Thursday, April 25, 2013

Say Hello To The Elephant

Usually the phrase, "elephant in the room" refers to a massive but unspoken truth, studiously ignored but inescapable. I think it well describes the social position of people with disabilities.

Like an elephant, we take up a lot of space ... physical space and social space.

picture of an elephant
Wheelchairs are big, some of them really big, and not as maneuverable as a person on foot. People who use walkers or crutches have an unusual "footprint" as well. Even those of us who don't use equipment but merely "walk funny" carve out a differently shaped space as we move through rooms and hallways.

We need different arrangements and setups. Chairs need to be moved around. Some of us are always looking for a ride. We can only eat or shop in certain places. Some of us need things explained differently. Our feelings and emotions sometimes work in perplexing ways. We are high maintenance. Because of this, we take up more than the usual amount of "mental space" in the lives of our family, friends, and coworkers.

It helps a lot when environments are already very accessible, and when people are cheerfully accommodating, but that feeling of being a physical impediment and a bother never completely leaves us. Some of us feel it every day. If we're lucky, it hits us maybe a few times a month, when we least expect it.

It hits us when people stare at us just a bit too long; I've especially noticed it when people walk past me and then turn their heads as they go so they can keep staring longer.

It hits us when people sigh and grunt and act out a little play of exasperated weariness when we ask for extra help or some little accommodation out of the ordinary.

It hits when a close friend or member of our family says something so wrongheaded or cruel about our disability, usually out of the blue, that we wonder whether we really know them at all.

It hits us when we trip and fall, spill or drop something, or knock something over, and the room goes silent, and it feels like we can be sure what everyone is thinking. It's our fault for ... whatever, for not accepting help when we should have, for not being careful enough, for being self-centered, for coming here at all when we are clearly ill-equipped.

It even hits us when people say what an inspiration we are, how amazing it is that we are able to function on the most minimal level. Kindness is kindness, but sometimes it's misplaced and distancing.

When these elephant moments happen, we resent it, and resent the people around us who remind us of our difference ... our literal and figurative size. Is it depressing? Sure it is. Should people be more sensitive? Absolutely. But, is it really surprising?

I think not. I don't like it, but expecting people to not notice my disability and the inconveniences it sometimes causes is ... well ... like asking people to not notice an elephant in the living room. This is especially true for strangers and causal acquaintances, but also for people closer to us, from time to time. And while I could live without the really offensive, embarrassing moments, I also don't appreciate it when people claim they "don't notice" my disability or don't think of me as disabled.

Having a disability is part of who I am, for good, bad and indifferent. Sometimes my disability is a very small thing; sometimes it's an elephant. Some days I sure do wish for better reactions, but I've always got to expect some reaction. It's better if we all ... disabled and non-disabled alike ... just say hello to the elephant, give it some room, and get on with living.