Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Invisible People. Or, Compare and Contrast: WiMPS and GIMPS

When Ralph Ellison wrote Invisible Man, he created an unnamed narrator who continually finds himself caught in situations beyond his control. Unfortunately, the prevailing metaphor that organizes the novel is one of blindness. Ellison obviously wanted to work with motifs of light and darkness and race as well as with Homerian concepts (the blind poet as well as the Cyclops myth), but he ties people’s mistaken attitudes and lack of personal insight or awareness to a physical disability, allowing disability to serve as a shorthand for all the racial problems his experiences embody. The narrator’s repulsion is turned more immediately toward another man's glass eye, which lands in a glass of water, than to the man's behaviors, and the glass eye becomes symbolic of all that the narrator hates. Repeatedly the narrator chastises people for failing to see; over and over he refers to their blindness. Because of the constraints that thwart his ambitions and his work, because of the contradictory social or even activist forces that cancel out his work or threaten him, the narrator ultimately decides to make himself invisible, to live underground and apart.

As people with disabilities, we are still Invisible People, sometimes by choice, sometimes as imposed by others, in spite of the attention we often unwillingly garner. Within Ellison's own construct, we are invisible; the disability is itself obscured and becomes a vehicle for measuring social problems. Reduced to good or bad in fairy tales, films, books, people with disabilities serve as shortcuts for complex thought. With my primary physical disability, characters are always evil or broken, representative of chaos. I remember watching Unbreakable with horror; someone had recommended it to me and I guess saw it differently. The primary character chooses to visit accidents upon other people because of his own disability and the supposed supernatural powers it gives him. Isn't that what society would like to believe, that we are actually more powerful beneath it all, that we're hiding something? People with disabilities are very rarely full characters but instead serve as inspiration or examples of curmudgeonliness or isolation. From The Hunchback of Notre Dame to Beth in Little Women to Rain Man to the diabetic woman in Chocolat, disability is used as a substitute for character. Disability becomes character, is the character. There are never characters who just happen to have a disability. Real people with disabilities are invisible, not represented. But 1 out of 7 people have at least one disability, nonmetaphoric disability. This number shocks because many disabilities are hidden. Often they are called "silent." Sometimes it's true that we're not as socially visible. We can't travel as much, be out as much. Transportation is an issue. Stamina is an issue. Nevertheless, we are. Invisible.

Ellison's disablism cannot be ignored. But here's where his analysis is useful. In the original short story on which Ellison based the book, the narrator talks about inner vision, the perception of others that comes not from senses alone but from willingness to connect. When people fail to notice accessibility issues, when they fail to notice that their actions in a particular moment create an accessibility issue, when they fail to make accommodations because they have no proof that something's wrong with you, when they say nothing looks wrong with you, when they make fun of you because they see lazy instead of disabled, when they mock you because they see you as quirky or clumsy or stiff, when they conflate physical and learning and mental disability, when they think learning or mental disability is a failing or a choice, when they privilege one disability over another, when they enthuse about euthanasia for people on ventilators, when they believe reasonable accommodation is an unfair advantage, they make you and your disability invisible, they render you an invisible person. They deny needs that can be met, they deny your humanity, they resist understanding. They in fact don't want to understand.

I never knew one woman was dyslexic until I said something about how smart dyslexics are (they are smart; they just process information differently). She had made herself invisible because she was accustomed to judgment. Others have confessed their disabilities to me now that mine is more obvious; most often their disabilities are invisible. Most often they don't do this to imply that their situation is the same, but to ask for advice--a doctor's name for a medical issue you have in common, how to deal with an ergonomics issue. And I'm glad to give information to relieve others' pain or help them find an answer. Sometimes they seem to feel guilty for sharing this information since by their comparisons, I win. But it's not a contest and there's not a way to compare. Some issues I've become accustomed to or adapted to, most of the time, so that it doesn't take much thought. For them, they may be learning about a problem for the first time. Pain and angst are invisible.

As Ellison said, "all dreamers and sleepwalkers must pay the price." Is sleepwalking a disability? Nevertheless, we must wake ourselves, even as disabled people, to the concerns of others. Not all disabilities are readily apparent, and those for which you have no proof can hurt as much. Proof is sometimes still not enough. The woman who oversaw the installation of our lift said that her son, who had muscular dystrophy, was asked to prove that he could not walk. Stand him up, and he flops down? Faking it. Another young boy was recently prohibited from playing in Little League because he uses oxygen. To the umpire and officials, his needs, which include playing sports, are invisible. And yet they sought to make him more invisible, to remove him from baseball completely. He paid the price for such discrimination. We will pay the price of such discrimination if we don't act similarly. This boy, Jacob Garcia, said: “I feel like I'm making way for people like me who wear oxygen, too. I feel like I'm making a path for them so they don't have to go through the stuff I've gone through,” he said.

We must also wake ourselves to our own problems, recognizing that some problems are systematic and not mere personal problems. We must awaken health care providers who do not see us as disabled because they see treat single components of complex and interactive systems. We must awaken others' conscience and allow them to feel guilt. As limited as our physical resources are, as difficult as it is to manage basic daily tasks, we have to make the efforts we can (without harming ourselves through overtaxing ourselves) because no one will make them for us, though sometimes they'll make them without us, misguided.

Myth has it that babies born with cauls, the deflated amniotic sac, over their faces are blessed with extraordinary perceptions and abilities. Of course disability cannot imbue us with such special strengths, as some would have it. But it can, if we let it, give us the experiences necessary to cultivate sensitivity and to encourage others' sensitivity, not just to disability issues, but to injustice in general. Disability is too complex for us to reduce to blessing or curse. It is neither. But just as race, gender, class positions can be catalysts for new recognitions and advocacy, so can disability. It's a starting point.

The first person I saw at work this morning was White Male, Privileged (WiMP), who went up to his coworker, casted down one side of her body (full arm and full leg with apparent surgical involvement), and pretended to kick/trip her, forcing her to stop and almost causing her to really trip. WiMP also thus forced his coworker to slow down even more, though she was obviously having trouble standing and walking and seemed to be in pain. Then he laughed and joked about throwing her under a bus. What WiMP didn't see was me, GiMP (got mobility power), behind him, in my scooter. A simple but quite sarcastic "Disability jokes, always hilarious" from me, GiMP, turned his head. And then WiMP saw me and looked surprised, in fact did a double take. His eyes actually widened. Yes, all WiMPs should immediately be surrounded by angry GiMPS, GiMPS taking up for each other. Then WiMP scurried off, rapidly.

Contrast this moment to later situations today: when I got on the elevator this afternoon, I realized the other person there was continuing to hold the doors and was trying to give me room to turn to face the front of the elevator. Very sweet, I don't think anyone else has done this for me--I really don't like riding backwards. I explained I couldn't turn around, though I'd like to (I get stuck or it gets called to a different floor while I'm trying to turn it). He mentioned that he has degenerative arthritis and has noticed how really inaccessible our workplace is for others. I would have talked to him longer but absolutely couldn't pause--I wish that I could have asked him if he had any particular issues with accessibility that were of concern. To people like this, I am not an Invisible Person, and though my needs are different, they are perceived, even when they can't be met. I had so forgotten what it's like to face the front of the elevator that I didn't at first recognize his action or its import.

Similarly to this man, someone who was with me today observed how I loaded my scooter on the lift, and seeing that the straps on the lift were difficult to reach, affixed them for me later. This was really helpful, though it's not something I would have felt comfortable asking at all; what she didn't know (or maybe she did) is that this is the most difficult part of scooter usage for me--getting them off can be maddening for me since I don't have a lot of upper body strength and the hooks stick. If I don't use them, the scooter sometimes shifts off the lift too much on bumps. Regardless, she stayed behind the car with me each time even though I mentioned I unlocked the front seat--that was nice since I worry about getting run down by vehicles (especially in the busy shopping center).

Although I run across disablism continually, I love that people ally themselves to us, perceive needs and act are allies to people with disabilities, that even while some seek to make us Invisible People, others work on our behalf, against disablism.

10 comments:

Gaina said...

Like I was saying to Elizabeth at 'Screw Bronze!' for every jerk there are at least two people who are helpful and although they may be at a loss as to know how to help, they are willing to be educated about our needs.

I always find it interesting when I have new able-bodied friends, after a few months they tell me how much more differently they view the world from my point of view like they had never done before.

Wheelchair Dancer said...

Nice. really cool race and disability intersections. Got me thinking.

Love the WIMPS and GIMPS

WCD

Ani said...

Beautifully stated.

"Disability is too complex for us to reduce to blessing or curse."

That sentence particularly resonates.

Ruth said...

Your words are quotable and took my breath away:

"When people fail to notice accessibility issues, when they fail to notice that their actions in a particular moment create an accessibility issue, when they fail to make accommodations because they have no proof that something's wrong with you, when they say nothing looks wrong with you, when they make fun of you because they see lazy instead of disabled, when they mock you because they see you as quirky or clumsy or stiff, when they conflate physical and learning and mental disability, when they think learning or mental disability is a failing or a choice, when they privilege one disability over another, when they enthuse about euthanasia for people on ventilators, when they believe reasonable accommodation is an unfair advantage, they make you and your disability invisible, they render you an invisible person. They deny needs that can be met, they deny your humanity, they resist understanding. They in fact don't want to understand."

Someone who I love deeply who has a disability is hurting badly right now -due to being rendered invisible in certain places and contexts. Perhaps showing him these words will help him sort out his feelings.

Have a great BADD 2008, thanks for these words

Dave Hingsburger said...

GiMP is now a term that will be with me forever. Thanks. This was a great great post, ain't BADD grand?

FridaWrites said...

Gaina, yes, being around someone with a disability can rapidly educate. I know there are still some issues I missed, such as some of the specific challenges wheelies have, even though I'd used a wheelchair before.

WCD, thanks. I almost eliminated wimps-n-gimps, but since it was language amnesty day, I left it.

Thank you, Ani. It's a short sentence, but one I feel strongly about. I could improve my condition with certain drugs, though the effects would be so strong that I don't want them. Though I'd rather be stronger, I don't have to be. In some ways I want to say there's nothing wrong with me.

Ruth, please do show him these words if you think they would help. The blogging community has truly been of help to me in the past few months, and I don't know how I'd have made it through without all of you (your posts included). My disability was invisible for decades and could be more difficult to deal with in some ways because there weren't outward signs that "proved" it or that would get me the help I needed, such as opening a heavy door. And it may become invisible again. In either case, I'll always be a strong advocate for the invisibly disabled.

FridaWrites said...

I should also note that the character in Unbreakable is black and disabled. Double trouble, in cinema terms, or double stereotype in my terms.

FridaWrites said...

Dave, I missed your comment--
"We've got power, yes we do,
We've got power, how 'bout you?"

Now I'm getting silly.

Definitely no one has to take a privileged position.

saraarts said...

"We must awaken others' conscience and allow them to feel guilt."

What a fascinating sentence. As a woman of my particular age in my particular culture, I have been inculcated with a desire to shield others from bad feelings, and also to fear being perceived as problematic. Yet the truth is we have to encourage ourselves and each other to learn and grow even when the process is uncomfortable or even painful.

FridaWrites said...

Thanks, Sara--It's not that I would want people to mire themselves in it, but learning to recognize the ways people are complicit in disablism (such as when there's a shift from someone blaming you to being corrected by others) can help prevent them from doing the same to someone else the next time, or allowing others to do so.