A petite young woman with long dark hair walks slowly along an uneven sidewalk. Shades of camouflage green dominate her apparel and the lines of her wardrobe reflect a military style. As she draws closer it becomes obvious that her movement is laboured: her knee and ankle do not bend as she swings her leg from her hip; her gaze is stern and fixed on the ground; she is careful to secure her footing with every step. Yet, her edginess is softened by the bright dress under her coat. The impression she makes is a peculiar contradiction – both vulnerable and ready for combat. From above her lowered head a stranger asks, “What is wrong with your leg?”
This is a common scene in my life and the frequency of this encounter informs me of at least three key things: the difference of my motion is noticeable; this difference is perceived in negative terms; and these differences make me stand out in public spaces. Collectively, they are reminders that there is is a strange tension between who I believe myself to be and what strangers notice about me.
For years I felt unprepared to address questions for which I did not have answers. Learning to maneuver and respond in these instances is part of what it means to confront ableism. Learning how to accept myself and to do things my own way is what it takes to resist immobility.
I have started to realize that dis/ability has more to do with how we assume people ought to be than with how people actually are. Living in a society that assumes my body will function independently day in and day out makes the external part of my life something of a contact sport: dress, cook, walk, drive, work, clean, repeat. Being called dis/abled and impaired does not address any of the reasons that I experience exclusion: stairs, staring, rigid schedules, lack of public washrooms, assumptions about deficiency, repeat. Nor do those labels draw me closer to the things that bring me joy in life: breathe, laugh, move, listen, share, enjoy, love, repeat.
When I focus on trying to fit myself into this ableist approach to life, rather than create a design that works for me, I become overwhelmed with a fear of failure. It consumes a part of every waking thought and builds desperation. I succumb to the negativity of dis/ability. When I am willing and open to finding alternative ways to accomplish my goals and drawing upon supports for success, I find an emancipating amount of love and joy in my life and I have a clearer mind that allows me to sleep more peacefully. This is when I can live with authenticity.
Loss of mobility has led me to experience the ways in which ableist principles are embedded into our imagination, customs, spaces, policies, institutions and interactions. Creative thinking and action have helped me in adopting the attitude that if I am going to be stared at and interrogated so consistently, perhaps I ought to dress up for the occasion and call it fun.
On Thursday, March 21, I will be presenting a talk as part of a speakers series co-sponsored by the Departments of Disability Studies and Education at the UofM. I will be discussing my journey through grad school and what I have learned by approaching geographic inquiry through the lens of critical disability studies. I will share the life stories that led me to undertake my research, what I have learned about how we are all implicated in the production of dis/ability, and how perhaps we can use urban space to build a more inclusive and just society. I invite you to join in this discussion.
I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org