By: Emma Johnston
If you’ve seen a bizarre influx of disabled students roaming around campus, you’re likely seeing people participating in Archer Hadley’s Challenge. Initially started to raise money for push button doors at Archer’s high school, the challenge asks someone to be in a wheelchair for a day in order to better understand what life is like for a disabled American.
Beyond the initially arresting instinct that masquerading as disabled flies in the face of modern, politically correct sensibilities, the idea that someone will (quite literally) walk away from this challenge knowing the experiences of a disabled person is frankly ridiculous. More likely, they walk away thinking they understand simply because they tried using a wheelchair for a few hours.
If you stuff an able bodied person in a wheelchair for a day, they will only feel the mobility they lost and the sudden restrictions placed upon them. Rather, in my wheelchair I am liberated from the restrictions of my own body. The person playing tourist in my life won’t understand the way my body works in perfect concert with this machine, how I can read the contours of the ground below me with each movement, or the satisfying ache from my shoulders to my fingertips after a long stretch of wheeling. They cannot understand the radical notion that I love my wheelchair. They see my weaknesses instead of my power and this is the problem.
A perception of ineptitude of the mobility impaired pervades our culture. To witness it, all you have to do is turn on the TV. Mainstream media loves a good inspirational story on someone with a disability overcoming the odds and becoming a functioning member of society. We are all so proud of them. The story is presented as a feel-good affair designed to bring the issues of the disabled community into broader American discourse and normalize disability for the able bodied. But most of these stories force the disabled into two categories for easy consumption by the public. The first is that disabled people only seem to exist when they require the help of an able bodied person. The second stresses a disabled person’s positivity as a feat (considering the bum hand they’ve been dealt in life, after all) while commending their determination to have as “normal” (re: able bodied) a life as they can. In both of these instances, the independence of a disabled person is a surprise and a novelty to the able bodied. The idea of being disabled is so frightening to people that happy disabled people are seen as naive, and those with fulfilling lives are treated like rare unicorns.
The person playing tourist in my life won’t understand the way my body works in perfect concert with this machine, how I can read the contours of the ground below me with each movement, or the satisfying ache from my shoulders to my fingertips after a long stretch of wheeling.
This view of the disabled isn’t advertised or even openly acknowledged, yet every interaction I have with strangers is steeped in these misconceptions. Since living on my own, not a day goes by without someone feeling the need to offer me words of encouragement or trying to push my wheelchair.
One time, a woman I was idly chatting with asked me if I had a boyfriend, demanded to see pictures, and then cooed at how lucky I was to have an able bodied boyfriend, especially one “so handsome.” I actually am quite lucky to be with him, but significantly more for his appreciation of obscure Harry Potter satire than his mobility. He’s damn lucky to be with me, too, but from her perspective—from the perspective of so many people I meet—I’m not allowed to think of myself as a catch. Her surprise shows that being in a wheelchair immediately lowers my own level of attractiveness in the eyes of others, and that any attractive, intelligent, able-bodied male is out of my league. Being able bodied is a quality one is supposed to look for in a partner.
She meant to pay me a compliment so I felt unable to criticize her. But interactions like this still crack the fragile confidence I have built around being disabled. I remember frantically texting my boyfriend asking if my disability bothered him. His friends? Parents? He replied that he didn’t care and doesn’t really think about it. I never think about my disability either. Everything I do is so normal to me and everyone who knows me, that the only time I really feel disabled is when someone reminds me with their unbidden commentary.
It is the pervasive notion that disabled means incapable – that disability makes our lives any less fulfilling – that can permanently damage us.
When this happens almost every day, it becomes a constant fight against internalizing these sentiments. I could have just nailed my design pitch, done perfectly symmetrical eyeliner wings this morning and be enjoying my walk home, but your “can I push you?” or a “good job!” reminds me that no matter how well I am doing, people will still just see me as someone who needs their help or someone who’s “less” than an able bodied person. What is fair or nice about you leaving feeling like you’ve improved someone’s day and me leaving hyper-conscious and insecure of my appearance to the world? Who did you really say those things for? If you meant to pump me up but left me humiliated, you didn’t do a good thing. If you assumed that I need cheering up just because I’m in a wheelchair, your motives are not benevolent. This behavior can’t be praised as good or excused as harmless anymore when it is neither of those.
What, then, of Archer’s Challenge? Speaking with Archer Hadley, it was impossible for me to not have deep respect for him. He is fiercely ambitious and exudes passion for his challenge. Accessibility is important. I have felt the sting of being placed in a classroom that was only accessible by stairs, and having to sit outside and wait for the professor to come get me. I had to scoot up a flight of stairs last year to make my Astronomy final because, as we all know about University of Texas’s Robert Lee Moore Hall, “elevators do not stop on the 4th, 5th or 6th floors.” Archer simply wants people to actually see the disabled and make an effort to understand them. I do too. Yet I argue that in an increasingly accessible post-Americans with Disabilities Act world, a lot more can dehumanize the mobility impaired besides a curb or a heavy door. It is the pervasive notion that disabled means incapable – that disability makes our lives any less fulfilling – that can permanently damage us. I think Archer’s challenge does nothing to combat this psyche, even reinforcing the perception of helplessness, regardless of how well meaning it is.
Meaning well isn’t enough anymore. I don’t need your encouragement and I don’t want your praise. If I need help, I know how to ask for it. I’m allowed to be happy and to love my body––for someone else to love my body – and for that not to be some Big Fucking Deal to inspire you on the 6 o’clock news.