Project Cleigh: Dare To Resist!
(thanks to Jazzed for the title)
Ettina tells a story in the comments section of the first Project Cleigh article -- in which her school dismissed her criticism of a teacher's question (and its presuppositions) by blaming it on her autism and then insisting that she change her autistic thought patterns -- and then asked, "Is that the kind of thing you want to know about, or is it too minor?"
Dee answers quickly: "Ettina, nothing is too minor. It's the small things that hurt our souls. The big ones just make us mad."
Too small? Not small at all.
"I spent several decades of my life walking with the use of braces," Sharon says. "I hated every step of it. I now use a power wheelchair and I love it! I honestly never wish I was still walking. But there is one thing that I do miss now that I use a wheelchair and that is the loss of anonymity in public spaces. These years I feel as though I am treated like public property when I leave my home. It's not just the intrusive questions, the feigned familiarity of strangers, it's also the invasion of my personal body space. The patting of my shoulder, the grabbing onto my wheelchair when strangers erroneously decide I am in some kind of danger or need assistance steering, the leaning on my wheelchair by strangers, et cetera. It is the repetitiveness and accumulation of all of those reactions that serve to separate and dehumanize people with disabilities in public places."
The feedback Project Cleigh is getting tells me that Mary Johnson was right: this is something that needs people working on it.
Considered one by one in isolation, the little acts of degradation seem very small indeed. Nondisabled people, when they get called on what they're doing, see them as isolated incidents, as unintentional (and I'll grant that a lot of the time, they are unthinking rather than deliberate), as insignificant, and therefore as unimportant. They wonder why we get so upset over something so little.
"I do have a story of my own to tell," says Jessica Moore. "Not any one incident specifically, more like a broad range of things. I've had people cut in front of my chair, ignore me and/or get miffed when I say 'Excuse me, can I get through?' When they comply, I thank them. That really gets the weird looks. I've also had the lovely instance of the classic 'What are you doing out of the house?' look combined with the 'What? You have someone special in your life? How is this possible?' reaction. I squeeze my love's hand, look the stranger dead in the eye, and smile. I even greet them now and again. Other times I use humor and sarcasm to deflect the situation. Either way, I'm finding my place, bit by bit."
For those of us who encounter these incidents over and over and over, they aren't isolated. They're a pattern. They're a pattern perpetuated (often unthinkingly, but unthinking does not necessarily mean okay) by people who see the little reminders that we are not as good as regular folks as entirely normal. Entirely natural. Entirely justified. And they're a pattern that has a tremendous effect on our lives.
Like members of other groups who face regular reminders that they have their places and should stay in them, our attempts to convey to other people what the problem is seem to them like weird acts of discrimination against them, because we are trying to deny them their right to degrade us over and over again. "I didn't mean it that way," they say, or "You have to understand."
One of the ways we can inform people is by telling our stories.
I recall a conversation I had with Carol Cleigh years ago about people who are "homebound." Being "homebound," Carol told me, isn't necessarily about being unable to leave one's home. Many people stay at home not because they can't get up and out, but because they just don't want to go out and face the way the world grinds them down.
Shortly after that conversation, I became one of those people who just don't want to go out and face the way the world grinds them down.
It's spirit-killing, and not all of us are as strong as Cleigh or as Jessica Moore.
"I don't want to sound over-dramatic," says SAM, "but given the relationship between repetitive acts of public derision [and] abuse of people with disabilities and chronic depression, [Project Cleigh] in the long run may save not only this crip's life, but the lives and spirits of many other's in our community as well."