Friday, January 13, 2012

"Who, who, who, who? Who are you?"

image link from thewho.com
"Do you identify yourself as a person with a disability?" such was a question I was asked as part of a doctoral dissertation. Not mine, sadly.

I find the question interesting, but it was days later before I thought about how the question, in some measure, reflected the focus of a feminist complaint: the idea of being, "Oh, you're the doctor's wife" or "you're Jeffrey's mother, the youngster who just graduated summa cum laude."

Do you identify yourself as a person with a disability?

Yes. And no. In my usual verbose and yet ambiguous fashion, I replied, "I don't, and I do," going on to expand on that over two or three sentences.

As a person grows older, a common human experience, the person will always identify that "self" according to circumstances within the moment. At a fifty-year high school reunion, the person will focus on all that was, or should have been, in his life as a high-school student. 

We are emotional chameleons, taking on according to circumstances the varieties of identities formed by environment or the experiences of our life process. At a high school reunion, it will be a rare personality that doesn't find itself navigating through incidences that bring back the feelings of awkwardness typical to teenagers. 

We are many things. I think of disability not as an Identity but rather as Exigency. Perhaps that is because I was disabled at age seventeen. Within the circumstance of "self," I am disabled (which in my mind means "restricted physically from living out my desires), but I am not a person with a disability. I am a person, but disability does not influence my person-hood.

But I do comprehend that, for example, if I'm plopped down in the middle of New York City, I will be seen first as a person with a disability and be labeled (negatively and positively) with all that implies until I interact with a person or with people to the point my own person-hood allows my wheelchair to fade into the background. 

Disability may not be destiny, but disability loads a person down with perceptive baggage.

Ask me again, am I a person with a disability? This time I'll say "Yes." Why not, if it suits my purposes? I didn't refuse Social Security Disability Income as I approached age sixty and my post-polio syndrome made it impossible for me to work full-time. If it is raining or nasty, I'll use an accessible parking space if one is available. I love automated doors and curb cuts. I complain about restaurant tables too low or too high to accommodate a wheelchair user.

"Am I a person with a disability?" I refuse to be, or not to be. And so I ask you not to tell me I am such, perceive me as such, or identify me as that, and that alone. I don't like it when people point out my disability and attempt to treat me in a "special" fashion based upon their own concept of how a person with a disability should live in the world. 

I am a person with a disability who only wants disability to influence the way I make my way in the world on my own terms.

"Good luck with that," right?
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