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Heroes and Victims
I was among a crowd of people the other day when a woman came up to me and said “You are so ill” and stroked my hair as if I were a little puppy. “No,” I said, probably somewhat sharply, “I’m not ill at all, in fact I’m very perky.” The woman was a bit startled, but said quickly “Yes, you are so ill, it’s absolutely dreadful.” I repeated a few times that this wasn’t so, that I was generally in very good health, hardly ever catching ’flu or tummy bugs. The woman didn’t give in, and continued to stroke my hair, finally blessing me from head to foot before taking her leave. She had achieved what she wanted while I was left as the poor ‘victim’. While an incident like this may not happen on a daily basis, people do express the same message with their pitying glances and smiles that say “I’m so sorry you were born . . . like this.”
But while some people take such tremendous pity on my existence, there are others who see every single act I perform as a complete miracle. People generally feel that I am utterly amazing to be studying at university (despite society’s emphasis that most young people should get themselves educated), that I’m working at the same time as studying (even if non-disabled people who don’t are frowned upon) or even that I should take the trouble to apply make-up, use eyebrow pencil, mascara and gloss before leaving the house: “Goodness, you’ve even got make-up on!” a woman once exclaimed, in spite of the endless obsession everywhere with appearance and the demands on both women and men to look good.. Some have even gone as far as to get worked up about how amazing I am to go partying on a Saturday night, almost nominating my friends as worthy of a medal for ‘taking me out’ on the town – such ‘heroes’ we are, I and they. I doubt very much that people generally attract praise for going out for a drink in the company of their friends.
Perhaps this is not so surprising after all. The media feed society with news about disabled people, depicting them as either heroes or victims, accompanied with solemn music and black-and-white photographs of disabled children – just to highlight the drama. Films and programmes promote these images, children’s books talk about disabled children who ‘suddenly’ start to walk (or die), and society gulps and reflects on this message which it has learned by heart. Advertisements about traffic accidents employ disability as a warning, suggesting that life with impairment is in every way disastrous, ugly and pitiful – it is depicted as the antithesis to the lives of non-disabled people. When children ask their parents about disabled people out and about, it is, unfortunately, frequently implied that we are to be pitied, or that we are so amazing that it is almost abnormal. Very rarely are we natural, ordinary people – always, to a lesser or greater extent, something out of the ordinary.
Fortunately these images have not reached everybody, and in amongst the others there are people who praise disabled people for the jobs they do or for their personality, rather than making them into superheroes at the drop of a coin. They do not pity them, they are much more likely to pity the authorities and society for not creating the same chances for all to take part in and control their own lives. Last Friday, for instance, I went to the shops to get some food, and a little girl was hovering around me and looking at me. In the end her mother took her by the hand and brought her to me and said “Look, she is just an ordinary woman.” I said hello to the girl and told her my name and what I wanted to buy to eat, explaining finally that I use the wheelchair to help me get round and that I have an assistant who helps me in the shop. The girl was somewhat shy, but the mother said “How about that, isn’t she lucky?”
It isn’t often that I leave such a conversation feeling ordinary as well as happy, but it does happen, fortunately. At such moments I have the hope that society is redeemable, and that disabled people will one day be presented as neither heroes nor victims, simply as ordinary people who get themselves ready, go to work, school and out on the town with their friends as the most natural thing in the world.