One day, when I was in high school, I was riding the city bus when a friend I hadn’t seen since grade school got on. We were both 15 and to my surprise, she was eight months pregnant. When I saw her I gasped, “Michelle! How did this happen?” She rolled her eyes and muttered something about the ignorance of virgins and made her way to the back of the bus.
Even at 15 I had enough going on to regret the words I’d said as soon as they’d left my big stupid mouth. Years later, I still cringe when I think about it. We all say bone-headed things and I’ve found my own foot in my mouth many times since then. I try to remember this when someone barfs out something mind boggling to me and I tell myself they agonize over their most idiotic declarations as much as I distress over mine.
As someone with an often misunderstood illness, I hear stupid shit with astounding regularity. I’ve learned not to take most of it personally, but sometimes these off the cuff, seemingly innocuous comments can be reflections of questionable beliefs that are deeply imbedded in our society. As luck would have it, I’ve been on the receiving end of some of these questionable comments over the last couple of days. In response, I’ve been using my well trained side-eye a little more than usual and so rather than risk pulling a muscle in my face, I’ve decided to call a few things out here.
My first raised eyebrow was directed towards some classic Dime-Store Philosophy, when a casual acquaintance lamented to me that ‘everything happens for a reason.’
I didn’t bother mentioning that I don’t believe my disease was sent to me for the greater good of teaching me some mystical lesson. I simply glanced at my cane and shrugged, saying I don’t really subscribe to that way of thinking. My philosopher friend then doubled down and said if not for some reason, then karma. Oh?
Please tell me more about the ancient spiritual principles of Buddhism (you WASPy hipster.)
Since I am a lady and sarcasm is unbecoming, what I actually said was an exceedingly polite and sincere “Karma? Interesting. I wonder what the fuck I did?” My politeness notwithstanding, things wrapped up pretty quickly after that. I get it that lots of people think this way. I may have even believed some of these easy ideologies myself before gaining a little life experience. To each his own. But here’s a bit of free sensitivity training: Don’t say this shit out loud. I mean, know the room. There is tragedy in this world. Assigning a reason to someone else’s suffering is just, ew.
Seriously. Just don’t.
My adventures with verbal faux pas continued into the next day when The Banker and I headed to the baseball game. The good people at The Roger’s Centre have a service where those requiring assistance can be met at the gate with a wheelchair and brought to their seats. I decided to take advantage of this in the interest of saving myself from a long walk, stairs, and crowds that can be hostile to my slow gait, and blind to my inability to defend myself against the shoving and jostling that happens in a moving throng of people. These employees are well trained and do a great job. It’s a lovely service and without it I might otherwise have stayed home.
When we arrived at our section, we were met by another employee whose job it was to direct people to their seats. This attendant did not seem to have received quite the same kind of training as the disability services team. When she saw me rolling up in a wheelchair, she called out loudly:
“Well, aren’t you lucky!”
Her high pitched, sing-song voice was something usually reserved for speaking to people under the age of seven but it’s a phenomenon that sometimes happens to adults when being spoken to while seated. Strikes one and two and the game hadn’t even started.
The words were ringing in my ears and this wasn’t even the first time I’d heard something like this. Here’s why I’m throwing shade at it. What she said was so obviously wrong, but it’s not what you’re thinking. Okay. It totally is what you’re thinking. In our lazy as hell society, why would I want to walk when someone else can do it for me? I mean, who wouldn’t want that, right? (I heard it. Turns out I’m not much of a lady.) It’s also this. When someone says ‘Aren’t you lucky?’, it implies that I’m the recipient of some over and above special treatment. Like I’ve won a damn prize. While everyone else at the game deserves to be there, I’m only lucky enough to be there because of the benevolence and generosity of someone else. Yes, it is a great service and I’m happy it exists but it should not be considered a charity and to tell me I ought to feel lucky to have what amounts to the same access as everyone else is diminishing and insulting and not at all what I’m sure the stadium intended. It’s a service that is provided because it’s the right thing to do. It’s the ethical way to run a business. I don’t feel lucky that I’m invited to participate in something like a baseball game. I feel like a valued and equal member of society.
I know there are many places in the world where people with disabilities are not treated with the same regard I was afforded at the Jays’ game. Hell, there are many places in Toronto where that is the case. I appreciate that I’m fortunate to live in a country where progress is being made in terms of how we treat our most vulnerable but it’s comments like ‘aren’t you lucky’ that are indicative of an endemic, misguided attitude towards disability. One that says, You don’t belong here quite as much as the rest of us. And furthermore, We don’t have to include you, but if we do you’d better recognize how magnanimous and charitable we are. I don’t want to sound like some angry cane wagger but this attitude needs to change. Equal access isn’t a benevolent kindness. Under the Ontario Human Rights Code, it’s the law, bitches.
Okay, true confessions time. What’s the stupidest thing someone has said to you? You can only answer if you’re willing to cough up something boneheaded you’ve said. Guys, our heads are made of bone. It’s bound to happen so get it off your chest already.
In the mean time, I’m gonna pour myself a glass of wine and think about the time I complained to a colleague about the incompetence of the guest lecturer we were forced to endure. A guest lecturer who turned out to be my colleague’s mother. Natch.