The first guest post comes from Justin Martin. He’s a brilliant 17-year-old who has cerebral palsy. I heard him read this at a speech that he gave at the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State. I told him that I would share this on my blog a while back so here it is. He obviously has a very bright future ahead of him!
Pineapples In The Arctic: On Physical Disability, Karma, And “Inspiration”
(Hi. I’m Justin Martin. These are going to be my opening remarks at the 2013 Reel Abilities Film Festival, an Ohio-based movie-and-arts event I’ve been asked to speak at.)
PINEAPPLES IN THE ARCTIC
Let me begin by saying that I am not here to “inspire you”. This probably runs contrary to what society has told us my purpose in life. Yes, listening to a reasonably articulate disabled person for a period of time might cause you to experience fits of “inspiration”, in the same way that unprotected exposure to an x-ray machine sometimes gives you cancer. It’s probably too optimistic to think that I can even begin to undo decades of subtle cultural brainwashing in a single evening with some nice words. But today, I’m going to risk being naive and try to tell you why Jerry Lewis telethons and Lifetime Original Movies need to sit down, shut up, and stop polluting my air and the air of my disabled brothers and sisters.
My dad has a background doing mechanical stuff that I’m too stupid to understand: fixing electrical wiring and the like. His youngest son, on the other hand, is a poet, comedian, intellectual, and future homeless person. I used to think that our jobs, his making money fairly regularly and mine making money only in that alternate future where writers get money thrown onto the stage like we’re in Magic Mike all of a sudden, barely shared any connection. It’s only lately that I realized that’s full of crap: we both build circuits. I just do it live on a stage. When a joke really works, or a poem makes somebody cry, the only thing that I’ve done is revealed to some unsuspecting audience member that the thoughts they assumed were their most private and isolated are the very same ones that connect them to the rest of us. If I do my job well enough, I expose the lie that we are alone in our own miniature universes. There are things, however, that make my job harder, that make it more difficult to complete that circuit. One of them, probably the biggest one, is our culture’s continued infantilization, dehumanization, and silencing of disabled people.
Odds are that you don’t quite agree that those things are happening, or if you do, it’s tied up in a “…but certainly not me!” at the end like a convenient Christmas bow. I can guarantee you right now that if you didn’t park in a handicap space this morning, you were the problem, are the problem, and will continue, at least to some degree, to BE the problem. I can prove it to each and every one of you without asking you to get up out of your seats. All that I want you to do is close your eyes and imagine me in the afterlife. Now open them. How many of you, by a show of hands, pictured a wheelchair? Exactly. In the Bible, Jesus accepts prostitutes, thieves, and criminals just the way they are, but he heals the blind. Think about that. Disabled people aren’t allowed in the popular version of paradise without first forsaking a part of their identity. There is a literal stairway to Heaven, and they’ve had an eternity to build a ramp. In order to climb it, we’re expected to transcend our disability, even if we’ve led a happy, long life with it up until the point we kicked the bucket.
I hate that phrase, too, “overcoming your disability”. The last time I heard it used, an extremely intelligent person who probably sees more money than most of us read a piece of mine about trying out a wheelchair that could stand, told me that he’d cried while doing it, and said that it was inspiring how I overcame my disability. I couldn’t help but imagine a parallel world where, after hearing his “I Have A Dream” speech, a well-meaning white guy came up to Dr. King with tears in his eyes and congratulated him for “overcoming his blackness”. We can only hope that King would suspend his code of nonviolence long enough to kick that man down the steps of the National Mall.
So why are able-bodied people so focused on healing us, on being inspired by us? Why is a non-life-threatening disability something to be “overcome” in their minds? It comes down to a pervasive, ever-present twinge of low-level terror. Think of ableism in terms of racism, sexism, or homophobia for a second: no white Klansman ever has to worry that one day a car will hit him and, oh Jesus, he’ll be Black for the rest of his life. No chauvinist politician ever has nightmares about growing breasts as the result of a stroke. Fred Phelps doesn’t have to fear the phenomena of watching too many episodes of Glee and becoming gay, though he probably does regardless. But every able-bodied person knows, deep down, that they will either die able-bodied or become disabled within their lifetimes. This gives disability relations a fear/pity dichotomy, a karmic El Nino, if you will, that other forms of discrimination don’t have. Most of the people who talk to me slowly in the grocery store, or avoid asking me any questions they have about my disability, are governed, whether they know it or not, by a need to treat the disabled with as much condescending sugar as possible, hoping to delay the same “terrible”” fate for themselves. If it all happens for a reason, it doesn’t have to happen to them. It gets to the point where sometimes, I’ll go to make a bowl of cereal or check out a book from the library, and it appears as if I’m the only one not reading from a Seinfeld script. I don’t care if you intimately know a disabled person, you’ll fall into the able-bodied molasses pit from time to time. I’m not interested in shaming you for that: I’m interested in figuring out why the molasses pit got there in the first place, and how we can make it leave us alone.
Don’t let yourself believe that this armed robbery of disabled people’s autonomy doesn’t have consequences. 70% of people, when asked about intercourse by the UK’s Observer newspaper, admitted they would not have sex with any physically-disabled person. Again, peering into an alternate universe where that statistic was about Black people or Jewish people or Muslims, we would be talking about this. We would be alarmed, and begin to look at which societal structures are failing us, and what kind of stories we’re being told about these people. But in our universe, the one where this statistic is about the disabled, the first time you’re hearing about it is from a seventeen-year-old comedian, rather than, say, CNN or in our fiction. I can’t overstate how incrediblydistressing it is that I’m apparently the most qualified, and probably first, person to tell you these things. I can barely be trusted to put on pants in the morning, but here we are. This is probably the point where you agree that disability discrimination is a huge, invisible problem, but it looks so complicated and multifaceted that you feel like it’s impossible to solve. In one respect, you’re right, but let me try to boil it down for you with a little analogy. (If the person next to you has fallen asleep by now, my bad. Bump them or something, if it isn’t too much trouble, because coming up is The Important Part).
Imagine that a farmer, hoping to further his business, buys himself a dozen beautiful Hawaiian pineapple trees. A week later, he’s back in the store, complaining that the seeds are defective. It’s only after a solid hour of conversation with the clerk that he realizes how dumb it was to plant them on the polar ice caps. We, or frankly,y’all, need to change where we view the source of disability in our society. It is relatively easy, after seventeen years, to live with cerebral palsy. It’s almost impossible to live with cerebral palsy in 21st century America. A few months back, my Mom came home practically breathless, having read a story in the Dispatch about how the city of Columbus has rolled out its first wheelchair accessible cab. I would’ve been absolutely thrilled if that story was written in 1950, but it’s now 2013. It’s like hearing that a school an Alabama held their first racially integrated prom. Good job, I guess? I don’t think it’s unreasonable at all to require all cabs and buses, paid for with the tax dollars of every American, some of whom are disabled, to be accessible. All public buildings, including the ones I’ll help pay for, ought to follow suit. If a business expects me to pay them, I better be able to fit through their aisles and get my chair comfortably into their restrooms. If television shows want my viewership, they better depict my people in a way that couldn’t be set to Sarah McLachlan’s music. If superhero movies want me to pay for a movie ticket, they have to stop healing every disabled character they have. And if politicians want my vote, they need to stop holding what they call my “entitlements” for ransom. I need my humanity.
The defect is not in the pineapple. It’s obviously.in the tundra. But I can’t change the tundra, not alone, because I didn’t put it there in the first place. You need to learn how to have a rational, scientifically-based conversation about disability that isn’t here for your benefit. And you need to learn it quickly, because we’re not going any slower. It all seems very complicated to you, I suppose, but the first step is easy. Somewhat fittingly, it’ll sound like a joke, but I’m serious: after you leave this room, find your nearest disabled person, whether they be a brother or uncle or sister or friend, whether they be 22 or 92, and take them to a bar. Thank you.
To hear more about Justin go to his blog at http://justinmartinwrites.tumblr.com/