Several years ago George Hislop, who was a close friend, told me the difference between someone who was 'gay' and someone who was 'homosexual.' He said that a 'homosexual' was someone who had sex with others of the same gender but who did not identify with their sexuality, denied it as often and as loudly as they could and who did nothing to support the political movement regarding the rights for sexual minorities. A gay person, on the other hand, was someone who also had sex with others of the same gender but had an affiliation to the movement to the rights of others to love as they will that went beyond sex. Gay people, he said, identified with their sexuality and with their community. He saw the difference as the same as the difference between shade and sun.
I tell you this because I wonder if something the same exists within the disability community. I was in a store the other day, pushing myself around, looking at and shopping on my own. Joe was picking up some beer in the beer aisle, I was shopping for little keepsakes for the girls. A fellow came by in his wheelchair, he was a trim and very fit guy who manoeuvred both a cart and his chair with incredible skill. I, on the other hand, manage to put stuff in the bag behind my chair. He saw me, grinned, said a quick 'hello' and was gone. It was a brief interchange, one that kind of felt like an acknowledgement of brotherhood, of membership, of instant understanding. Nothing more, but it was nice. Really nice actually.
You see, I find, often that others who are wheelchair users, or others who use mobility devices actively avoid any kind of social contact with me at all. In the same way as many non-disabled people make me feel invisible, others with disabilities do the same. It hurts a bit more with done by someone who understands the effects of invisibility. I mentioned this once to someone who told me, quite coldly, that just because another person has a disability doesn't mean that we are automatically friends. I was a bit insulted that anyone would think that I meant that ... friendships don't come with a glance ... only acknowledgement does. Another person suggested that those who ignore me probably don't want others to think that they hang around with others with disabilities, that they have real friends, that they aren't part of some great disability ghetto. First, REAL friends ... what kind of shit is that? Secondly, is their worry about what others would think and indicator that they have others to impress? Others who's judgements they fear? Others who have instilled the idea of shame into the simple acknowledgement of disability in a public place?
Perhaps, and I'm only thinking out loud here, that we might have a similar distinction to make, one along the lines that George suggested. Is there a difference between those who have a disability and who identify as a disabled person, who see the disability community as an important one, who see activism as part of the mandate of politically aware disabled people ... and those who have a disability but deny it (I'm just like everyone else) or loathe it (I'd love to be anyone else but me) or refuse identification (I don't like to label myself disabled.) One makes community, one denies community, one accepts belonging, one longs to belong elsewhere.
I know that this is an awful lot to bring forward out of a simple,chance, encounter in a grocery store. But it's more that that single experience. It comes from a multitude of experiences. Like the woman I spoke to in Maryland who wanted to talk to me about accessibility in Toronto. When this happened it reminded me of being in a gay bar in Milwaukee and being asked how safe it was to be gay in Toronto. In both cases, it was more than strangers asking strangers tourist advice ... both were experiences of the best of community. Where strangers aren't so strange, and where questions are understood at the deepest level of their asking. Community is community but community requires an entrance fee - identity.
So do you all see a difference between the 'disabled, out, and proud' folks and the 'I don't consider myself disabled and would never, ever, want to hang with others who have disabilities' folks.
I'd like your opinion on this one ...