Wednesday, October 28, 2009

On Disability and Rudeness

I feel like I am Sappho without the poetry, writing in fragments. I'm adding to and posting several bits at once, though now I'm behind on correspondence! This is a piece that I started before my daughter came home ill from school a few weeks ago:

"Hands off me, creepy guy at Starbucks, before I karate chop your man bits," a female friend of mine wrote recently, recollecting a moment with an overly flirtatious stranger. She only thought this and did not say anything in person; women have often been taught to be polite to people who are invading our space or our privacy. Women who are disabled often experience additional sticky terrain and unwanted confrontations. Men with disabilities also experience many of the same difficult interactions.

Putting aside gender for a moment, when disability is involved, the rudeness of others is often deflected back onto us--we are considered rude for not complying with the rude behaviors of others or for requesting our rights. I've seen myself expected to answer personal questions that I'd rather not answer--in front of family members. I know that not answering, no matter how gently I aver, would be taken as rude; it's a break in the back-and-forth of conversation, a refusal to interact. Assertion can be double-edged--if we speak up for ourselves, we make it less likely for that person to do the same to others, but this does not help interactions. Even though Miss Manners does tell people not to ask questions or invade our space, they do. In a nutshell, we are considered the rude ones for not answering nosy questions, for defending our personal space or bodily autonomy, or for making requests for accommodation for others. Sometimes we are considered rude for existing, for being in the way, our bodies regarded as physical obstacles, nevermind that people who use grocery carts or baby strollers, also assistive devices, occupy the same space.

Take the examples of Wheelie Catholic, who has been repeatedly rammed into with a grocery cart because someone is annoyed with her existence and Laurie Clements Lambeth, a poet with multiple sclerosis who must claim her space in the store. And Katja at Broken Clay, who was recently denied a comfortable theater seat by someone reading the signage so strictly that she would not move over one seat for Katja and her husband. By refusing to move because Katja did not state her requests "properly" and did not give the full explanation requested, this woman was able to see her own act of unkindness as righteous and could ignore the physical and social discomfort of another person without guilt or a sense of wrongdoing.

I don't understand why kindness goes away, why we are treated as lesser or our lives seen as not worthwhile. In a more extreme example, when my grandfather died, within an hour or two a stream of visitors showed up to my grandparents' home. So many people said that he was in a better place, which accorded with my grandmother's beliefs but isn't much comfort during immediate grief. But they also said that he was suffering so much, had suffered so much, had been so ill and so housebound, and now that he's better off. They said this in front of me. It made me feel like they thought I should die. I don't agree with this rudeness--it was not comforting at all. He wanted to live and had even changed his mind about his advance directives. He wanted to live! Even at the end, he preferred life as long as he could, despite pain that made him restless and made him grimace and close his eyes tight. What a view of disability people have. The church woman who leaned over his bed, telling him to "let go, just let go"--that wasn't her place. He was disabled. I am disabled. People said he never complained or mentioned his pain. They just didn't listen. They don't listen to us.

How do we protect ourselves without obscuring our point? How do we respond to others--or not respond to them, without becoming doormats or being labeled as bitches? I don't have the answer, only the thought, again, that others project their rudeness onto us if we don't accept what they say.

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