Disability and Representation » Microaggressions http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com Changing the Cultural Conversation Sat, 21 Sep 2013 04:28:56 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.6.1 Displays of Power http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/09/08/displays-of-power/ http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/09/08/displays-of-power/#comments Sun, 08 Sep 2013 07:00:59 +0000 Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/?p=3218 I went down to the Santa Cruz Wharf today and spent some time people-watching. I am often observing people. I am always fascinated by the ways in which they interact with one another. Today, two scenarios caught my eye:

Scenario 1: When I came onto the wharf, a bicyclist was riding up to the toll booth, getting ready to exit. He was a young man of about 25. As soon as he got to the toll booth, the automatic gate arm came down and blocked his path. He stopped short and fell off his bicycle. To my left, I heard someone laugh. I looked over and saw a young man laughing and pointing at the guy who was struggling to get up. The bicyclist finally got on his bike and rode away.

Scenario 2: At the end of the wharf, a young girl of about five was chasing pigeons. She ran around, looking for pigeons, everywhere she could. She took great glee in shaking her paper bag at them and frightening them so that they flew away.  She showed no signs of tiring of the game.

What these two scenarios have in common is someone taking power over a creature in a weaker position. One person took power by laughing at someone who had fallen. The other — a small, vulnerable creature herself — took power over creatures even smaller and more vulnerable.

I try to stay away from questions of what human beings are “really” like, because I’m not sure you can separate the power relationships in a society from what human beings are “really” about. In our society, at any rate, it seems that people are trained up to take power over someone they perceive as vulnerable.

I think this is why so many people have such a deep and abiding fear of becoming disabled. I don’t think it has as much to do with disability in the body as with perceived vulnerability. What happens to me if I’m dependent on others? Will I really be able to depend on them? Or will they take advantage of my vulnerability?

There are very fine people who don’t take advantage of vulnerability. These are the folks who want to raise people up in dignity rather than lord power over them. I try to find those people and hold them very close. Because the other kind will wreak havoc with your life.

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/09/08/displays-of-power/feed/ 3
You Don’t Have to Thank Me For Doing the Right Thing http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/07/29/you-dont-have-to-thank-me/ http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/07/29/you-dont-have-to-thank-me/#comments Mon, 29 Jul 2013 18:23:11 +0000 Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/?p=2892 Over the past several months, I’ve become aware of how much I say thank you on any given day. In many ways, it’s just second nature. I was raised to say please and thank you and you’re welcome and excuse me, to hold doors open for people, and to generally look for ways to be courteous. It’s ingrained in me to say thank you any time anyone does anything for me at all.

The odd part? I thank people just for doing what they themselves expect as a matter of course.

In a post today, Dave Hingsburger at Rolling Around in My Head talks about this phenomenon, noting that he thanks people for what they take for granted every day. They assume the right to pass through space without barriers. Dave thanks people for making it happen for him.

Like Dave, I don’t think that showing my appreciation of what people do for me is wrong, per se. Courtesy has its place, and exchanging thanks is way of saying, “I see you and I appreciate you.” But when there is no even exchange, and when people feel a little too much gratitude for basic things they should expect as human beings, there is a problem.

The question of saying thank you has been coming up a lot for me lately around the issue of space. When I first arrived in Santa Cruz, I spent a fair amount of time weaving around people on the sidewalk. In the rurals of New England, where I come from, people tend to give each other a wide berth. But oddly enough, here in mellow hippie crunchy Santa Cruz, it’s very different. Most people have a strangely aggressive sense of space. Perhaps it’s just the fight for space in an urban area, where people have to stake out their claims. I’m not sure. But I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve had people practically dare me to get out of their way on the sidewalk or assume that I was going to walk right into the street to make room for them. Since I’ve started using a cane, I’ve become very sensitized to it.

The first few times it happened, I thought that the folks who passed a little too close to me just had a poor sense of where they were. But then it kept happening every day, to the point that it became statistically impossible that so many people had spatial orientation issues. There is a strange sort of game that people play around space, and for a while, I found myself saying thank you to people for making space for me — even when they were taking up more than their fair share of space and impinging on mine. While other people were expanding their sense of space, I was making it a virtue to get small and take up less. And then I was saying thank you for people letting me by.

After a couple of experiences in which people became actively hostile, I decided to take a different approach. I decided that I had to stop bobbing and weaving. I had to stake out my claim — just my claim, without challenging the claim of anyone else.

So now, when I walk down the street and I see people taking up the majority of the sidewalk, I don’t walk onto the street. I keep to my trajectory, I hold my head up, and I show that I expect them to get out of the way. They generally do. And no, I don’t thank them. They’ve done the right thing. They’ve taken up their space and no more. Things are as they should be.

I shouldn’t have to thank them any more than they should have to thank me. Of course, I have my own set of privileges. People thank me all the time for doing the right thing, and I need to start speaking back to that, too. If I shouldn’t have to be constantly thanking people for doing the right thing, other people shouldn’t have to constantly be thanking me either.

The issue comes up most often in my interactions with people on the street. There is almost always someone sitting on Pacific Avenue with a sign asking for spare change, and I’ll sometimes ask if I can get the person some food. The responses to these offers vary. Some people just say no and ask for money. I’ll usually give a few dollars.

Most of the time, though, people take me up on the offer. And most of the time, people are very thankful — thankful in a way that pains me. It’s not that people are wrong for saying thank you. It’s that the whole damned deal is wrong.

I recognize where some of it comes from. I’ve had times when I’ve felt so demeaned and so ignored that any kindness filled my soul with gratitude. It wasn’t so much a choice to feel that way as a moment of sheer relief that I didn’t have to have my defenses up for five minutes. When you’re in that position and someone comes along to do a kindness, it’s like manna falling from heaven. There’s a gratitude — not just for the person, but for whatever God or cosmic power or act of fate dropped that person into your path.

I watched this kind of gratitude and relief come over the face of another person yesterday. I was talking to a guy trying to get into rehab and a shelter. He looked so surprised — no, shocked — that I was being kind. It was as though he were looking at a mirage. When I asked him what he wanted to eat, he mumbled something about beggars not being allowed to be choosers.

When I assured him that, in fact, he could choose, he asked me for an egg salad sandwich. And as I was going to get it for him, he said, “You’re an angel.”

That’s when something broke in me. An angel? Just for getting a man an egg salad sandwich? No. I couldn’t let it pass. I said, “No, I’m really not.”

As tired as I am of thanking people for doing the right thing, I’m even more tired of having an excess of gratitude come at me for doing the right thing. I don’t mind being thanked as a courtesy, and I don’t mind expressions of gratitude to God and the universe for whatever good things come along, but I’m tired of getting kudos for treating people like human beings. The gratitude that comes my way says so much more about the world we live in than it says about me. It’s not that I’m an angel. It’s that the world we live in is exceptionally harsh and uncaring. You do the right thing — which is what we’re supposed to be doing in the first place — and it looks exceptional only by comparison.

No one should go hungry.

No one should be spat on.

No one should be harassed or assaulted.

No one should be ignored.

No one should have to thank someone profusely for space, or access, or bread, or kindness.

All of these things are a matter of justice, not a matter of charity.

So I need to stop constantly thanking people for doing what’s right. And I need to let people know that they have a God-given right to expect me to do right by them. I don’t need their thanks. I just need to do the right thing.

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/07/29/you-dont-have-to-thank-me/feed/ 3
A Rant to My Fellow Activists Who Do Anti-Oppression Work and Ignore Disability http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/07/25/a-rant/ http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/07/25/a-rant/#comments Thu, 25 Jul 2013 18:00:39 +0000 Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/?p=2838 Dear Activists Who Wax Eloquently About The Importance Of Intersectionality In Anti-Oppression Work:

I need to make a request. I’ll try to keep it brief and I’ll do my best to be clear about exactly what I mean.


I’ve noticed that many of you complain loudly and vehemently that feminism doesn’t do intersectionality right because it leaves out race, class, LGBT issues, genderqueer issues, religion, ethnicity, and body size. I agree. I completely agree. It’s why I left feminism in disgust some time ago. So imagine my utter fucking surprise when I notice that, oh hell, there is no room for me to agree at all because, as a disabled woman, I haven’t even been invited into the discussion.

I mean, really. It’s provoking to watch you call out feminists for not doing intersectionality right while you leave disabled people out of it altogether. While you keep chanting “race, class, gender” over and over, congratulating yourselves on how inclusive you’re being, you’re leaving out one-fifth of the population.

Disability winds through every other form of oppression. There are disabled people of color, disabled working class people, disabled poor people (lots), disabled LGBT people, disabled genderqueer people, disabled fat people, disabled religious people, disabled people of every ethnicity, and disabled people who experience every form of oppression that human beings can perpetrate. I know the thought that you could become one of us in a millisecond scares the absolute living fuck out of you, but seriously, deal with your fears already because they are not helping us. Start grokking the fact that disabled people are being assaulted, killed, institutionalized, and otherwise having their civil rights violated every goddamned day.

Because in case you haven’t gotten the memo, disability is a civil rights issue.

When people have their children taken away because they’re disabled, it’s a civil rights issue. When people are refused entrance into a restaurant or a theatre or a public park, it’s a civil rights issue. When people are counseled to die rather than live, it’s a civil rights issue. When people are consigned to poverty because of the ways their bodies look and function, it’s a civil rights issue. When people are assaulted, spit on, and killed because they’re disabled, it’s a civil rights issue. When people live in isolation even within communities that talk about oppression and social justice, it’s a civil rights issue.

Every time you fail to acknowledge our presence, it only increase our invisibility. So really, how the hell are we disabled people supposed to join you in doing anti-oppression work if you keep treating us like the embarrassing relative no one talks about?

Allies have one another’s backs. No way in hell am I saying, “I’m your ally, but when it comes time for you to fight for me, I’m on my own.”

Fair is fair.

Reciprocity forever.

In solidarity,

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/07/25/a-rant/feed/ 2
Practicing Random Acts of Solidarity http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/07/23/practicing-random-acts-of-solidarity/ http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/07/23/practicing-random-acts-of-solidarity/#comments Wed, 24 Jul 2013 01:05:59 +0000 Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/?p=2815 Today, I was on the bus to work, sitting in the accessible section at the front, when a woman got on with her support person. I might not have noticed that the woman was atypical at all except that after she had retrieved her Metro ticket from the machine, she gave it to the blond twenty-something woman behind her. Then she walked over, sat next to me, and said hello. Her support person was across the aisle and behind us.

The woman was intellectually disabled and likely in her 40s. She was very friendly and very open. I felt immediately at home with her. She smiled at me and asked how I was doing. Our conversation went something like this:

Woman: Hi, how are you?
Me: I’m doing great. And you?
Woman (smiling and giving me a thumbs up): Great! Where are you going?
Me: I’m going to work. And you?
Woman (smiling and giving me a thumbs up): We’re going to the mall!
Me: Oh! The mall will be fun!
Woman (smiling and giving me a thumbs up): Yeah!
Me (smiling and giving her a thumbs up): Awesome!

At this point, a man across the aisle leaned over to me, held out his hand for me to shake, and introduced himself. I realized right away that they were together and that he was intellectually disabled as well. He seemed a bit younger than the woman, heavy set, and gentle. We shook hands and smiled at each other.

I was thoroughly enjoying myself and feeling at ease in a way that is unusual for me in a public place. There was something that captivated me about these two people. Their openness and their kindness were such a welcome relief from the harshness of the world. There was a decency and a presence about them that were palpable. In a flash, I realized how much trust it was taking for them to open up a conversation with me, a perfect stranger. I thought about the sheer difficulty of trying to make “normal” conversation. I thought about how hard they were working to try to “fit in.” I thought about their support person, who was sitting in back of them and looking quite bored.

I continued talking with the man.  I asked whether he were going to the mall too, but he said no, that he was getting pizza. We started chatting a bit about how much we like pizza and how what a nice day it was, and so forth, when the support person interrupted from afar and said:

“We’re not going to the mall. We’re going for pizza.”

It was so jarring. Her tone was abrupt and corrective. I thought about how many times her client, over the course of 40-odd years, must have been told she was wrong. And maybe she’d made a mistake about the mall, but so what? There was so much right about her. She was succeeding at being welcoming, at being cordial, at being engaging, at being lovely. It really saddened and angered me that her support person was interrupting all that.

As though that weren’t enough, the support person started trying to address me and talk about her clients and what they were doing. She wasn’t joining in our conversation. She was attempting to interrupt our conversation and to have a conversation over them. It was terribly rude.

I got the sense that, in the face of her clients having a conversation with someone who was very clearly enjoying their company, she didn’t quite know what to do. It was as though her whole know-your-place world was being overturned. After all, while talking with the man and the woman, I wasn’t being patronizing and I didn’t give the impression of wanting to change my seat. In fact, I was subverting the thinking that says that those were my only options.

At this point, there were only the four of us on the bus. And for a very  brief moment in time, three of us had done something deeply subversive: we had dismantled the hierarchy that said that I ought to establish my perceived normalcy over them and that they ought to accede to it.

It must have been quite confusing for the support person: except for my cane, I looked perfectly “normal.” So what I was doing having such a great time with these people as though they were my equals?

I immediately registered her attempt to take my attention from them, and I was having none of it. So I did something that I very rarely do with anyone: I ignored her. I kept my attention focused on the man and the woman like a laser beam. I was going to keep that hierarchy overturned until I got off the bus.

It really wasn’t a conscious decision. My focus just stayed with them and would not be moved. A kind of stubbornness kicked in. I simply would not let anyone hijack the conversation: not when we all were enjoying it, not when they had extended their trust to me, not when someone was trying to put them in their place.

So we kept talking until my stop came. And when it was time to get off the bus, I said to them both, “Well, it was great meeting you and talking to you. Have a wonderful day!”

I hope they did. I hope our little revolution on the bus rocked their world, as it had mine.

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/07/23/practicing-random-acts-of-solidarity/feed/ 4
Disability Rights are Civil Rights http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/07/21/disability-rights-are-civil-rights/ http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/07/21/disability-rights-are-civil-rights/#comments Mon, 22 Jul 2013 01:46:58 +0000 Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/?p=2805 Imagine that you were simply living your life and someone attempted to exclude you from a public park. Or took your child away from you. Or urged you to sign a Do Not Resuscitate Order. Or told you to use the back door to a theatre. Or told you that you couldn’t come into a restaurant.

Now imagine that someone said or did any one of those things only because of your race. Or only because of your sexual orientation. Or only because of your ethnic origin. Or only because of your gender identity. Or only because of your socio-economic class.

You’d consider it a civil rights violation, wouldn’t you? And you would be right.

These are exactly the things that disabled people experience, every day, only because they are disabled.

Think disability isn’t a civil rights issue? Think again.

disability civil rights

[The graphic is a Bingo card with 25 squares.

Title: Disability Rights are Civil Rights

Top row: There are only three steps to get into the prom/theatre/polling place.
We have no elevators. It's an old building.
The wheelchair entrance is in the back.
Why don't we just carry you up the stairs?
He tased the nonverbal man when he wouldn't answer.

Second row: We're taking your child away because you're blind.
I can't hire people with disabilities. They'll need too much sick time.
Your service dog is not allowed in this restaurant.
Your child can't play in the park. His flapping disturbs the other children.
Are you sure you want me to do that basic life-saving surgery I do all the time?

Third row: Deafblind people may not fly without a caregiver.
If you keep asking me to provide accommodations, you'll have to find another doctor.
Welcome to the Free Space. One Flight Up.
Contact the Disability Support Office when your condition has improved.
You can't fly first-class. It will upset the other passengers.

Fourth row: You're going to sign a DNR before your operation, aren't you?
You can use the freight elevator. Watch out for the trash.
You can't enter the museum. Your wheelchair will dirty the floor.
The handicapped don't come here anyway.
If your child has Asperger's, Doctor Smith will add a $50 surcharge per visit.

Last row: If I make this special exception for you, I'll have to do it for everyone.
Sorry for the lack of access, but you're welcome to have a drink outside.
We're only giving these lungs to a kid who will grow up to be a tax-paying citizen.
The elevator is out of service indefinitely.
I attacked him because he was acting retarded.

The text below the graphic reads www.facebook.com/DisabilityAndRepresentation.]

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/07/21/disability-rights-are-civil-rights/feed/ 1
How Not to Have a Conversation about Disability http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/07/20/how-not-to-have-a-conversation-about-disability/ http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/07/20/how-not-to-have-a-conversation-about-disability/#comments Sun, 21 Jul 2013 02:45:13 +0000 Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/?p=2790 disability conversations

[The graphic is a Bingo card with 25 squares.

Title: How Not to Have a Conversation about Disability

Top row: You're not sufficiently disabled to speak to this issue.
Everything is about disability to you people.
Disability is NOT a civil rights issue.
You're just bitter because you're disabled.
The lift is broken. We're sorry for the inconvenience.

Second row: Why are you so angry all the time?
Race, class, gender. Race, class, gender...
They prefer the term "people with disabilities," you know.
Why are we talking about sick people now?

Third row: This amazing technology will make cripples members of society again!
I'd rather be dead.
Free space: WTF is ableism? Are you insane?
Aren't we all a little bit disabled?
You don't need accessible taxis. You might get hurt hailing a cab.

Fourth row: She drowned him because she loved him.
Handicapped people may enter through the back door.
We're sorry we treated you so poorly. Would you like a gift card?
I was only in the handicapped parking space for a minute.
Can we stop talking about sick people now?

Last row: How can a person with [insert disability here] raise children?
I don’t see disability. I only see people.
Don’t waste a kidney on a kid who will never be normal.
He’s a truly inspirational burden on society.
You’re too disabled to speak to this issue.

The text below the graphic reads www.facebook.com/DisabilityAndRepresentation.]

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/07/20/how-not-to-have-a-conversation-about-disability/feed/ 0
How Not to Have a Conversation about Racism http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/07/20/how-not-to-have-a-conversation-about-racism/ http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/07/20/how-not-to-have-a-conversation-about-racism/#comments Sat, 20 Jul 2013 19:27:48 +0000 Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/?p=2778 conversations about racism bingo

[The graphic is a Bingo card with 25 squares.

Title: How Not to Have a Conversation about Racism

Top row: You can never know what is really in another person's mind.
You're always playing the race card.
You're just prejudiced against white people.
The black community needs to address [fill in the blank].
I never have any racist thoughts.

Second row: You’re being so divisive.
We’re all equal in America.
Why don’t you get this upset at black-on-black crime?
I don’t see color.
Slavery is over. Stop living in the past.

Third row: The system works.
Free space: What was he doing there?
I think that black people should fix racism by [fill in the blank].
Black people can be racist too, you know.

Fourth row: Everything is about race to you people.
I hope they don’t riot.
Could people stop talking about this now?
I don’t care if you’re black or white or green or purple…
The jury has SPOKEN.

Last row: Are you calling me a racist just because I’m white?
The killer was just scared.
You’re always crying racism.
I can’t be racist. I’m a liberal.
How can I be an ally when you’re so angry all the time?

The text below the graphic reads www.facebook.com/DisabilityAndRepresentation.]

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/07/20/how-not-to-have-a-conversation-about-racism/feed/ 0
More from the Land of Microaggressions, in Which I Claim My Space and Lose My Silence http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/07/14/more-from-the-land-of-microaggressions/ http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/07/14/more-from-the-land-of-microaggressions/#comments Sun, 14 Jul 2013 22:55:35 +0000 Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/?p=2744 Earlier today, I was doing a bit of food shopping at the local market. There was quite a wait in the checkout line and I was very tired.

There was a woman in front of me who had a six-pack of soda and two bottles of water. She had her items on the conveyer belt in such a way that there was space in front of her groceries; in other words, she hadn’t moved them to the front, and there wasn’t enough room for all of my groceries or for anyone else’s groceries on the conveyer belt. There were people behind me who were waiting to put their stuff on the belt, and she was completely oblivious to everyone and their need to use the space.

I like to get my items out of my cart all at once if I can, because going back and forth from the cart to the conveyer belt inflames some of my vestibular issues and can make me a bit dizzy. I was also quite tired from standing for so long, and I was anxious to get my stuff on the belt so that I could just hang onto the shopping cart.  So I gently pushed the divider against her things to move them up a bit (as people often do in these situations) and in so doing, I accidentally knocked over a couple of her soda cans.

I was a bit embarrassed, and I apologized for knocking over the cans. She looked at me like I’d just committed some sort of crime. She didn’t accept my apology and she didn’t say a word.

I thought, “Okay, whatever,” and I figured we were done.

A full two minutes later, after she had paid for her groceries, she turned around and got in my face and said, “You know, it wasn’t necessary to touch my stuff like that. That was really wrong. Don’t ever do that again.”

It was as though she’d just come out of a self-assertiveness class and decided to practice on me. Bear in mind that I’d already seen my mistake AND APOLOGIZED.

I really wouldn’t have minded if she’d said, “You know, I have a hard time with people touching my stuff. Could you not do that?” I would have said, “Yeah, I hear you. My apologies.”

I really wouldn’t have minded if she’d said, “Next time, could you ask?” I would have said, “I’ll do my best. I have trouble with my hearing and it’s hard for me to talk in situations like this.”

But when people start using the pronoun You instead of I, and start telling me what is Necessary, and get otherwise self-righteous and in my face — I really can’t tolerate that crap.

She didn’t have an ounce of consideration for the people behind her and what their needs might be.

It didn’t occur to her that perhaps I had been waiting for several minutes for her to wake up to the presence of other people.

She had made a decision about what was Necessary and Not Necessary, when she had no clue about the state of my body and what was necessary FOR ME.

She didn’t know that my auditory processing issues makes it difficult for me to initiate conversations with anyone in a sound-rich environment. She didn’t know that I instinctively take the path of least resistance and do not talk in a situation like that because it is painful and exhausting. She didn’t know that my vestibular issues make it very difficult for me to move things back and forth. She didn’t know that my hip was hurting and I just wanted to get my stuff out of the basket so that I could hang onto it.

But she made a decision about what was Necessary, as though it were some sort of objective fact, as though what is Necessary for one person is Necessary for everyone else. She didn’t stop to think that maybe she didn’t know the first thing about me and shouldn’t be telling me what’s what. It didn’t even occur to her.

THAT’S privilege, folks. She became the authority on what was Right and Necessary in that situation without stopping to consider that other people might be having a whole other experience of the world.

For once, words did not fail me. I was pissed, and somehow, being pissed help me break through my shyness, my exhaustion, my resistance, and my general shock. I said in a very loud voice, and it took all the energy I could muster:

“Excuse me, but YOU could have been paying attention to where YOUR things were on the conveyer belt and moved them for MY convenience.”

Of course, she ignored me, turned her back as I was talking, and walked away. And no one else said a word. I was shaking with anger and embarrassment. I hate confronting people in public like that, particularly strangers. But I’m getting really, really sick of people assuming that their experience is just like everyone else’s. I’m sick of people assuming that everyone is able-bodied, that everyone can talk on demand, that everyone can move things without getting dizzy, that everyone can stand up without holding onto something, and that everyone somehow owes them space and consideration and they don’t owe anyone a goddamned thing. I’m sick of the ignorance, of the privilege, and of the utter lack of empathetic imagination.

And most of all, I’m sick of people getting in my face over nonsense like who gets to go through a door first or their soda cans falling over — like a goddamned soda can falling over is more important than the fact that I don’t fall over.

So I held my space. And I came home shaking. But I did it. It was a small thing, but it was also huge.

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/07/14/more-from-the-land-of-microaggressions/feed/ 4
Does My Presence Offend Your White Able-Bodied Male Privilege? http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/07/11/does-my-presence-offend/ http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/07/11/does-my-presence-offend/#comments Thu, 11 Jul 2013 22:55:54 +0000 Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/?p=2728 IMG_2029

I had several errands to run today. I went to CVS to buy some things for the school supplies drive at the bank. Then, I went to the bank to donate the supplies and deposit a couple of checks. And then I had to mail some paperwork at the post office.

All of my errands went smoothly, everyone I spoke with was very friendly, and I was feeling pretty damned wonderful. And then I got hit with a faceful of entitlement on my way out the post office door.

I was about to walk out the door went I saw a man coming directly toward me. He was white, around the same age as I am, and judging from the determination and speed at which he was walking, physically able-bodied. He was also a big man — over six feet tall and strong. From the way he was walking toward me, it was clear that he assumed that I was just going to get out of his way.

Please bear in mind he was looking at a woman who is 5’1″ and uses a bright red cane. The only way he could have missed either of these things is if he were walking toward me backwards. Which he wasn’t.

Because I am a courteous person, and because I tend to take the long way around people with a lot of attitude, and because it used to be possible for me to make sudden quick movements without risking injury, it’s been my habit to move aside for people like him. But in this case, I instinctively knew that if I tried to get out of his way as quickly as I needed to, I was either going to stumble or I was going to twist myself the wrong way and injure my hip again.

So I just stopped for a moment, made clear my intention to keep going along the same trajectory, and said, “Excuse me.” I figured that he wouldn’t be such a total jerk as to run right into me. And he didn’t. Instead, he audibly sighed, stared me down with a look of utter disgust on his face, shook his head as though I had just committed some sort of unthinkable breach of social ethics, and went around me.

I turned around to look at him, and as he walked away, he was still shaking his head as if to say, “What is the world coming to when an able-bodied white man can’t expect people to get out of his way?”

I was just shocked. I find that I lose my ability to speak in these moments — not because I have nothing to say, but because I am an inveterate problem solver and I know straightaway when problem solving is out of the question. This was one of those moments. The level of privilege that came at me was extreme. He really assumed that the space I was standing in was his, and he didn’t stop for a moment to think, “Wow, that lady is using a cane. Perhaps she might have difficulty moving out of the way. Perhaps she is in pain. I will be gracious and go around her.” Oh, no. God forbid.

As I stood there feeling a combination of powerlessness, shock, anger, and sadness, I realized that I had to say something. Anything. It almost didn’t matter what it was. I was hoping to say something that felt powerful, but all I could do was to shout after him:


Oh, God. So not good enough. I mean, it’s okay in a pinch, but I’d like to figure out some brief and effective way to say, “Excuse me, white able-bodied dude. I know you’re not accustomed to the idea that other people have the same right to space as you do, but on most planets THIS BRIGHT RED CANE is a signal that YOU SHOULD BE THE ONE TO MOVE.”

I’m open to suggestions.

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/07/11/does-my-presence-offend/feed/ 9
My Body is Not Public Property: The Disability Version http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/06/25/my-body-is-not-public-property-the-disability-version/ http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/06/25/my-body-is-not-public-property-the-disability-version/#comments Tue, 25 Jun 2013 18:27:14 +0000 Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/?p=2691 Just a few days ago, I wrote a post about what a blessed relief it is have my cane as a visible marker of disability. After living my whole life with invisible disabilities, I am enjoying the fact that my subjective experience and my outward appearance are in greater harmony. As a highly visual person in a highly visual culture, I’ve found it wearying to navigate the ambiguity of being disabled but not looking disabled. The burden that has been lifted by using a cane has been immense.

One of the benefits of the visible marker is that my disability is right up front. People can either welcome me in or treat me as Other, but I know right away which one it will be. In the past, because I’ve tended to present as “normal” at first meeting, the pattern has been that people had an expectation of my normalcy, then they’d get to know me, then they’d see how atypical I really am, then they’d feel somehow defrauded (I knew you were different, but I didn’t know you were that different!), and then they’d walk away. I can’t tell you how many people over the years have gotten pissed off to my face because I didn’t fulfill their projected image of normalcy. It’s good to have a break from that.

But today, I had an experience of the other side of visible disability: the part where well-meaning people ask about your disability and try to help you not be disabled anymore. I had an interaction this morning that woke me up to how subtly it can happen and how quickly I have to be able to meet it and deflect it.

It’s foggy and cool outside today, and I love walking in this kind of weather, so I got up and out of the apartment early. After I’d run a couple of errands, I saw a guy about my age on the street asking for money. I stopped a minute to give him a couple of dollars. He had grey dredlocks and called himself “an old yogi.” He was very gentle in his manner.

I am always very cognizant of the dynamics of helping people on the street: the class difference, the fact that people are in an extremely vulnerable position, and the fear that they carry of not knowing how someone is going to react to them. So I come from a place of wanting to give respect in equal measure with food or money or clothing, because I figure that respect is in as short a supply as cash. But of course, the class and power divisions are still there, and today, they came back at me through my disability.

As soon as I stopped to give the old yogi money, he began to question me about my cane. The opening salvo was to ask whether I was using it as a temporary measure. The implied question was whether or not I am permanently disabled. I didn’t know how to answer that question, because I don’t know whether the problem with my hip will get better. So I told him that something was going on with my hip and that I wasn’t sure what it was.

All of you with visible disabilities are likely cringing at this point, because you know exactly what’s coming and can see very clearly where I stepped into the big bear trap: a perfect stranger was asking about my body, and I gave him information. I’m not exactly sure why I did. Part of it was that he seemed to be expressing concern and I felt appreciation for it; part of it was that it simply took me by surprise; part of it was that I have this impulse toward truth and accuracy and sometimes don’t keep my truth and accuracy to myself. In this case, in order to protect the boundaries around my own body and psyche, I should have simply said, “I’m not available to talk about my disability.”

But I didn’t. I just didn’t see what was coming until he said, “I was on a cane for awhile.” That’s when I thought, “Uh oh. Here comes the testimonial.” He proceeded to tell me how he did yoga and got off the cane, how the cane was a crutch that keeps your body from getting better, how a cane can become addictive, and how I should spend some money on some yoga classes and see whether I could clear up the problem myself. In other words, using a cane was a Bad Thing, and having a problem with my hip was a Bad Thing, and of course, I wanted advice on how to evade the Bad Thing.

I was really shaken by this interaction. On the one hand, I understand where the guy was coming from. The class division was there and it was complicated by gender: a man was asking for money from a woman. There was a power struggle of sorts, a struggle in which my disability became my point of vulnerability, despite — or perhaps because of — my class privilege. And there was also an emotional struggle, in which the old yogi wanted to feel the dignity of giving back, as a man and as someone in poverty. He didn’t just want to take. He wanted to help me, too. I saw all of that happen, and it’s difficult to feel angry about it, because at the end of the day, he’s still sitting on the street asking for money and I’m in my apartment with plenty of food and safety.

On the other hand: boundaries. In this case, there are two sets of boundaries that got broken. One set consists of the boundaries that ought to keep a man from asking about a woman’s body without knowing her well enough to make the asking appropriate. The other set consists of the boundaries that ought to keep a nondisabled person from asking about a disabled person’s body and offering advice. Leaving aside the gender issue, the message that I got was that the questions and advice about my disability were welcome.

That’s the part that really got me. There was absolutely no consciousness in the interaction that I might love my cane and that its being a crutch is a Good Thing. There is nothing wrong with a crutch if your leg feels unstable and you’d like to go for long walks anyway. There is nothing wrong with a crutch if it keeps you from falling down. There is nothing wrong with a crutch if it communicates that your body works differently from other bodies and that’s okay.

And of course, the questions were all about disability as a purely medical condition. There was no place in the interaction for disability as a social identity, as a source of pride, as something to make visible because it’s part of who you are. I was caught in the same place in which I’ve always been caught as a woman: If you don’t want the attention, why carry yourself with so much pride in your body? Why be so visible? Why ask for it?

And the answer is exactly the same: Being visible is not an invitation to intrusion. A woman who walks down the street in a bikini isn’t asking for leering commentary any more than a disabled person with a cane is asking for help and advice from a stranger. My body is not public property, not an opportunity for personal conversation, not a canvas upon which other people can paint their fears and power needs and good intentions.

Despite today’s interaction, I am not going to hide. In fact, I just purchased a bright red cane to go with my bright red sneakers. For the first time in my life, I want to stand out. For the first time in my life, I know that standing out doesn’t mean I’m asking for intrusion. It just means that I’m taking up my place on the earth just like everyone else.

So please remember: When I stand out, it doesn’t mean I’m asking for your opinion, your commentary, or your help. It means that I’m asking for your respect.

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/06/25/my-body-is-not-public-property-the-disability-version/feed/ 8