Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Silence and Social Change

Everyone looked at me.


We were riding home on the subway. I have mastered the art of getting on and getting backed into space in the short time the train is stopped at the station. I'm proud of this, it took work to learn. Joe was sitting across from me and we were quietly riding home. A mother and two children were sitting on the bench beside Joe. The little girl was pointing up at the subway map which was over my head just above the door.

They were counting the number of stops that they had to ride to get to the destination. It's the kind of things that kids like to do. Ruby, and now Sadie, loves to count things. I enjoyed their enthusasm with numbers and with counting. Then the little girl said that she wanted to get off at 'that' stop. Mother couldn't figure which one she was pointing to and was trying to get the little girl to tell her the letter that the stop name started with. The child was having none of it.

'That one!'

'Honey, I don't know which one you are pointing too.'

'That one there!!!'

'What letter does the word start with?'

'That one. The CRIPPLED one.'


'The one with the CRIPPLED MAN on it.'

This went on for some time. The word CRIPPLED echoing through the subway car. Everyone seemed affected by it but the mother. I could feel the discomfort in the subway car. I could feel eyes NOT looking at me. I watched the mother. I watched the child. I waited for the mother to suggest to her child that maybe that isn't the best word to use. But Mother stayed focussed on trying to figure out where her daughter was pointing. Her inability to 'get it' frustrated the child and the word CRIPPLED was said over and over and over again.

And I made a decision.

The responsibility to say something isn't solely mine. I could see the discomfort of all on the train. I didn't know, of course, if they were uncomfortable with the word BECAUSE I was there, or if they would have been uncomfortable even if I wasn't there. But, that discomfort made everyone equally responsible. Should only black people have the responsibility to speak up if someone on a subway car uses hostile language about race? Should only gay people have the responsiblity to speak up if someone on a subway care uses hostile language about sexuality? I think not. I really, really, think not.

So I decided NOT to do or say anything.

I didn't like being made responsible by default.

I hoped my inaction would spur someone to say something. The tension needed to break, people were mortified, people were disturbed, people seemed to want to teleport out of there. But no one said anything.

Not one person.

Not even me.

Because, I beleive that sometimes my silence is more powerful than my voice. Sometimes I think I need to shift responsibility over. Sometimes, in all honesty, I just don't feel like being 'the one' who says 'hey, maybe you want to consider another word'.

What I hope happens is that someone, even just one someone, who was on that train is sitting at home thinking, 'I should have said something - next time I will.'

Silence as a form of making social change.

I don't know if it will work. But it's what I tell myself - because I want to think that I did something by not doing something. And, even if it's a lie I tell myself, it gives me a break from the constant responsiblity that comes as part of the package with being different.


Anonymous said...

Oh Dave,

for me something from your ideas already seeped in.

Public transport a few mornings ago. It was a day between a public holiday and a weekend. So the train was not as crowded as usual. few people were travelling with big suitcases but some seats were still empty.

Entering a woman I guesstimated in her late twentys early thiertis, seeningly overweight and just a slight bit out of breath. Looking around she went to the next seat with the "withe on green cross - sign to mark a plce to be given to the disabled" and said something like "stand up I want to sit here!"

The women sitting there stood up and let her sit there BUT and here is the big BUT: (no pune intended just wanted to point out how difficult the situation became) a discussion came up and I was very disturbed afterwards.

The gentleman sitting right next to the woman sitting on the disability place asked her why she insistedon sitting right at this place, there were free seats were she could have sat too. He remembered that once he had to stand up for her too. why didnt she simply siton a free seat. Some other passengers muttered approvingly or even said something in low voices.

The woman answered in a very angry tone that she got rent from the gouverment for nearly ten years now. That got people even more aggressive leading to one woman explaining to her that to sit in that place she had to have a special disability card (I have one of those) to show if she wanted to sit at that seat. Loud and more aggressiv muttering by the other people.

I did not know hoe to react and still I dont know, here are thr reasons, and I so hope theydont sound aggresiv and excluding but itis all that came up in my head:

- the woman asked in a very commanding way to sit on the seat

- other than being overweight she had no visible disability

- there were enough other free seats within easy reach

- she had dinethid before

- she only travelled two stops

- she did not have the right piece of paper to ask to sit on this special spot

- she already got rent

I know there are things going through my head I considered:

- maybe she needs to sit right at this place because she has bad knees, bad balance, bad problems with certain spaces and wants to sit as soon as possible and as close to the exit as possible

- maybe she was traumatized and had amental disease leading to being overweight, akward with strangers and not able to work right now

- spoke with my mom about the incident, she pointed out how bad it must beg if you have to ask like this and give such very weird answer (like being proud to get rent/disabillity allowence from the gouverment - sorry maybe i translated that bad Rent in german, retirement pension in english)

Simple said: a fat woman demanded to sit in a seat while other seats available only for two stops and after being asked in addition seems very proud to get money for a living from the gouverment.

But what could have changed this situation? should the woman have asked nicer?

I am still cofused and in addition I am always always afraid to ask to sit at this places myself. I have to feel very very ill to do so and still feel very very vulnerable.

Hope this comment makes sense

Anonymous said...

Hmmm...I think people were uncomfortable only because you were there. Otherwise they probably may have felt that it was just a missed teachable moment. After all - crippled means lame. It wasn't so long ago we used to collect money for the "crippled children". It had no "bad" meaning - just a bad situation for children. Is the term all that bad?

People learn different ways to describe disabilities. I'm sure the mother didn't think it was a bad term. It was the repetition of the word with you under the sign being pointed at that was frustrating.

No one likes to correct other people's children - nor make the mother look "bad" in front of her children.

Had you or Joe thought of turning to see what the stop was - and then just say "I think your daughter wants to get off at **** stop." That would have at least stopped the insistance to be understood. Or "I think your daughter is referring to the diability symbol above station ****".

We all want folks to speak up for us - makes us feel good - but you can get hurt expecting it. I think the ball was in your court on this one. Perhaps even a missed opportunity.

What do I know - I get called gimpy - and it just makes me smile. I'm not worried - I know what I am and who I am - and don't let labels define me.

Colleen said...

Dear Dave:

I think in that instance I would have been torn. Should I say something despite the fact that the person most directly affected is choosing to say nothing (you are sitting directly under this child's pointing finger)? If I speak up would that person then think I am interfering? Not all people are comfortable with public confrontations so if he is saying nothing perhaps he prefers that nothing is said. If I got the sense that I could, I would perhaps say to the child - do you mean the blue accessibility sign? And I would probably say that even if you were not sitting directly under this child's pointing finger. It's a tough call, Dave.

I think that I get your point though about it being everyone's responsibility to address prejudice when we encounter it. But we don't.

Thanks for making me think about this - I will be interested to see what other responses you get.


John R. said...

Whew.....I am needing to process this one a bit....I have had been in many of these instances and usually diffuse by using it as an "educable" moment....or, depending on the circumstance and my mood, I may utilize a gentle humorous approach....I guess it depends on the way one "reads the room" or subway car in this instance....I trust that the situation will percolate in the minds and hearts of all who were in the car...I hope the kid eventually learns that the language used (and hopefully the parent as well) is not right and can be hurtful....tough one...

Liz Miller said...

I think I would not have said anything for fear of making the person in the wheelchair even more uncomfortable, of misreading the person's own level of discomfort, since I don't like to assume that the person hasn't adopted that word for him or herself. But, I'll speak up from now on and ask the person afterwards if it was okay with them that I spoke up.

I do always speak up when people are using "retarded" or "-tard" or "lame" or "gay" as epithets.

Belly (Liz McLennan) said...

Hmmm...like Colleen, I think I'd have taken my cue from you. If you're not reacting, then is it really my place to react on your behalf?

On the other hand, this sort of thing makes me uncomfortable, so I'd likely huff and puff a lot, pointed to the sign and said, as another reader suggested, "I think she means Spadina," or whatever, just to stop the conversation altogether.

I like to think that, as a mother, I'm doing right by teaching my children respectful words and behaviours when we're out amongst the world. I can only hope that they're absorbing what I'm teaching (and learning myself) and remember it.

Faery said...

Hi Dave,

I think this is a tough one. I do believe that people would have felt uncomfortable even if you were not there. Many of our lives are touched by disability (of all kinds). I'm sure there were people there who may not be disabled yet but have family or friends who are.

Personally, if I had been sat on the train and heard a child use the phrase 'crippled man' I would have felt uncomfortable whether you were sat there or not. I work with people with disabilities and words like that always hit a nerve. I find it sad that this child has obviously picked up this term from adults around her.

However, I don't know if I would have said anything to the child or her mother as I would not have wanted to upset you. I think if you were showing outward signs of distress or discomfort I would have attempted to diffuse the sitution neutrally, perhaps by saying something like Anonymous has suggested above: "I think your daughter means XYZ station".

Julia - the situation that you describe is also very difficult to judge. I think perhaps that the lady could have asked in a nicer way but was obviously entitled to sit in the seat. We have similar seats on buses in the UK but you do not need a card to use them. The sign says that you should give up the seat for people who might need it more than you. I have in the past been in need of these seats and would always ask politely if I needed to move someone from them (and always felt horribly guilty if it meant that someone had to stand because of it). By the way - thank you for your kindness the other day. A virtual hug was just what I needed.

Utter Randomness said...


Not everyone who needs to sit has a visible disability, and sometimes people are overweight because of their disabilities. Some disabilities make people socially awkward. Some people have dealt with so much trouble and verbal abuse for needing accommodation and not getting it because they don't look like they need it. Recently, because I was unable to get a seat on a bus, I fell and seriously injured my good leg, and do you know what everyone said? "Oh, I'm so sorry, you don't look disabled." People tell me that the abuse and the injuries are my fault because I don't work hard to make my disability visible. It's a no win situation. People without disabilities tell me I should get a cane even though I don't need one, but if I did that, people with disabilities would abuse me for being a faker and taking services away from people who really need them. I get a lot of those reactions. So unless you know someone's situation, do not judge them. That woman should have been more polite about it for sure, but people with invisible disabilities have to ask for what they need. What they don't need is abusive comments about how being fat isn't a disability. You are being aggressively excluding. How would you respond if someone came up to and asked a bunch of questions to make sure that you deserve the accommodations you need?

Sure, she could have sat in a different seat. Were the available seats close to the door? If not, she might not have been able to make it before the vehicle started moving. Standing on a moving vehicle can be very painful for people with joint problems, and the jarring motion of the vehicle starting is the worst of it. Were they facing a different direction? If I sit facing forward on the bus, the momentum of the bus slams my extremely sore knees into the seat in front of me.

You would be angry too if you constantly had to fight for what you need, when you're up against disabilism from people without disabilities and people with disabilities alike. I understand that accessibility is just for people in wheelchairs, but that sucks for the rest of us.

Louna said...

maybe she just mentioned her disability allowance as a "proof" that she was really disabled? Always having the disabled ID in your hand when you ask is not always practical. I wear backpacks, and I need to stop walking, detach the waist band, get the bag on my belly or the floor, before I can get anything out... And as Utter Randomness pointed out, some people have to get seated before the train starts moving. And what has the woman's weight have to do with any of it?

Anonymous said...

Faery, Utter Randomness and Louna,

a) I had to find out why I felt angry towards that woman too

b) after getting over the "angry" part which was caused by the aggressive asking and the question why she didnot get seated at the other free seat I had to ask myself how to react now and later

c) and I started to think what might have changed the situation and how it would affect me asking to sit at a disabled seat next time

d) to Louna yes I did fall to the mistake that overweight people are this way because of laziness, eating too much, etc... and was angry atmyself after noticing it!


Andrea S. said...

Another reason why some people may need to sit near the door (and not at just any random seat) may be because, once the train reaches their destination, they may not be able to safely stand until they are certain that the train is completely stopped. This can be an issue if you do not trust your balance for whatever reason (disability, temporary injury, condition affecting sense of balance, etc). Yes, the woman should/could have been more polite about it, but rude people are just as likely to need accommodations as polite people (because disability can strike anyone, not just nice people).

Re, Dave's dilemma: I am a little conflicted. Part of me sees it as a missed opportunity. From the casual way this girl used the word "cripple", and the fact that the mother did not appear to feel embarrassed about her child's use of this word while pointing right above a man in a wheelchair, I surmise that the mother not only saw nothing wrong with the word but might even have been the person to inadvertently teach the word to her daughter. And I suspect, as some here have said, that people on the train who did see something wrong with the word may have hesitated because they didn't want to speak on your behalf without being sure what your own feelings were about the word. Or, perhaps some felt awkward not because they saw something wrong with the word per se but because the girl used it while very nearly pointing at you (albeit, not quite). Pointing is itself a behavior that many consider rude, even if they might not necessarily have an objection to the language used along with the pointing.

On the other hand, I can fully sympathize with not wanting to have to take the full and sole responsibility of speaking out each and every time this kind of thing happens. The burden ought to be shared around more than it is. And if others are refusing to take up that burden (or leaving it due to not realizing you wished they would help), then you're still entitled to take an occasional break from that responsibility.

Lene said...

I hate that word. Hate it. And admire your deliberate silence. I hope it had the desired effect.

Kristine said...

I don't know whether disability slurs make people uncomfortable when we're not around. But I do know that regardless of who else is around, I'm uncomfortable when I hear racial slurs, gay slurs, and other categories that don't directly apply to me. I may not be a representative of these groups, but I do feel like it's my responsibility to speak up on their behalf when the occasion arises. As a middle school teacher, I get plenty of these "opportunities," and my kids eventually figure out that I take such derogatory language MUCH more seriously than when a curse word slips out of someone's mouth. Of course, as a teacher, it's easy to determine that it's MY job, not someone else's, to teach in these situations.

Outside of my classroom... I actually find it easier to confront strangers than friends. If I have nothing invested in the relationship, it doesn't feel as risky. Also, I'd say that it's actually easier for me to speak up for OTHER groups, that aren't my own. I can confidently say, "Don't talk that way about __________. I have people I love who are __________ and I don't appreciate you talking about them like that." It's harder for me to defend myself. It requires more confidence to say, "Don't talk about me that way. I deserve to be treated with respect."

I'm sorry that nobody spoke up, and I hope they did go home still thinking about it. I try to (respectfully) speak up for others, and sometimes I wish others would speak up for me too.

Dave Hingsburger said...

Julia, I wonder if anyone has wondered why HE was sitting in that seat if there were other seats available. If it is designated as a seat for those with disabilities, visible or not, then why did he choose to sit there. Isn't that an act of provocation? In Toronto there are disability symbols on various seats on the bus and subway, they are constantly full. I think people think that they've given us parking, the rest is just selfish. A row of toilet stalls, and the disabled one is always in use! I always have to wait for a non-disabled person to come out while sometimes 10 other stalls are free. So turn the question around, why are people angry at her for asking for the seat she needs, why aren't they angry at him for sitting there in the first place. I admit that I'm like you too, I want us all to be polite. But I'm a bit like her too, sometimes I don't have energy for polite or sometimes I go in expecting a fight so I start hostile. I'm glad you added this to the mix for good discussion. I'm a fat guy who isn't lazy - glad you recognize that negative first reactions to weight need to be examined!

Utter Randomness said...


I just wanted to point out that sometimes (definitely not always, not even most of the time, maybe 1%) those people you think are non-disabled need the disabled stall. There are some days when I need the grab bars to stand up, for example.

I definitely agree that there are days when I am too exhausted from fighting to get what I need to be polite, but I should probably try harder.

I live in Ontario as well, and I think the priority seating on public transit was recently standardized by the government. It ticks me when people sit in those seats when there are others available, but I try to be conscious that other people might also have invisible disabilities. What really gets me is the people who put their bags on the seat next to them and the hierarchy in which strollers take precedence over people with disabilities that don't use wheelchairs. Even if I explain that I need the seat, everyone glares at me until I move.

Utter Randomness said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Utter Randomness said...

Oops, double post... Also, sorry for the rant.

CapriUni said...

One thing I'm wondering, now, after having thought about it, is if the mother was trying to use a teachable moment, by simply refusing to recognize that "crippled" is a useful or meaningful way to describe another human being.

It obviously wasn't working (very well), but maybe she was trying, through building up frustration, to get the girl to pick a different word to describe you or the stop she was pointing to.

Personally (and this is solely my own decision), since my own field of interest is folklore and literature from past centuries, I've decided to embrace "lame," and "crippled" as value neutral descriptors of people, and avoid them completely as negative words for other things -- sort of like wearing my own personal "Scarlet Letter."

But in this instance, if I'd been in that woman's position, I would have pointed out to the girl that "crippled" is considered a rude word, and that she should choose something else.

Dave Hingsburger said...

I want to thank you all for your comments, as I always do, every day, I learn from what you had to say. I hadn't thought that others might have been worried that their speaking up might have made me even more uncomfortable. I get that. I also get that it was a missed opportunity - but I'm leaving that go because sometimes an opportunity has to be missed simply because of energy levels or sheer wearyness of the urge to educate.

Anonymous said...


I can see where some people might use the strategy of feigning misunderstanding as a teaching tool to break others of using offensive terminology. But this strategy is something I can only see being effective in certain circumstances, including

1. Someone older than this girl probably was (because very young children usually don't have enough life or social experience to grasp subtle hints. Plus, someone whose linguistic development is still at a basic level will probably have more difficulty understanding why some terms may be considered "offensive" or wrong to use even if others use them)
2. In a context where you are talking with someone who you have already explicitly asked several times not to use that term. Because, otherwise, you can't be certain that they even realize you are offended by the term. They may assume that their words mean the same thing to you that they do to them and be mystified by your seeming lack of comprehension.

If this woman was trying to make this a "teachable moment" then I think her choice of strategy was not suitable for the context, most particularly due to the age of the girl.

Andrea S

Elizabeth McClung said...

An awkward but identifiable moment (although usually it is someone connected loosely with disability world like a volunteer who started in the 70's and still uses that term or handi-dart drivers). There seem to be two posts here:

1) What individual responsibility do we have?

2) Why you felt you could opt out and yet still be bothered by this enough to remember how others reacted in detail and blog about it.

So - for #1 it is like when overhearing racist jokes, or someone telling a gay couple to stop a PDA, (which may not happen in Toronto Montreal and parts of Vancouver, just the other 85% of Canada). Racist jokes on public transit I've heard in every city in Canada, or complaints of 'them' who speak in other languages. The question is, at what point is it your business in a public space to educate anyone on anything? Legally, not at all. Morally - if someone included me in the area of comment or joke, then a choice is made, even no choice is a choice. In personal conversations overheard on a public transit - it is a personal conversation. Kind of like leaning over at a cybercafe and telling someone not to put a comment on a forum, just cause you can see over their shoulder. We may be a collective society but a standard policy for interupting others conversations...please point me to any policy or suggested policy in this matter.

Which is why I think the default to others. You were bothered because no one acted, excepting becoming aware - okay, women over 6' 2" are also stared at by everyone, so are women who look like models - both are publically commented on. Any feeling of outrage? People with wine birthmarks on faces?

But as you say, you weren't watched by others. Weren't watched by others who didn't want to discomfort you. While you watched the child. And mother.

And were bothered because no one...stood up to a 7 year girl who wasn't pointing at you.

"The tension needed to break" - no, I think if you want change, hearing it with the tension probably made people examine their word choice more because there was tension. And if you normally do admonish strangers, and tell mothers how to tell their children to act....well, um, how is that generally recieved? How would you feel if someone started admonishing Joe about how he should be allowed to talk to you?

These are honestly questions I would be interested in reading a blog about. When someone like a subway announcer/conductor uses the word 'Crippled', I would say something, if someone talking to me did, I would say something, if someone used the N word, the R word or dozens of others words TO ME, or in an official capacity, I would act. If a small child did? In talking to the mother?

I am the voyeur in that, and a shared space doesn't mean to me that I am allowed to police others unless bullying is going on - trash talking - and only once I am clear what context is used, and then after I have notified someone like the public transit official who is briefed and trained on how to deal with such situations.

Utter Randomness said...

Elizabeth, I'm sorry, but I think everyone should be able to speak up if someone is using terminology that makes them uncomfortable in a conversation in a public space, especially if the conversation is at a volume where an entire subway car can hear it.

How are people supposed to learn that such terms are offensive if no one calls them on it. Children do not magically learn what is and isn't appropriate, they learn from people. If the parent didn't say something, I would say it's completely appropriate to mention something to the parent.

How are disablist slurs different from racial slurs or homophobic slurs? I am as offended by being called a cripple as I am by being called a dyke/queer/insert homophobic term here.

Think on this, what is considered today to be excessive political correctness should be considered common courtesy. We shouldn't police people's private conversations, but a child yelling a term people consider offensive on public transit isn't a private conversation.