activism, autism, disability, queerness, trans

An Essay: “Disability is Natural”

Content notice: (reclaimed and unreclaimed) anti-LGBTQ+ and ableist slurs, mentions of anti-LGBTQ+ and ableist violence, discussions of anti-LGBTQ+ prejudice and ableism.

This is an essay/rant/manifesto/something I wrote about queerness and disability. It is largely inspired by and structured after Martha Shelley’s wonderful essay, “Gay is Good,” which you can read here. It’s not perfect; it’s confrontational; it’s the kind of thing I probably wouldn’t share with people except that I send it to one of my professors (long story) and she liked it, so it’s here now.

The title also sucks. I’m sorry. I’m trying to workshop it.

Attention, abled people. Yes, you, who has never thought of your body or mind in any context other than normal. Here we come, disabled people, radical cripples and revolutionary crazies, to disrupt everything you hold dear. We’ve been in your movements – liberation based in race, gender, sexuality, religion, anything else – since the beginning and you haven’t noticed. Or maybe you have and you didn’t care. But now, now we refuse to pass anymore, if we can, and make polite excuses for ourselves, if we can’t.

We’re everywhere and anywhere you can think of. We crawl up the Capitol steps in D.C. and occupy the HEW building in San Francisco. We start our own centers in Syracuse and block traffic in LA. From Berkeley to Baton Rouge, we are everywhere you are. We’re making our own posters and our own revolutions. Your miles-long marches that start and end at Pershing Square, your rallies that require us to stand up in Dolores Park for hours at a time – those don’t work for us. They never have. Your happy leftist facades fall apart you use that term you’ve used on us for too long with revulsion – “retard” – to describe your political enemies.

I am sickened to my core by the push from milquetoast liberals for gentle reform, as if getting everyone to say “handicapped” or “differently abled,” will solve our problems. No amount of using the right language ever changed a flight of stairs into a ramp and no amount of smiling politely ever added captions to an unintelligible video. You call me a person with autism, trying to be polite, but I’m autistic to my core and I’m proud of it. Don’t try to separate my identity from who I am. That’s been tried tons before. Your liberal forebearers told people like me that it didn’t matter who we slept with because we’re all human anyway. But politeness and appeals to bland humanity didn’t work then and they won’t work now. Just like I don’t need to be labelled gay until I’m around straight people, I don’t need to be labelled disabled until I’m around abled people. When I’m around my own kind, I just exist.

You’ve tolerated us, dear ableds. You’ve given us the beneficence of rights and laws mandating access. But access isn’t enough now, it wasn’t enough when Bush signed the ADA in 1990, it wasn’t enough when Judy Heumann and her cohort occupied the HEW building in 1977, it has never been enough. If you want to know how to go beyond tolerance and beneficence, you need to know who we are before you know what we demand.

To quote Martha Shelley – whose essay “Gay is Good” provided the inspiration and format for this rant-ifesto – “We are the extrusions of your unconscious mind—your worst fears made flesh.” We are the doe-eyed non-speaking autistic children that you shun from your precious babies’ classes, we are the elderly crazy homeless people you look away from, we are the factory workers battling back pain after a lifetime in manufacturing, we are the wheelchair users blocking the office doorways of Congresspeople who want to cut Medicaid, we are the people living with HIV you use as cautionary tales in your sex ed classes, we are the sex workers who turned to trade because “real” jobs don’t allow for accommodations, we are your coworker who you would never expect lives with lupus or depression or has a prosthetic foot. People who aren’t us are taught to hate us, to fear us, to see us only as pitiable (if it wasn’t our fault) or as deserving of a fate worse than death (if there was something we could have done to prevent it). But now we have a collective consciousness. We are demanding more.

Liberal tolerance, awareness, acceptance – these things will never be good enough. We knew this long ago but we’ve been shushed for decades now. You can smile and nod at us and pretend you’re safe because your body and mind are intact and considered “good” by people like you (because people like you, not us, always made the rules) but as long as you continue to do this, you’re in for a rude awakening. Take this chance, rouse yourself, and don’t make us shake you awake because your alarm’s been going off for an hour now.

We know we’re different. Some of us have known since we were babies. When you don’t attend a normal preschool but instead one where half the class can’t speak and the other half can’t hear – you know. Some of us were adults before we knew. Some of us will never know we’re different because the only word we have for what we are is broken. We have played nice for too long. We have pretended that we’re okay with your labels on your terms for too long. We have never had access to your structure and your privileges and any concessions we make to gain access to these privileges obscure how different we are. Our existence poses a danger to your pretty, prissy, privileged structure, your meritocracy, your abled supremacy, your capitalist hellscape. We don’t want you to forget this because we sure haven’t.

The worst part of disability isn’t what we can’t do. It’s the balancing act we must do. If you can hide it, you have to. If you can’t hide it, you have to explain it. There is plenty else that disabled people deal with every day that we hate and fear – lack of access to buildings, medication prices so high we choose between pills and food, loss of jobs for being disabled couched in “not productive enough,” murder by police and family and random people on the street – but those things are sporadic. Episodic. Knowing that every interaction is a balance between hiding your true self and being asked “what’s wrong with you?” is constant. It’s your guilt and fear of the unknown we carry. You see us as the thing that could happen to you or someone you love. We are more than your fear and we damned well know it but can’t express it.

We reject your society. We reject a world that’s not built for us. The minute we showed signs of being disabled, the world rejected us right back. Those of us who refuse to claim the label “disabled,” who play down our injuries and illnesses, who give in to the temptation to hide, who act as if the ADA solved every problem are only hiding from the truth. To pretend the social fear, repression, and hatred we face is somehow our fault is what that fear, repression, and hatred want from us. No. No more.

If you are disabled – even if you do not use that word – and are tired of waiting for the Democrats to sweep the White House and both houses of Congress so there can be progress once again, you are on the right path. Think about what made you, whenever you figured out you were different, hate the society that labelled you different, broken. As a child, I hated that it was somehow my fault for running out of a classroom that was too loud and bright and messy for me to concentrate. As an adult, I hate that I can’t use the words I choose to describe who I am without being told I’m doing a disservice to my community. Whatever made you hate the society that called you broken, you were right. Abled ideals suck.

If you’re abled, look at us. Look at the person who you think is a little bit off. Look at the proud crip on the subway with fake flower chains on their wheelchair. Look at the people signing to each other in the park and laughing their assess off at a joke you’ll never get. Look at the stimming, ticcing, shaking individual you’d normally shun on your way to work. Look, but don’t look too long. Curiosity is natural. When your friend reveals a diagnosis to you, think about your reaction. Does being around disabled people make you uneasy? Does hearing the words autism, HIV, multiple sclerosis, schizophrenia, addiction, paraplegia, Tourette’s make you shiver? Good. We know the price we pay for being visible. We know that even if it’s more socially acceptable to speak verbally, to walk unaided, to not ask for help, it is better to use a tablet or letterboard to speak, to rely on crutches or a chair, to ask for help. We know the price of appearing abnormal. We’ll pay it because the price of hiding is higher.

What you call abnormal is our normal. Go to a convention run by and for disabled people. We don’t clap. We flap – what you call “jazz hands.” We section off rooms where the lights are kept low and there are couches and bedrolls in case someone needs to lie down. We provide ASL interpretation by default and make sure there’s at least six feet of space in all hallways so two chair users can pass each other. It’s okay to be different in our spaces because you defined what different means. We can’t help but be abnormal, different, broken, crippled to you. As long as we try to hide it and pretend that we’re like you, nothing will change.

Every single marginalized group is fucked over by those in power. Some disabled people will always mask, pass, pretend. But being disabled means you perceive without needing to even try how much of abled life is a farce.

I performed, once, at an open mic using my alternative/augmented communication device, an iPad with a specialized text-to-speech app installed on it. I felt disabled. It was performative disability – I do not normally use the iPad in everyday life, although it is always with me, slung over my shoulder in a black cross-body bag – but it was still disability. I wanted to show that the difference between me reading a poem about being gay and trans and disabled – a transsexual faggot cripple, as I so elegantly put it – into a microphone with my mouth is no different, in the end, than me pressing buttons to cue up the same poem on an iPad. I still read you a poem. You still hear a poem. You still leave the night knowing I’m angry as hell that queer communities are so inaccessible to disabled people.

Finally, finally, we’re seeing the truth. Shaky crip, stimming and rocking and screaming autistic, strong and proud rock of a breadwinner, smiling parent corralling kids at home – these are all too-small outfits we try to squeeze ourselves into as we fail to comprehend that humans are not independent. We are not islands; we are not meant to exist separately. And to deal with this failure, this failure to admit we can fail, we put ourselves in boxes. Us, the disabled, reject our abilities, and you, the abled, reject what you cannot do – because you cannot even call what you cannot do a disability.

And that is what separates us: dis/ability. What you have and we do not. We are alien to you. You have managed to closet away any inkling of failure, any deviance from what is demanded of you. We, having internalized your contempt for us and whatever parts of yourself you aren’t in line with your abled ideals, internalize too your labels for us: cripple, retard, burden, useless. Our bodies and minds do not exist for us or you outside of your labels any longer. Sometimes, in our anger at this fact, we wish to be like you. Sometimes, we wonder how you can keep going on as you try to fit into those molds.

How, as you repress everything and anything disabled about you, can you relate to each other? How, when you punish the very variations that make us all different and unique, can you truly connect to each other? When two of you have a conversation, is there a more abled and less abled person? Who takes on the dominant role? Can you ever just talk to each other or are you always posing in roles?

If these questions sound absurd to you, consider this: the person asking them has always lived in a world where they are secondary, less abled, less worthy, less deserving of full humanity in a conversation. My place in a conversation with an abled person is always predicated on appearing just normal enough to be believed while not so normal I’ll be accused of faking if I say I’m disabled. I am always playing a role. I am always having to defend my right to exist as I am. I cannot fathom a relationship between two abled people that does not have this dynamic.

If those questions sound absurd to you, consider this: the function of radical disabled activism is to make you see how absurd your world is.

And for you to gauge just how absurd your neat little world is, you must understand us. Find the inability, the disability, the failure, the lack you have buried so deeply inside yourself. We want to pull out the shaky, breaky, achy, long-suffering and hidden crip inside you. We want to discover what you call a deficit and what we call divergence, diversity.

Understand what it means to lack, to struggle, to navigate a world that wasn’t built for you. Understand what it means to feel anger that you can’t do the things you hunger to do – both because your body and mind won’t allow you to and because society has decreed people like you don’t get to do those things. Understand what it means to live with the constant threat of loss and death in an institution (both a literal institution you’re committed to for being too sick or crazy for normal people and a figurative institution of the mind). Until you understand this, you will only stare at us with your pity, not rage at the systems that keep us all down. You, us, everyone. Until you understand this, you cannot love us as equals and we cannot love you as equals.

We will never be abled until you are disabled. We will never be equal to you as long as you refuse to take steps (literal and figurative) to meet us in the middle. No longer can we or will we allow you to cast us or the disabled mirror versions of yourselves into the waste bin, the psychiatric ward, the nursing home, the grave. We have waited too damned long and if you stall any longer, you will be in for a very rude awakening. Your alarm clock has been going off for hours and we are about to drop cold water on your head to wake you up. Now you decide. We will always be here. We are born of you and you become us through the long slow march of time and toil and terror. We are in your bodies and in your minds. We are one with you.