A few days ago I went to the store to grab a few items. As I was checking out, the cashier looked to me and said, “It’s nice to see you guys out and about.” Confused at first because I was by myself, she proceeded to explain that she sees a woman in a wheelchair visit the store regularly. And so by “you guys,” she means, “you, the disabled.”
I believe she intended her comment as a compliment, but it felt wrong. There’s nothing extraordinary about my being “out and about.” I’m a regular person. I make trips to the store. I go to coffee shops. I can even take a plane if I so choose. Ok, so maybe that’s not entirely regular, but you get my point.
Her comment implies that I, and people like me, would not be faulted if we chose to lock ourselves up at home and not go anywhere. Not to mention the “you guys,” statement, which offhandedly groups me and the other customer in a "disabled" basket, while failing to see us as distinct individuals.
“It’s nice to see you all out and about,” is something our society does to pat people with disabilities on the back and send them on their way.
Think of the last time you saw someone in a wheelchair or walking with a mobility aid. Did you feel pity for them? Have you ever insisted on helping someone with a disability because you thought they needed help without even asking him or her?
Over the Martin Luther King weekend, I was reminded of the importance of shifting the way society perceives people with disabilities and other groups while watching the new film, “Hidden Figures.” The movie features some of the greatest minds behind NASA’s launch into orbit: three African-American women. It captures the racial tension that black people experienced in the 60’s and the discrimination of women in a male-dominated field.
One scene from the film resonated with me most. Dorothy, the unofficial leader of the black mathematicians, was constantly denied promotions, but is finally seeing desegregation take hold at NASA. While using what was previously a restroom for white women only, Dorothy bumps into Vivian, the official manager of the white mathematicians, and her defacto counterpart.
After an awkward but kind exchange, Vivian says, “you know I don’t have anything against you?” To which Dorothy responds in a voice of both pity and resignation, “I know. I know you probably believe that.” Dorothy knows that discrimination isn’t always intentional. More often the people doing the discrimination are blind to its subtlety.
I related the racial discrimination from the film and from stories we hear on the news to disability and the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle discrimination that surrounds disability to this day in America. Are we as a society truly inclusive of people with disabilities or anybody that may look different than us, or do we just say we are?
Having traveled all over the world as a disability advocate, I am aware that America has made great strides toward inclusivity. On an institutional level, we have handicap parking spaces, ramps, closed-caption movies, special education programs, and so on.
But what about the personal perceptions of individuals toward people with disabilities, those internal views that color everyday interactions with the differently-abled?
“Hidden Figures” is still being shown in theaters across America. Go see it! When you leave the theater, I challenge you to change your perspective of anyone that may look different to you: A person with a disability, a person with a different skin color, or a person with a different gender.
We need to shift the way society perceives people with disabilities—an estimated 15% of the world's population—and other groups. True change does not happen at the institutional level, through programs or campaigns. Unless we, as individuals, learn to stop looking at them with special lenses, we cannot say we are a society free of discrimination.
Despite the fact that the cashier meant well by complimenting me on being “out and about,” I can’t help but focus my thoughts on Dorothy’s response to Vivian: “I know you probably believe that.”