Deep Thought: (Dis)ability Talk

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Deep Thought: (Dis)ability Talk

A peeled orange for sale in a store.
Who would want to buy this? Maybe you, someday?

Let's talk about assumptions. And empathy. And what we can do about too much of the one and not enough of the other. Warning: I'll probably ramble.

I'll start with that image up there. I made it, but it's meant to indicate the photo I saw on Twitter the other day. Somebody posted a picture of a stack of plastic boxes he saw in the produce aisle of his supermarket. Each box contained one (1) beautifully peeled orange. His outraged comment was, 'Who would buy this?'

He soon found out.

One reply summed it up: 'Before posting something like this, ask yourself: is it a question that can be answered by the fact that 61 million Americans have some sort of disability?' The penny drops at this point: it isn't just a stupid marketing ploy, this orange-inna-box. It's for people who can't peel their own oranges. People with motor problems who prepare their own meals. Duh.

My first reaction to the photo had been to worry about the single-use plastics, but one problem at a time, please. Another person replied with another good reason for buying pre-peeled oranges for lunch: they, personally, were so allergic to airborne orange peel molecules that if a coworker peeled one in the office, the poster would end up in the emergency room. I thanked that poster for this information. I didn't know about that level of citrus allergy. I actually have to ingest an orange or its juice before getting symptoms.

Lots of us have disabilities. Lots of us have more than one. Yelling epithets like 'ableist' at people who aren't thoughtful really doesn't help improve things. Wait! I didn't mean to say that labels such as 'ableist' aren't helpful. They are – in the context of academic analysis and policy planning. When you're talking to policymakers, or media planners, or educational types, terms like that are a convenient way to identify issues. But yelling that at your neighbour? Not so much. What's needed is the empathy to realise that different friends have different needs. And to ask, 'How can I help make it so that we can enjoy things together?'

The problems of ageing are increased if you have progressive disabilities. For instance, the eye trouble I've always had got even worse with presbyopia (at 40) and cataracts (I got them early, in my 50s). I wasn't the only 'senior' in the choir who couldn't see the screen on the back wall, the one where they scrolled the words to the songs. Saying, 'Just pretend to sing along' was discouraging. Especially when all you were asking was, 'Can the computer guy please figure out how to make the text bigger? We know you're technically challenged, but….'

I have trouble hearing when there's background noise. Yes, hearing aids. No, they don't make me hear as well as everyone else. Also, I now have celiac disease, which means I can't eat 'normal' food. I have to be very, very careful what I put in my mouth.

So saying, 'Of course you want to come to the church dinner. Even if you can't eat any of the food, you'll enjoy the company!' is not the clincher of an argument you might think it is. First, here I sit, straining to understand the person next to me in a church basement full of talking people, with an acoustically-dead drop-style ceiling. My neighbour is really enthusiastic about something, but I can't hear what. When I manage to catch a sentence, it goes like this:

'Mabel's meat loaf is so delicious! Why don't you try it?'

In the meantime, I'm starving: I had some raw veggies, juice, feta cheese and an apple for lunch. That meat loaf smells really good, but it either has wheat flour or non-gf oatmeal in it. The same goes for that delicious-looking gravy and the fifteen kinds of cakes and pies over there.

Eventually, somebody notices that I haven't eaten anything. Then the conversation starts: why can't I eat anything? Are you sure? How can anybody be 'allergic to' bread? Well, surely you can eat this. No? Well, how about a slice of watermelon? (It makes the inside of my mouth break out.) A nice fruit salad? (Contains strawberries, ditto.) The vegetable medley? (Uses thickener, I asked.) Finally, in frustration, 'Well eat some grapes. Here.' (Places grapes in front of me.)

I'm not allergic to grapes. I just don't like them. Whenever I am forced to eat a grape to be polite, I remember Dr Zira in Escape from the Planet of the Apes. She didn't like bananas.

Anyway, those are just examples of what I'm trying to get at. All around us, people are struggling to cope with a world that is designed for people who can do things they can't, at least, not the same way. Who don't need the adjustments and workarounds they do. They're often frustrated because the tools they need aren't there. Explaining themselves repeatedly is discouraging. Their friends mean well, but they don't always get it.

And need we say that having one disability doesn't mean you can't accidentally overlook another person's disability? Of course you can. It's a natural result of tending to see the world the way you see it. If you need to park close to the shops, you will definitely notice when all the special parking is full. I always park as far away as possible, and don't have a sticker, so I don't notice until I go shopping with someone who has one.

Have you ever heard anybody complain about Braille signage in places they consider inappropriate, such as bank drive-throughs? Can you imagine how annoying it is for Braille-reading people to have to explain that one more time? How about, 'Does Braille prevent you from reading that sign? Then why do you care?'

Do people groan about the expense of ramps where you live? A church in this town installed lifts, although there are no wheelchair users who regularly attend. They also put in a defibrillator. A doctor in the congregation used the Sunday School hour to demonstrate its use.

You know what? This same small town houses a university. The university doubles the population when it's in session. And you know what else? All the street corners have tactile paving. I have never heard a single person say one word about it. Okay, not true: the only thing I've heard anyone say was, 'If you stand on that place, the cars will have to stop and let you cross.' Which, apparently, everybody in town believes, which makes it true. Also, everyone dutifully stands on the tactile paving squares to wait for the traffic light where there is one. Moreover, they think tactile paving is pretty.

My point is that most people want to help. But they may not know how, and they may be shy to ask. One of the reasons people are afraid to ask about disability issues is that they are fearful of rejection. Calling them 'ableist' on social media isn't a good way to help them overcome that fear. Whether the person comes across as pushy or overhelpful, they're basically trying to learn. What they need is not more labelling, but more information. What we need is less 'gotcha!' and more 'hey, I'm glad you asked, because I'm dying to share the answer.'

And before anyone else says it, that information isn't solely the responsibility of the person with the specific disability. See the experiences recounted above for a mild description of the annoyance people feel at having to be everyone's informant about wheelchair use/service animal management/dietary restrictions/visual or auditory impairment/etc. 'My brother-in-law has that, and he taught me to…' is one of the most welcome beginnings to a sentence you can imagine.

You know what? We've got this, if we only realise that you don't have to talk like a sociology textbook to do what humans are best at: taking care of each other.

So: thumbs up to the peeled oranges. And thumbs-down to name-calling.

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Dmitri Gheorgheni

27.09.21 Front Page

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