Between the ages of 9 and 15, I spent more time on crutches, in casts, with canes or in wheelchairs than I did able to walk without any assistance. I won a record for most sick days during high-school when I graduated: in total, over those 5 years I missed the equivalent of an entire school year due to doctors appointments, surgeries, physio. I’ve written about that saga here. During that period I noticed that people’s behaviour towards me would fall into one of these categories:
- Gratuitous cruelty/spite – the mean version of cat-calling. More than once (at least 2x a year, every year), I would be walking down the street, and from a car driving by, a person (more often than not a guy, always a stranger) would yell an insult at me “Esti d’éclopée attardée” (which translates roughly to “fucking retarded cripple“).
- Obliviousness followed by irritation – I was invisible to some people, until I forced myself upon their consciousness. For example, during those periods when I sufficiently recovered so as to only require a cane and leg brace (visible limp), I commuted daily to school via public transportation (my parents only had 1 car which was reserved for my mother’s use, and her health made it such that the 40 minute drive to/from school was often too painful and hard for her to do.) The times that somebody offered me their seat during those packed rush-hour commutes were rare enough that I would be surprised, and touched. Most days, I was not in much pain and my balance was adequate to remain standing. But some days, I was not in good enough shape to manage the bus ride standing up and I would timidly request a passenger give me their seat. More often than not, the person would roll their eyes, even mutter under their breath. I, by my very existence, had inconvenienced them. Reminder: I was a young girl with a cane and a leg brace.
- Neutral invisibility – The number of times I got jostled, bumped into, only to be told with a straight-face, “Oh I’m sorry, I didn’t see you”. To this day, I am scared of escalators because of all the times I got bumped/pushed while trying to step onto the moving escalator with poor balance and crutches. There were several scary close calls, where I almost fell down the escalators, with their sharp teeth that result in scars, if not more serious injuries, bc some bozo pushed past me unseeing. Because you know, of course, a slightly overweight girl in a cast and 2 crutches is hard to notice.
- Condescending charity – Often, often enough that it stopped stunning me into silence, I would be spoken to like I was mentally deficient or deaf. With a huge encouraging smile and the same slow sing-songy voice that people use when talking to babies, I would get interrogated, “And hooooooooooooooooooow are we dooooooooooooooing today?! SUCH a braaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaave little girl, would you loooooooook at that?!” Fuck off bitch, I am not your entertainment. And heaven preserve me from the overly helpful people. The ones who would insist I would sit down and they would fetch and carry anything and everything, physically pushing me back into my seat, making a HUGE fuss, drawing the entire room/store/church/library’s attention to the little show of “helping-the-poor-girl-with-a-broken-leg”. These incidents were the WORST. These strangers would do it with an non stop commentary, barely pausing to breathe, and would touch me without my request or permission “oh you poor honey does it hurt badly what happened, let me get you this, don’t get up, stay seated, I said STAY SEATED, how braaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaave you must be. What did you say? You can do it yourself?! No let me do it! No need to be snippy, let me just help you take off your boots/coat/any other movement for you. What?! You can do it yourSELF! Oh my! Would you look at that. Incredible. What a good brave girl you are. You can untie your shoes even with that big old cast of yours? Well, I never. SO impressive.” Etc. etc. etc. Being reduced to a prop in a spectacle where a person got to feel like they did their good deed of the day drove me nuts. Strangers, acquaintances and even family members fell into this category on a daily basis.
- No category required, I was just a normal person with abnormal mobility issues – For the longest time, this was the litmus test by which I determined if I liked somebody. If they treated me like a regular person, with the basic manners and respect owed to ANYBODY, without letting my physical disabilities overshadow their relationship to me, I became their loyal fan. Unfortunately, people did not fall into this category frequently.
I spent my entire life observing my mother, and her interactions with people. I was fiercely protective of her. She suffered from several conditions that left her in considerable pain – the kind that is difficult to medicate without risking serious complications. Seeing her jostled and disrespected made me SO mad. Because I knew that not only had she suffered the indignity of the moment, but that it cost her physically. I lost count of the times where she would debate if she could risk going to the grocery store, and risk the crowds, or if it would result in too many such incidents and be too painful. She would calculate if she had enough pain tolerance to drive to a place, do wtv she had to do there (risking being subjected to any of the 5 behaviours I’ve outlined above), and handle the increased pain enough to drive back home safely. That was her life. So I became overly sensitive to these small actions by strangers. I noticed them all, and did my best to physically shield her when I was with her.
She often spoke of how this constant exposure to behaviours 2-4 listed above made it very difficult for her not to give into the belief that she was a 2nd class citizen. She knew that was untrue, but it is one thing to know it, and another to experience constant evidence to the contrary. She might know that the fault lay with the people mistreating her, but when the mistreatment was the expected norm, ooof. That is a heavy burden to bear. It broke my heart, and I felt helpless. I understood all too well the indignity of not being seen as a person, of being reduced to 2-dimensional caricature based on a physical attribute (cripple/invalid in both our cases).
Let it be known that I still have not forgiven all the people that demonstrated the behaviours 1-4 above to either me, or to my mamma. The list is a long one. I judge the individuals fall into category 4 more harshly than the ones in 1-3. At the least, the people who were overtly cruel (behaviour 1) were reacting to me. It is BECAUSE they could see who I was that they were cruel. In a weird twisted way, I can tolerate that more easily: they paid me the respect of seeing the real me, and then demonstrating their bigotry -that was on THEM, not me. But people who do condescending charity?! They don’t see the object of their niceness. They only see themselves, in all their glorious charity. They used me and my momma to feel good about themselves while refusing to see us for who we really were. They invalidated who we were, stripping us of our identities during those interactions. For the longest time, my mother would remind me, “Be patient, dearest. They mean well.” I’d stop my bitching, and keep a resentful silence. What I wanted to tell her is this:
When my friends and I discuss people we dislike, we often end our conversations with, “But he means well.”
We always land here, because we want to affirm ourselves as fair, non-judgmental people who examine a person not only by what he does but also by what he intends to. After all, aren’t all of us standing in the gap between who we are and who we try to be? Isn’t it human to allow those we dislike—even those who harm us—a residence in this space as well?
“You know what? He means well,” we say. We lean on this, and the phrase is so condescending, so cloyingly sweet, so hollow, that I’d almost rather anyone say anything else about me than how awful I am despite how good I intend to be.
– Brit Bennett
I’m grateful to the universe that I was only temporarily exposed to these kind of behaviours, a mere 6 years of my life. However, I’m left with an intolerance for any of those 4 behaviours, in any format, applied to any person. Silver lining.
People, you all need to read this article, by Brit Bennett. Good intentions are not enough. Granting people their dignity is what matters. Not niceness, not charity, not adorable words. Dignity. Behave so that everyone can have their dignity, from cripples to people of different skin tones. It really isn’t that complicated.