It’s not an uncommon refrain when trying to build empathy for disabled people, just say “Everyone has some kind of disability, some are just more obvious than others. All kinds of people say this. Hell, I distinctly recall uttering myself one day during a planned day of disability education in fifth grade. A day that was not triggered by the curriculum but by my being publicly shamed by my teacher for wanting to do my science project on the physics of accessibility using the school as a model (somehow this isn’t science apparently, I’m still not clear on why though). My mother called the school to complain about my public humiliation, triggering the public education day. I still had to come up with a different topic for the science fair.
The education day in hindsight was utterly cringe worthy. As the only physically disabled student in the school (a feat only achieved because I don’t use a wheelchair) and the reason for the need of education in the first place.
I don’t remember most of what I said other than the platitude that I now advocate against. The day was otherwise filled with experiments meant to create empathy. They made us wear glasses smeared with toothpaste to emulate blindness and put us in noise cancelling headphones.
The day concluded on the students having wheelchair races around the playground. This actually only served to highlight my own disability because I’m hemiplegic and my left side is weaker than my right. I couldn’t actually propel myself forward. The best I could do was sort of turn in a circle.
My peers were never presented with stairs because that elementary oddly didn’t have any despite a universally ambulatory student population. Disabilities were just games they could put on and take off. Studies have since shown that this kind of empathy building doesn’t actually work and may do actual harm to how others perceive the disabled experience.
Hindsight being 20/20, I now cringe when I think back on that day. I also know why in my plea for acceptance to my classmates, I said those horribly inaccurate words “everyone has some kind of disability, some are just more obvious than others”. I wanted to be part of the group, I wanted to be seen as just like them. The problem is that I wasn’t and uttering those words did not give me access to them.
This was actually my second elementary school, at the first one I attended, I couldn’t even wash my hands after using the washroom. The sinks in that school were designed to conserve water and it was before the days of motion sensors. You had to keep holding on to the round tap for water to flow. When you let go the water stopped. My left hand was to weak. I could therefor only wash my left hand but not my right.
At both school’s I attended gym class was often a nightmare, I was always picked last for team sports (yes I know, not a uniquely disabled experience). Social exclusion got worse when we started learning volleyball. I was physically incapable of underhand serves which were mandatory. Instead of allowing me to skip serving or teaching and allowing me to serve overhand, I was paired with the nearest student who would balance the ball in front of me while I swung at it. This is not an effective serving technique and my peers resented having to do it. I know because they were vocal about it. I was horribly bullied for this and any other excuse the other kids could come up with. This was the reason I changed schools. Not because my first school was inaccessible but because of bullies. A problem that was unfortunately not solved by changing schools.
People resent (then and now) that I and other disabled people do things differently or are incapable of some tasks. I am also on the autism spectrum (I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 18) which can be accompanied by learning disabilities, which is true in my case. After getting academic accommodations in university my grades improved significantly. One of my accommodations was to have someone take notes for me so that I could concentrate fully on lectures and discussion. People who found out would often remark “of course, you do better with a note taker, everyone would” This is actually not true. Generally note taking improves an individual’s retention of the material, particularly if those notes are taken with pen and paper. You are made to feel that you are getting an unfair advantage when in fact you are just rectifying a noted disadvantage. I was once told by a peer who discovered I had a note taker (these things are supposed to be confidential but rarely remain that way) that I shouldn’t be allowed in university if I couldn’t do things exactly the same as everyone else.
I could go on with so many more examples of how being disabled results in both physical and social barriers to accessing public spaces and common social experiences like public school and university. These types of experiences are not exclusive to me, they are common experiences of disabled people everywhere and they often get worse or have more major consequences than public humiliation and rude comments.
So what does this all have to do with the line “everyone has some kind of disability”? Well it’s this, Some nondisabled people internalize this rhetoric and use it to make their common place and not actually disabling problems seem like metaphors for real actual disability. Telegraph Journalist Josephine Fairley albeit jokingly wrote
“writing this from the standpoint of someone with two legs and two arms whose only (small) disability seems to be that the bit of my brain which can process instruction manuals appears to be entirely absent.”
Having difficulty understanding instruction manuals is not a disability, in fact it is a pretty common issue. She uses this as a jumping off point to condemn actual disabled people who don’t like the trend in the media of making disabled people into inspirations. I’m not going to debate that issue in this post because it’s off topic. The main point to take away here is that a self described able-bodied person is using that position of privilege to first claim kinship with disabled people over a difficulty to understand instruction manuals. She then talks over actually disabled people, treating their opinions are wrong and misguided even though they and not she have to live with the consequences and results of what she advocates for.
In my own experience people have been less tongue-in-cheek about it than Fairley is. I have had people sincerely claim that being an introvert is a disability (it’s not check the DSM V if you don’t believe me) or that their ignorance of their own privilege and its tendency to result in them expressing themselves in oppressive (not just ableist but racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.) ways must be overlooked because they can’t help it. They are both capable of knowing its wrong but unwilling to actually trying to change.
Not everyone is disabled, saying they are does not create a bond or empathy. Equating things like occasional clumsiness to a mobility impair regardless of good intentioned motives is false equivalence. This false equivalence must end because instead of helping build empathy it is actually destroying it. It is just giving non-disabled people another weapon with which they can hide behind to continue talking over us or continue to oppress us while claiming solidarity.