Part of growing up is realizing how stupid you've been in the past. I still remember a revelation I had in high school. I was interested in homosexuals and homosexuality, but I'd had very few opportunities for interacting with queer people of any kind, and I didn't realize my own bisexuality until I was an adult. I think it was my senior year in high school that I finally met and befriended a open lesbian. She was my boyfriend's best friend, and the three of us used to hang out together. One day she was talking about someone she had a crush on, a girl who lived in a different city. It was only at that moment that I realized that the feelings in question are identical. I'm not sure why it took me so long; perhaps partly because so much of the discussion of homosexuality I'd encountered up to that point had been framed in terms of sex.
These days, with the issue of gay marriage being at the forefront of political discourse, we're beginning to frame it differently, discussing homosexuality in the context of two people that love each other instead of two people that want to have sex with each other. At the time, though, it was a revelation. The feelings are the same. Getting a crush on someone, wanting romance, the desire for companionship, for true love — they are the same feelings, whether a person self-identifies as straight or gay or bisexual. It was so obvious, so self-evident, and it was in front of my nose the whole time. Yet it wasn't until I put it in terms of my own life that I really got it. "Hey, gay people are just like me!"
The other day I had a similar revelation. It was a multi-step process, beginning with a scene in Gail Simone's Batgirl #1. Barbara Gordon, now able to walk, moves in with a new roommate, a self-described "activist." The woman notices the wheelchair lift in the back of Barbara's van and, thinking it must be for a relative of Barbara's, comments, "That's my biggest fear, being trapped in a chair like that. Can you imagine? Like prison." Barbara thinks to herself, "She doesn't mean anything by it. I know she doesn't. She doesn't know what it's like, what the chair helps you do."
Around the same time that I read Batgirl #1, I read a similar comment objecting to the term "confined" to a wheelchair. My knee-jerk reaction was, "well, isn't the term 'confined' appropriate?" Actually, when you think about it, it's ridiculous.
A person who uses a wheelchair isn't confined to it. A person who uses a wheelchair is confined without it.
I've always been slightly uncomfortable around people with disabilities, especially people in wheelchairs. It's something I try to overcome. When I encounter a person in a wheelchair, I make an effort to look them in the eye and treat them as I would anyone else. But the discomfort, even buried, is still there. Part of it is probably cultural holdover from a time when one of the biggest causes of physical disabilities was a contagious disease. It's not hard to understand why parents would hold their children back from approaching someone in a wheelchair at a time when the scourge of polio was crippling and killing so many, but such a reaction is totally inappropriate today. Part of it is guilt, along with a semi-conscious recognition of my own privilege and the desire not to inadvertently give offense.
A lot of people feel the same way, and it leads to assumptions and attitudes which color the way we interact with others. A friend of mine mentioned a comic she'd read where Tim Drake comes to visit Oracle and she's not in her wheelchair, she's on the floor fixing computers, and he sits down in her wheelchair. Some readers apparently objected to this, and my friend rolled her eyes when she told me about it. "A wheelchair is just a chair with wheels," she said. "I had a cousin with severe cerebral palsy. Instead of leaving him strapped into his chair, my aunt would make him a pallet on the floor so the other kids could play with him. The chair would end up wherever we needed a chair. It was convenient, because we could wheel it around. It's not some sacred, untouchable thing. It's a chair."
Like Barbara's "activist" roommate, people can be well-meaning, well-intentioned, even actively campaign for equal rights, and still not get it on a visceral level. I really should have gotten it then, but even that discussion didn't quite penetrate the sense of other that lurked in the back of my mind. Just as with gay people, it didn't happen until I thought about it in terms of my own experience.
When I was in fourth grade, my vision started to deteriorate. Partly due to the fact that it happened gradually, and partly due to a seriously incompetent optometrist who prescribed me reading glasses (the opposite of what I needed), I didn't get proper glasses until well into the fifth grade. By that point my eyes were so bad that, even sitting in the front row of the classroom, I couldn't read the chalkboard.
I'll never forget what it was like those early days after I got my first pair of glasses. I could see individual leaves on the trees! I could see birds in the sky! I could see hot air balloons in the distance! I could see so much. I wasn't even worried about being teased or called 'four eyes', because I could see.
Without my glasses, I'm disabled. Legally, I can't drive without corrective lenses, and I wouldn't want to try it. Years ago I lost a new pair at the beach when an unexpectedly enthusiastic wave knocked them off my face despite the fact that I was only hip-deep in the water. I had to call my fiance and ask him to bring me my old pair, because I was stranded. Trapped, in fact. I couldn’t drive home without my glasses.
My glasses are a tool. When people ask if they can see them, I have no hesitation in handing them over. Why should I? I don't fear that people will treat me differently because I wear glasses. Why should they? I'm not ashamed that I need them, I'm immensely grateful that I live in a time where they are available. Sometimes I like to wear contact lenses, with costumes for example, but mostly I just wear my glasses.
A wheelchair is a tool. That's the revelation I had recently. That's when I got it. A wheelchair is a tool that lets people who don’t have the full use of their legs get out and live. It's not a trap. It's not a prison. A person isn't "confined" to one. It's a tool. It's freedom. It's the ability to get out of bed, to get out of the house and go places.
Without my glasses I'm stuck. I can't drive or even safely leave my home because the world is a blur. But there's nothing sacred or scary about the glasses themselves. They're just plastic lenses in a frame. Without a wheelchair a person who can't walk is stuck. But the wheelchair itself isn't sacred or scary, it's just a chair with wheels.
Writing this out is kind of embarrassing, because it's so obvious. So self-evident. Hey,
disabled people are just like me!
The Final Squeak
Did you know that there's a new relevant reality show coming out? According to the Sundance Channel's website:
"Sundance Channel has ordered 14 episodes of the half-hour long docu-series, tracing the lives of four dynamic, outspoken and beautiful women who, by accident or illness, have been paralyzed from the neck or the waist down… The series, which is currently in production, is slated to premiere in April 2012."
How awesome is that?
Squeaky Wheel Logo by firstname.lastname@example.org
Kyrax2, in her secret identity, is:
A. A part-time model.
B. An ace World War I pilot.
C. A mild-mannered office manager.
She has a bachelor's degree in:
A. Was sent to Earth by her real parents to escape the destruction of their home planet.
B. Is secretly a robot who can remove her own head.
C. Loves comics and reads any she can get her hands on. (I know, this one's pretty farfetched!)
A. Races ultralights for fun and profit.
B. Used to have a crush on Kitty Pryde.
C. Was born during a total eclipse of the sun.
In her spare time she enjoys:
A. Reading (books and comics), writing (fiction and non), gaming (everything from tabletop wargames and RPGs to Cardcaptor Sakura, Tetris, Rock Band, and DCUO) and watching TV (mainly anime, animated superhero cartoons, and Rifftrax).
B. Building emissions-free vehicles out of recycled materials.
C. Alligator wrestling.