It helps to be friendly, considering that I’m stared at almost everywhere I go. I was born with cerebral palsy, a physical disability that affects my legs and forces my knees inward when I walk. When I reach for a dress at Target, an apple at a farmers market, or a paperback at a bookstore, I readily notice non-disabled strangers holding their gaze on my gait. I register a mix of fear, confusion, and pity in their eyes right before they meet mine, and the second that they do I smile and say hello. I don’t always make this choice, and this situation isn’t the standard meet-cute of my friendships. But when I match that stare with a greeting, most strangers soften and small talk. It makes me feel like I’m no longer on display.
“I’m sorry you have to do that,” my oldest friend said to me recently about this habit, for the 1,000th time. We call it being a disability spokesperson. Ever since we met at recess in the fourth grade, she’s witnessed how the world treats disabled people differently.
To be disabled and to care about a disabled person is to grasp all the ways in which the world was designed for non-disabled bodies. It’s why people stare, after all. Staring is a silent reminder of how the disabled community has been systematically discriminated against for generations: it’s an Othering spark that can either lead to an upsetting escalation or a diffusing hello. Even 30 years after the passing of the Americans With Disabilities Act, we are still mocked, forced, or killed out of public life. This occurs from childhood to adulthood, and affects our access to education, our ability to secure housing, our chances at gainful employment, and our right to “do no harm” healthcare. The ADA recognizes disability in the eyes of the law, not in those of society.
“I hope you’ll still laugh at my jokes when I have dementia,” I said to my husband Ryan on an evening walk not long after my thirty-fourth birthday....