Monday, June 20, 2011

I Contact

There are two Dave's.

And each one gets treated very differently.

There is the 'at the front of the room giving a lecture Dave'.

There is the 'look at the fat guy in the wheelchair Dave'.

'Lecture Dave' has conversations with people, he exchanges ideas and opinions, he laughs and is included in the jokes. 'Lecture Dave' gets something that everyone expects, social inclusion. Sometimes the signal for inclusion is very simple - eye contact. Regular typical eye contact. Not staring. Not avoiding. Just a gaze held, a glance exchanged, a glimpse into the center. 'Lecture Dave' never realized that those moments of conversation when the eyes joined with the words in the creation of 'message' would become a valued rarity.

'FW Dave' doesn't get much eye contact. If Joe is with 'FW Dave', Joe gets the eyes while 'FW Dave' gets the chill. When 'FW Dave' insists on being spoken to directly, often eyes go a few inches above where contact would be made, like a can of peas on a shelf out of reach. Others may wish to have 'eyes in the back of their heads', 'FW Dave' seems to have them on the top of his.

Oddly, me, I, 'FW Dave' most of the time, have gotten used to this lack of contact, this tiny bit of social exclusion and it only became noticeable today. I'm in Prince George staying at the new Sandman Signature Hotel here. It's a really lovely place. First at checkout and then in Rockford the bar and restaurant which is attached to the hotel, the staff all looked at me while talking with me. Chatting with the bartender about tea, I love tea, he looked right at me as we spoke. Just like I used to get when I was a walker, just like I get when I'm 'Lecture Dave'. But here, in this context, I'm so used to conversing with the 'whites of their eyes' that I found it disconcerting.

It's stunning to me how quickly, after all I've only been disabled for four years, I've come used to social exclusion. How I've just, over time, adapted to existing without existing, speaking with a disembodied voice, having eyes that see but are not seen. I know at first I fought, fight after fight for the dignity of being present, fully present in my conversations. It was like I wore a tee shirt that said 'Gaze Rights Now!' But over time, bigger battles came along, or more precisely the battle for social inclusion for the end of social exclusion, seemed too big. It was easier to lobby for space to get into a store than it was for space to get into contact.

So, when the bartender, when the lobby clerk, looked at me as if I was real. I realized the importance of real eyes. I realized that the fight for access needs to always include the right to be included. I contact. Eye contact. Same difference.


Anonymous said...

When I was a kid I was teased a lot for this. Even though I have had three operations to straighten my eye it has no useable sight and especially when tired it tends to wander making it look as though I wasn't watching the person I was talking to. The other kids kept going on about it so much it made me so miserable that I developed a coping mechanism of not looking at the person I am talking to.

Even as an adult I tend not to look at someone for extended periods as it wearies me but I try as I know eye contact is valuable.

I suppose why I am posting this is not that I want to disagree with you but just that as with an earlier post it might be that there are other reasons someone might not look at you.

Belinda said...

Dave, I send kudos to the hotel you are in. I pray that both Dave's will be integrated in more environments, I hate that it isn't the case right now.

Dave Hingsburger said...

anon, I recognize what you are saying and thank you for your comment. I only really notice this when people can't or won't look me in the eye, but have no difficulty looking Joe, or others around, in the eye. It's the difference in treatment that leads to thoughts of exclusion.

Amanda said...

Anonymous: I thought of that too, given that I'm autistic, and that's a group of people who are generally really bad with eye contact. (Some of us, me included, have even been beaten by professionals, as part of "teaching methods" to get us to make eye contact.)

But really the reason that I came to the website with the comments instead of staying in the blog reader program (that shows me the posts, but not the comments) was because I expected at least one person to try to explain to Dave all of these disability-related reasons that a person might avoid eye contact, or use "tricks" like looking slightly away from the eyes. And I had something to say about that that so far, nobody seems to have said, in all the threads where this comes up. So, I'm not picking on you, Anonymous, I don't know who you are, this is just about a general trend, not about any single person personally.

I've seen this happen on a lot of /Dave's blog posts. Dave will talk about some act of discrimination, and lots of people (especially disabled people who might have a different reason to act the way the person Dave met was acting, but not limited to such), will seem to try to find every possible reason that the person might not have been really discriminatory (or acting out of power, privilege, etc.) at all.

And there's something that makes me really uneasy when people do that.

Most of the world is not autistic, does not have a visual impairment, or extreme social anxiety, and is not disabled in various other ways that would impair eye contact. (Nor in ways that would cause the huge number of types of discrimination Dave describes that gets explained away like this.)

Dave himself has noticed a huge difference between when he's given the respect and authority of a presenter, versus when he's just J. Random Fat Disabled Guy on the street. A difference like that would not be caused by everyone who avoids eye contact doing it because they're disabled.

I think I understand the motivation behind people saying "Hey, if that were me, it wouldn't be discrimination, because I've got a condition that affects my ability to do this." It's because those of us who can't do whatever Dave is describing people not doing, immediately go "Oh shit, if that were me, he would have thought I did it for a bad reason."

But when that all gets added together, so many people over so many posts saying the same thing, it seems like the effect is to invalidate what Dave is saying. To say, "Hey, your instincts about your lived experience of discrimination? Not necessarily real."

Note that I say that's the effect. That's very different from the intent. I'm sure that a lot of people don't even think of that effect when they say these things. I'm also equally sure, from experience, that other people... simply don't fully want to confront the reality of what Dave is experiencing and simply find an excuse to show that what he says isn't actually real. That lets them go on living their comfortable life where they don't have to be aware of these things. That's a common reaction to someone revealing a form of oppression that not everyone is aware of to begin with. But that doesn't make it right.

I'm not even going to try to figure out who is in which group, and I don't really care. I just want to say what it can feel like to give an experience of discrimination that you know from experience really exists, and then find that everyone else tells you reasons it might not have been real. I've seen it happen so much here, I just wanted to say something not in reaction to the one comment today, but to the dozens of comments I've seen over a period of years.

Amanda said...

And sometimes I actually see Dave respond by reconsidering whether what he's seeing is really discrimination. And it's largely because of that that I want to remind him that, you know, sometimes when someone doesn't make eye contact, it's because they're disabled themselves, but most of the time? It's discrimination. And your gut feelings are usually right, more right over a general period of time than the gut feelings of those of us who always want to find other explanations. I think the other explanations are sometimes right... but the sheer chances that they're right are much lower than the chances that your gut was right, just by the number of people in the population who have the issues that cause us to behave in the way you're describing.

That may be uncomfortable for those of us with issues that would prevent us from behaving the way you would expect from a respectful person. But I think that's only relevant if we're going to be spending a lot of time with you. Then we can explain why we personally aren't doing something within having a relationship of some kind with you. I don't know how to explain this exactly. I just feel like if we don't even know each other, then it's okay for you to assume it's prejudice if I don't look you in the eye, because you don't even know me, and you can't question every single instance that you see when you know it's a pattern that people fail to look you in the eye because of prejudice. It's only relevant if we do know each other, and then I can explain it to you and you'd be okay with it. But you don't need me putting it in your mind that your gut reaction to the vast majority of people failing to make eye contact, is probably wrong because a small amount of the population doesn't make eye contact for disability reasons. I mean you can keep it in mind, but it shouldn't invalidate what your instincts are telling you in general, because in general the instincts of someone experiencing day-to-day oppression are better than the instincts of people who aren't experiencing that at the moment.

Does that make sense at all?

Amanda said...

EEEEK! It keeps only posting the second half of my comment. There was a first half of my comment. Can you check your spam filters for it? (There should be two comments beside this one and there's only one now that I can see. I've tried posting the first one twice and it isn't showing up. The first one adds a lot of context to the second one and I'm afraid I'll offend people if they don't see the first part.)

Anonymous said...

Amanda, thank you, you said it!!!

Anonymous said...

Amanda, yes, yes, yes! That has been bothering me too. Thank you for articulating it so well.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your comment Dave and Amanda. Maybe I over reacted to Dave's post, I've been confined to bed for a few weeks now and am a bit low. I think the reason I over reacted is I have met Dave and would hate to think that he might have thought I was being rude if I hadn't maintained eye contact.

Ruti Regan said...


You're right and it disturbs me too...

Because it is discriminatory and it is real and the fact that some people do it for other reasons doesn't make that go away. It's a real thing and I don't want to explain away the thing.

And yet... When I go on a disability blog and read something I normally do described in that kind of way -- it's also kind of disturbing. Because people judge me so unfavorable so routinely, and people *don't believe me* about what my actions mean and what it's like to live in my skin and -- it's disturbing when people who talk about acceptance and diversity speak without any reference to the fact that people like me exist. I accept invisibility in a lot of contexts, but it seems like this is a context in which I *shouldn't* accept that.

And so since I think Dave *will* believe me, and that it *matters* that he believe me and know that people like me exist, I want to point it out when I see descriptions like this, because I think he can and will understand.

But I also *don't* want to point it out, for the reason you said, because I don't want to deny that the things he's describing are real, because of course they ARE real and he's not imagining it. People DO avoid looking at him for bad reasons.

But I still think there is *something* that needs to be said or figured out and I don't know what it is. Some piece doesn't fit. Do you have any idea?

Ruti said...

And especially "I contact. Eye contact. Same difference." ... Really really similar language has been used to dehumanize people like me and even though what he's describing is real that's still a *really* disturbing statement to read in this kind of context.

Dave Hingsburger said...

I am going to respond to all these incredible posts, however, my life has just been struck by deep tragedy. I will be away from comment pages and probably posting for a few days. do not see my silence as anything more than simply the fact that I need to mourn.

Shan said...

Ha ha!! You know what? as a non-disabled person who reads your blog all the time, I am never sure of the boundary between eye contact and STARING! I am super sensitive about it. I glance over, make eye contact briefly, smile vaguely and look firmly away, lest I be accused of staring. It's a very fine line...I'm totally paranoid.

If I was in a service profession and was actually speaking to people in wheelchairs, though, I would have an acceptable excuse to look straight at them for extended periods, and I would do it.

Have I been reading your blog too long, or what?!