In Defense of the Radical Idea of Letting Disabled People Exist in Public Without Comment

Today, I was reading a blog post by Dominick Evans called Don’t “Just Say Hi” to Me…Just Fuck Off Instead. He’s referencing the Cerebral Palsy Foundation’s ill advised campaign to combat people’s discomfort around disability by inviting them to engage with disabled people and “Just Say Hi“.

In my experience people don’t have trouble saying hi, my friends do it all the time, shockingly even the ones who aren’t disabled happen to manage it. The problem with campaigns like “just say hi” is that they lack context. You should really have a reason to talk to someone. The existence of disability in your general proximity is not a reason to talk to them. Not that this stops complete strangers from doing so.

Random people have been doing this to me in public since I was a child.

Let me make this very clear adults (most often men) have felt perfectly comfortable coming up to me and saying “hi” since I was a child. Almost exclusively when I was alone (walking home from school, perusing books in the library, etc), yes there is a serious creep factor going on.

These interactions have followed me into adulthood and the creep factor has diminished but not disappeared. These interactions are entirely fixated around the fact that I am disabled. They have nothing to do with me as a person. They invariably involve probing questions about my body and involve such enlightened questions as “what’s wrong with your arm” or “what happened to you?”

The answer to both is “nothing” by the way.

Believe me people have no problem interacting with disabled people for the very reason that they’re disabled. I also assure you that when they do this, I don’t feel included. I feel like someone is very publicly pointing me out while chanting “Different, Different”. Talking to someone just because they’re disabled is not progressive it’s actively hurting people and contributing to a sense of entitlement from nondisabled people.

As Evans notes in his piece

Having a disability takes away most people’s access to privacy. The world truly has little concern for what is going on in our lives as disabled people. Instead there is this innate curiosity about us, which makes it impossible for most people to not say something.

This is the real issue that the Cerebral Palsy Foundation and any other organization should be tackling. The fact that disabled people are not seen as being entitled to personal privacy. The fact that our bodies deviate from the norm seems to give people the idea that they have the right to ask us probing personal questions and they don’t take refusal very well.

Perhaps this is why Evans says that despite his dislike of these interactions, he tends to comply with a smile.

In my experience attempts to deflect just lead to more probing questions. An outright refusal to comply is met with shock and frustration. It also in my experience rarely if ever leads to them backing down because as I mentioned these people feel entitled to my personal information. They usually respond by attempting to shame me by saying something along the lines of “I’m just trying to learn, don’t you want people to be educated”

The fact that I have been trying to teach them that I have the right to exist in public without being accosted is inevitably lost on them.

So rather than telling people to “just say hi” a more appropriate lesson would be to make it clear that disabled people should have the right to exist in public without comment.

I am not suggesting that people ignore issues important to disabled people but rather learn to distinguish between discussing disability in general and needing to know someone’s personal information. It is time for people to learn how to discuss disability only when it is relevant.

The existence of a disabled person in public whether it be someone just walking down the street, shopping in the mall or even being the contestant on a TV talent show does not constitute relevance.

Engaging with disabled people just because they are disabled is dehumanizing.

Unfortunately, that kind of shift in conversation requires a social shift in how society views disability, which is still very much as a spectacle.

Ultimately, initiatives like “just say hi” are lazy faux attempts at inclusion that actually reinforce the status quo, while allowing nondisabled people to feel like they’re helping.

So please, if you don’t know what to say to a disabled person, it’s more likely than not that you have no business talking to them in the first place.

If they actually happen to be a peer (classmate, coworker, etc) and you haven’t figured out that you can talk to them just like anyone else then there’s probably no hope for you anyway.

Learning to talk about disability only when it’s relevant and in a way that doesn’t reduce the experience of disability into something that can be explained by a single person, will do a lot more good than expecting me to be happy that you’re talking to me just because you noticed that I’m different than you.

 

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