Friday, October 8, 2010

"I'd Let You Sit by Me, but There's Not Enough Room in My Wheelchair"

John Edgar Wideman, professor and author, published a piece in the New York Times yesterday titled "Seat Not Taken." In it he discusses commuting regularly from New York City to Providence, Rhode Island, noting that the seat next to him is often left vacant.
Almost invariably, after I have hustled aboard early and occupied one half of a vacant double seat in the usually crowded quiet car, the empty place next to me will remain empty for the entire trip. 

I’m a man of color, one of the few on the train and often the only one in the quiet car, and I’ve concluded that color explains a lot about my experience. Unless the car is nearly full, color will determine, even if it doesn’t exactly clarify, why 9 times out of 10 people will shun a free seat if it means sitting beside me. 
Any rational person understands that racial discrimination still exists in the United States. What's troubling, however, is another reference in Wideman's essay, in the very next sentence, in fact.

Giving them and myself the benefit of the doubt, I can rule out excessive body odor or bad breath; a hateful, intimidating scowl; hip-hop clothing; or a hideous deformity as possible objections to my person.
Ah, but what is a "hideous deformity" other than a physical disability?

The Times has a decent enough record on disability, and so it is surprising this slipped by the editors.

Frankly, Wideman's casual remark is one more reminder that those of us with observable disabilities continued to be judged -- by many people, at least -- by that disability.

How it may be for people with invisible disabilities I won't presume to say.

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