Name: Wheelchair Dancer
Bio: A displaced Brit, WCD lives part time in New York City and San Francisco Bay Area; she dances for a physically integrated dance company. Her blog can be found at http://cripwheels.blogspot.com and you can follow her on twitter at http://www.twitter.com/wheelchairdancr
1. What is your disability or chronic medical condition? How does it affect you both generally and on a daily basis?
It interests me that we continue to ask this question of each other. Even as we blog, write, talk about how annoyed we are when we meet people on the street whose first question this is, we continue to measure, approve, classify, recognize each other by the medical classifications of our bodies. Why? I wonder whether there’s a better way to identify ourselves to each other, to signal that, yes, we belong to each other. I wonder if there’s an inherent feeling of privilege here — that somehow disabled people get to ask these questions of each other, because, well, we’re disabled. Is the information learned so necessary that without it we cannot build relationships? Does knowing that you are an acquired C-6 versus a “from birth” or even an acquired T-1 matter? Can we only “identify” and “relate” if we know the medical details of our histories? Yes, there’s a difference between being a high-quad and a low-para, but is that difference material if you believe people are available and accessible in more ways than, “I know what you’re going through only because I went through exactly the same experience myself.” I believe it is important to share experiences and that can sometimes include sharing medical histories, but I also believe that using a medical history as a kind of shortcut to identifying with and understanding our lived experiences abrogates our ability to understand and relate to each other.
I also think that within the disability community there are “prestige” diagnoses — I think, for example, of the way wheelchair users are prioritized both in terms of discussions of access and in terms of symbolizing the community. I also think that wheelchair users all too frequently tend to operate around a separate but different hierarchy that seeks to delegitimate the rights non-SCI users of wheelchairs. The negative sides of the conversation that I have heard contain things like “if you can walk, you don’t need a wheelchair,” “people who use scooters aren’t real wheelchair users and shouldn’t have access to funding for them under Medicare or any other kind of public funding,” and “aging-related mobility impairments aren’t real disabilities.”
Gosh. I seem to have backed myself into a corner. I can hardly start to answer the question now, can I? I rather like the second part. How it affects me on a daily basis. I use a wheelchair for most of my mobility; I have involuntary movement, hypermobilility and joint instability, some pretty nasty spasms, and a fair amount of pain. And yet, I am not sure what the question asks — it certainly leaves room for freedom of response. Am I affected? Usually, we use “affected” in some kind of negative way. I wouldn’t use it to describe myself outside the disability community for fear of conveying a sense of suffering and blight. But, in a more neutral sense, yes, there have been some significant changes in my life.
2. Do you consider yourself “disabled”? Do other people see you as “disabled”?
That all depends on who you are and what you mean by disabled. I consider myself disabled; I use the term to indicate a mobility impairment and, through that impairment, my affinity and affiliation with the culture, history, and traditions associated with (but not necessarily begun by) the disability rights movement. It’s also an identity term. I am not sure how I would be read by, say, various legal and governmental entities for which the definition of disability is not being able to work. Disability outside the movement is so contextually defined. Does my doctor see me as disabled or does he just write prescriptions? How would I know? The army of people I work with on physical therapy, dance, training, etc? I don’t know — and I really mean that because so many of them subscribe to variations of the “we are all challenged” “you aren’t paralyzed and wheelchair-bound” takes on impairment. They all recognize that I am a dancer and that that means that I am an athlete. Does their notion of athlete also include disabled athlete? Does being seen as disabled depend on my wheelchair use? I kinda think so, at least for me. When I was using crutches more regularly, no one saw me as disabled. I was just someone who used crutches — knee surgery, dear? On the other hand, when I spazz out, passing is less of an option.
3. Do people treat you differently or unfairly because of your disability/condition? How so? Can you give an example(s)?
There’s a blog’s worth of writing on that topic. Most of the unfair stuff is pretty easy; it’s the same old disability prejudice, and my stories aren’t all that different from those of many other bloggers. More interesting (to me, at least) are the disability and race interactions. Yes, there is still racism out and about. We aren’t post-racial yet — the ways race and disability prejudice interact are endlessly fascinating. As a walking black woman, I’m a threat: I might steal something; I might be on welfare; I am most definitely staff (not a guest or client). As a wheelie, I am no threat. I am to be assisted, pitied, and helped through a difficult world. Or (and I love this one), I am doubly blighted. At any rate, no one is going to suspect me of stealing. The value and meaning of disability changes when I am in my community of folks because the disability identity that is most widely known is a white disability history and culture.
People certainly treat my differently. I am special (said bitterly but with a certain smugness as well). I don’t have to wait in line; people talk to me, make random conversation with me; flight attendants and other similar personnel chat to me more. People smile at my bravery when they pass me in the street… Urgk. Don’t get me started. I have to interact with more people in a wider variety of ways — I have neither the luxuries of passing or anonymity. I am always visible, always on, always performing some other person’s fantasy (in a prosaic psych sense, rather than sexual sense) of disability and race.
It’s complicated, and I am certainly not the most skilled at navigating all of the questions that come up because of disability. How do you handle it when a child stares at you? What are they looking at? If I am unfairly treated, is that a matter of race, disability, or both? How can I distinguish between these things? Is it worthwhile distinguishing? And if not, how can we work for justice and equality such that these questions are less and less meaningful to more and more people?
4. If you could tell the world one thing about what it’s like to live with your disability/condition, what would it be?
It’s work. It’s hard work. It can be very scary. It’s sometimes painful, often incomprehensible. You will try, fail, and try again. It can seem like a full time job that you have to do in addition to anything else you might want to do. You can do it; you will find your way.
5. What do you like about living with your disability/condition?
I’m not sure how to answer that. I like the life I have built; I am really happy with my career and beyond that dancing fills my soul. I appreciate the irony that I never would have had the chance to be a dancer if I hadn’t entered the world of disability. But I am not sure how to answer the question. I like the way I live, the people I have met, the grounding I have, the self-knowledge. I even like my wheelchair; that said, however, I don’t think I can say that I like what I live with.
6. Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Come and see me dance. Go and support disabled dancers in your area. Understand the freedom we dancers achieve by living maximally in our bodies. Go thou and do likewise — not the dance bit — just the living maximally bit. Oh yeah. And do your bit to make accessibility possible; when the world is open to more people in more ways, we are all able to be better humans.