Last fall, I took a class called Disability and Culture. In said class, students were required to develop and produce a creative project about disability-related conundrums.
Disability conundrums are complex dilemmas. They have no right answer and the more you try and find one, the more fuzzy the situation becomes.
Consider the act of staring.
Curious children with limited exposure to disability stare at disabled people in public places because they are seeing something unfamiliar. The guardian of a staring child will likely correct this behavior, saying “it’s rude to stare.” That child learns a lesson through the repetition of this process: don’t look at disabled people (or pretend like you aren’t looking). And as that child grows into adulthood, they carry this lesson into public situations. Overtime it morphs into a cultural norm.
If the cultural norm suggests you ought not look at disabled people because doing so is rude, what are the consequences? The first consequence is that disabled people go unacknowledged, literally ignored. Invisible in public because those around them have been taught (socialized) to believe that non-acknowledgement is kinder than staring.
Imagine now, an able-bodied adult becomes woke (being aware of – as it relates to social injustice) to the consequences of the “don’t stare” norm. This adult actively decides to break the social norm. The adult spots a person in a wheelchair rolling into an accessible cafe, and does the inconceivable. The adult looks. Instant discomfort. Cue inner-dialogue: “oh no, did I look too long? Are they offended? Should I smile? Is a smile patronizing? How would I smile at a stranger who wasn’t in a wheelchair? okay. Do that. Smile like they aren’t in a wheelchair. Shit. That wasn’t right. They look offended. Walk away… quickly. Why was that so awful? uh. Never again. ” The adult, feeling both embarrassed and rude, decides the effort wasn’t worth the resulting discomfort. The adult assumes that the interaction was equally uncomfortable for the wheelchair user and so also feels guilty. The need for the social norm of “don’t stare” is affirmed, and the adult goes on with their life trying to avoid exchanges with disabled people believing -with experience as evidence- doing so is what is right for both parties.
Here in lies the conundrum: to stare, or not to stare?
Is it better to look at the risk of an uncomfortable encounter, or better to continue not looking at the risk of reproducing the invisibility through which oppression is born?
At first, it seems rather obvious, doesn’t it? If we are trying to create a more just world, risking uncomfortable encounters is preferable to risking the continuation of inequality. However, there is more complexity here. This question requires us to examine the power dynamics between the two groups currently and historically. Okay. Say we do this… We might determine that, given the history of oppression and the current demand for physical and mental ‘fitness’ and of having a species-typical fully-functioning body, disabled people hold less social and economic power than do able-bodied people. The problem with power, is that those who have it tend to prefer keeping it. Despite idealizing a more equitable and just world, when getting there comes to giving up power, we find ways to justify keeping the power balance as is. That is, we accept injustices when they threaten our own sense of power AND when we can find a way to disguise or justify the problem.
The adult discussed above left the interaction filled with assumptions about how the encounter must have been for the disabled person. The adult feels justified to not look at disabled people because in their mind, not looking is more comfortable for the disabled person too. The justification comes from the same place of righteousness that does a guardian’s correction of a staring child. Able-bodied people tend to believe that if they themselves were disabled, they would prefer to not be stared at. Because it is their imagined preference, they project it onto those who live the imagined situation.
While the conundrum begs the question: to stare or not to stare, the central issue is not about staring at all. The central issue comes down to assumptions. It comes down to the powerful making assumptions about (whom they perceive to be) the powerless based on imagined futures. This means that the social norm which seems to exist to protect disabled people from rude staring exists not because disabled people asked for said protection, but because able-bodied people imagined that they would want that protection if the tables were turned. “If I were in a wheelchair, I’d hate it if people stared at me.”
Assumptions about what disabled people think and feel, about how they live, how they hurt, and how they experience interactions with able-bodied people are what hold up and maintain the injustice.
As a person with diabetes, as a disabled person, I want change.
I have found that clinicians, researchers, and even friends and family see only the parts they want to see. They look enough to affirm their expectations and imagined aspects of what diabetes and disability must be like. They assume the rest.
For the class I took last fall, I decided to take up staring as the conundrum for my project because I want to challenge assumptions. The result is this blog post and the subsequent video.
As a person with diabetes, as a disabled person, I make change.
Here, I control the staring. I speak for myself and my experience cannot be imagined. I make the viewer see what I want seen. I demonstrate the hardship of diabetes on a social level. The hardship is not about the needles. It is not about drawing blood. Although, I do call for staring at those things as well. The hardship of diabetes demonstrated here is about being perceived through the lens of an imagined future.