

How pervasive must ableism really be, in our culture, for someone to internalize wheelchair = bad to the degree that a skateboard is the only option, to the extent that she can't even imagine using a wheelchair at all, when she's essentially using a short, homemade wheelchair to begin with?

How pervasive must ableism really be, for people's reaction to the documentary be admiration that she can drive?

No wonder we debate things like the Ashley Treatment. No wonder children like Katie McCarron and Annie Marshall and Tracy Latimer have been killed.

If we view using an assistive device (for the record, I use several: glasses, the ocassional ankle brace, and a specialty keyboard, among others) as OMG THE END OF THE WORLD...

...then people automatically think Ashley's life should be about her parents' convenience, that Annie and Tracy's life was pointless, sad, and hopeless.

It shouldn't even be a question. Of course Ashley is entitled to grow and mature and experience life as an adult. Of course Katie was entitled to life, however it would or would not have been affected by autism. Of course Tracy and Annie deserved to live, to be happy and engaged by whatever made them happy and engaged.

But we can't even discuss these as a society because the majority of people -- likely people who think they have no contact with someone with a disability (I say think because they likely know someone with learning disabilites, someone somewhere on the autism spectrum, someone with dyslexia, and so forth) -- can't even get past the use of a wheelchair.

And what's worse: someone who has disabilities can't even get past the use of a wheelchair.

It's...ridiculous doesn't even cover it.


Amie said...

So true.
Along the same lines, it has always been interesting to me the weight "ten fingers and ten toes" carries for expectant parents, like somehow if you have a child that is born with 9 fingers you're going to love it any less??
People get very caught up on the idea of "normal" and it doesn't even exist.

SpooWriter said...

My guess, as an amateur people-observer, is that a lot of this has very deep, unconscious roots. In fact, it probably goes back to the days when, if you weren't a top physical specimen, you died.

Since there's evidence of very ancient cultures caring for folks with disabilities, I'm not being at all flippant when I say this idea probably has its roots in -- at the least -- prehistory, if not in our earliest proto-human ancestors.

It's evolution, and it's ingrained in us just as much as the drive to eat everything you can today because a tornado might come and destroy your crops tomorrow.

It's just that, by and large, folks are cognizant that they should fight against that relic of evolution -- where it doesn't seem that many people are even trying it here.

For instance, I don't think Katie McCarron's mom didn't love her, but I think some people are predisposed to react to an "imperfect" child differently. Had Katie McCarron been born with 9 fingers instead of autism, her mom would probably have gotten her constructive surgery or something.

So, I suppose, I could be wrong the whole evolution thing, and it could all be about vanity.... ;-)

SpooWriter said...

...and I forgot the point of that comment...

What was supposed to be added up there is that, generally, people who have experience with disabilities usually have at least a somewhat different perspective.

That's what makes it all the more galling to me that she's internalized the anti-wheelchair sentiment to such an extent that a skateboard is a better option.