A long, long, time ago, my Girl Scout troop worked on a badge with a requirement where we had to somehow experience some type of disability.
The normal response to this sort of thing would be to blindfold everyone and have them experience what it would be like to be blind. You have all probably either done this, or seen other people do it. The problem with this sort of exercise, of course, is that by virtue of the blindfold, it is very clear to everyone around them exactly what is going on. So while the person *wearing* the blindfold can’t see, anyone watching knows full well that they’re not really blind at all.
So in order for us to fulfill this particular requirement, our troop decided to do something a bit different. By some quirk of fate, the assistant leader had access to certain equipment, and so on the evening in question, she showed up with a whole bunch of wheelchairs.
These were manual-operated chairs, so we all had to practice for a bit to get the hang of how to maneuver them (it wasn’t easy). There were also only enough for half of us to use at a time, so it was decided we’d do it in two parts. We divided into pairs, and within each pairing, one girl was in the wheelchair when we all went out to dinner, while the second girl got the chair afterwards, during a trip to a shopping mall, with the walking half of the pair there to help maneuver, and to provide any assistance that the chair-occupying half would need. We were, of course, admonished to be very careful; that we were not to treat this as a joke and therefore offend people; that those who were in the chairs were to use them as if they truly could not move their legs. Once we’d all gotten the hang of how to use them, we loaded everything into a couple vans and set off.
I do not recall whether the troop leader had called ahead to let them know there’d be a lot of people in wheelchairs at the restaurant, although I’m sure she had to at least make a reservation and check to make sure the space was handicap accessible. This was, by the way, before the Americans with Disabilities Act and all its related building requirements became law, which is possibly why we ended up having such a hard time in the bathroom – we couldn’t figure out how to maneuver the chairs into the handicap stall and eventually just had one half of the pair stand guard to make sure no one else was coming into the restroom while the other quickly used the facilities and then hopped back into the chair with no one the wiser.
Afterwards, we loaded everything back up into the vans and headed off to a shopping mall, where we swapped out who was the walker and who was the chair-bound person. I was in the chair in the mall, and I remember having fun, toodling around in the stores, checking out clothing, trying to figure out how to find the elevator in the department store, laughing and having a grand time in a group and generally just acting like normal teenage girls.
And then at the end of the evening, we all piled back into the vans and we drove back to wherever it was we’d first met up, and we turned in the chairs, and we went on with our lives,
I am not telling you this story in order to claim that, by virtue of having spent a couple hours in a wheelchair, I suddenly gained insight into what it is like to live with a physical disability, because clearly, no.
I am telling you this story because of the thing that I remember most about the whole experience.
Not everyone treated us differently. Most of them just went about their business, or smiled hello, or just generally treated us like any other pack of giggling teenage girls out for an evening, having fun.
But I remember that in the restaurant, the wait staff, when they came to take our orders, never asked the girls in the chairs what they wanted to eat. Instead they asked the visibly ‘able-bodied’ person sitting next to them what the chair-bound person wanted.
And I remember that in the mall, that the general reactions were to either outright ignore us, or else to shy away from us,as if being in a wheelchair was somehow catching. I remember that when we tried to go buy some ice cream, that the clerk literally could not see us over the counter; that the ‘able-bodied’ girls were the ones who had to get their attention, and that they, too, didn’t seem to know how to address us directly.
I was pretty oblivious as a child. I have it on good authority that I was also pretty oblivious as a teenager. I am sure that even as an adult, I am still not as aware of everything around me as I really ought to be.
But I remember what it felt like, to be treated as ‘less than’, simply because I was sitting in a wheelchair. And to watch my friends being treated as ‘less than’ as well.
I bet that every single person who made a joke at our expense that night would be quick to defend that *they* don’t discriminate.
And I am sure that if you asked the wait staff – the ones who directed all their questions to the ‘able-bodied’ and not to the chair-bound girls – if they discriminated, they would insist that they didn’t.
But just because they didn’t mean to be hurtful, doesn’t make their behavior any less wrong.
We all have our own biases, against those who are ‘other’ to us. It might be color of skin, or gender, or sexual orientation, or religion, or culture, or any of a myriad of different reasons. And we can all claim as much as we want that *we’re* not racist; *we’re* not sexist; *we* don’t see color; *we* don’t discriminate.
But every single one of us has, at some point in the past, said or done things that made someone else feel ‘less than’, whether we actively meant to or not. And every single one of us will at some point in the future, do or say things that makes someone else feel ‘less than’, and whether we mean to do it or not doesn’t matter if the insult has been made.
But more importantly, every single one of us will see, or hear, someone around us say, or do something that demeans people for being ‘other’ – whether it is their weight, or their religion, or their sexual orientation, or their gender, or their race, or their culture, or their political party, and on and on. It might be said as a joke, even though it isn’t funny. It might be said in anger, even though that should never be a justification. It might be yet another report in the news, or a story shared online, of someone who, once again, has been pushed aside, or stopped by the police, or sexually assaulted, or killed, or even just pecked away at, over and over again, by the relentless racism and sexism and ableism that is so deeply, firmly ingrained in this society.
But when we do not speak up to say ‘hey, that’s not okay’, we are part of the problem.
When we insist ‘oh, it’ can’t be that bad, ‘ or ‘well she must have been asking for it,’ or ‘he must have done something to *deserve* being beaten or shot’, or ‘those radicals who enact terrible acts in the name of their religion *clearly* speak for all of them’, or ‘you’re just being too sensitive’, or ‘can’t you take a joke?’ or, or, or, then we are part of the problem.
When we get uncomfortable with being called on our complacency and splutter back with #NotAllMen, #NotAllChristians, #NotAllWhites instead of actually *listening* to the people who are telling us ‘look, these things are happening, they are real, they exist’ and doing our best to see things from their point of view, we are part of the problem.
We shouldn’t have to be the one to experience the racial profiling, or the sexism, or the nasty comments, or the discrimination, in order to recognize and accept that it exists.
We just have to be willing to listen. We have to look outside of our own insulated social bubbles and pay attention. And we have to speak up, even when it’s uncomfortable, or inconvenient (*especially* then) and keep speaking up, over and over, until things change.