Every now and then you get a glimpse, quite accidentally, into how 'Johanna Q Public' sees disability. Those moments are always shocking and always disturbing. That happened to me yesterday.
Vita is on a Retreat. Joe is here with me as I need personal assistance and, let's face it, everyone knows Joe anyway from seeing him around the office. He doesn't attend the retreat, obviously, but he's there for those moments in the day where I need something that I wouldn't feel comfortable asking one of my peers to help me with. When booking the retreat, it was made clear that there would be one person attending who may join us for meals but whose meals were not being paid for by the agency. It was arranged that we'd all get white meal tickets and Joe would get green ones. That way, when he used the ticket, he'd be billed for his food separately. Easy plan, well thought out.
As it happened last night, Joe told me that he'd rather not have meals with us and be the 'only non-Vita' person at a Vita event. He knows he's welcome but he didn't feel comfortable. I'm all about people learning to say 'no' and using their voice to state preferences and, though I'd have liked him to come, agreed that he should choose whatever made him more comfortable.
I arrived a little late and most people were already seated. The area isn't really suited for wheelchairs but I pulled into a table and joined two others. The staff from the restaurant came over to us and said, to me, 'So, you'll be paying for your own then?' I didn't realize at that moment the assumption and the prejudice and the 'world view of disability' behind that statement. I simply said, 'No, he's chosen not to come down and join us'. She had a list of names, she found Joe's name and crossed it off, I gave her mine and we were good to go.
We had dinner.
I talked too much, I'm not very good at social events.
I came back upstairs and found Joe in hotel heaven. He had classical music playing on the computer, as a soundtrack to the card game he had going. He had a beer beside him and he looked wonderfully relaxed. He chatted with me about researching the Titanic and he'd had a great time by himself - he's a nice man. I was really tired as the day had been long, I lay down.
Before my head hit the pillow - WHAM ... it struck me.
She came directly to me. No one else - me. She knew that there was someone there not part of the group, who didn't work for Vita, who was paying for himself.
And she came directly to me.
I'm in a wheelchair.
I can't be employed.
I can't be a member of a group.
I had to be the person excluded because I was the person who was different.
Her assumption, naturally, that I wasn't one of the staff (let alone one of the Directors of the organization) because of my disability and my presence in the world speaks volumes. The stereotypes of those of us with disabilities run so deep that a woman feels confident that she can tell - by the sight of a wheelchair - that she can 'select out' - by the sight of a wheelchair - the person who 'doesn't belong'. The person who 'doesn't work' for the agency.
It had all happened so fast that I never understood the message behind the moment, but when I did - it scared me.
We are a waste of space.
We don't contribute.
We are obviously unemployable.
and the worst
We don't belong.
If we don't begin to powerfully challenge this strong, deep, prejudice about those of us with disabilities - I fear real danger will arise from that attitude.
Real, dark, violent danger.