I’m a visibly disabled person, navigating my life the best way I know how. I have hobbies, a job, a partner, a home… I buy groceries and commute and sometimes overspend and meet friends for coffee and despair about things that are going on in the world. Some things make me laugh, others make me cry, I avoid some activities and concepts at all costs because they terrify me.
In many ways, my life isn’t that different from anyone else’s.
But what’s frequently the only thing most people – particularly strangers – address about me?
I’m a visibly disabled person…
And I’m tired.
SO VERY TIRED.
It’s like this switch flips in the brains of many people that says “DIFFERENT!” and all propriety gets thrown out the window.
And if someone’s called on it – being politely and then firmly asked to stop asking personal questions, to stop grabbing and manipulating my body, reminding them that a particular action wouldn’t be welcomed if directed at them – I hear the words “But I just meant well” or “I just care” or “I didn’t know…”. As if this gives an automatic free pass.
And the armchair quarterbacking I’ve experienced on this issue – from people who weren’t there – “They talked to your companion because they aren’t comfortable with you” or “Disability brings out the compassion in people” or “people just want to connect with you on some level…”
I want to think that people have good intentions, but the reality is that violence against disabled people is far more prevalent than that experienced by non-disabled people. If I just go along, not making waves, thinking that people have good intentions, I am literally putting myself at greater risk (like the time three strangers tried to badger me into taking an elevator instead of the stairs, because they “would feel better” if I did so).
So that idea on its face needs to die, and right now.
But that’s not why I’m writing this.
I’m writing because intentions alone aren’t free passes. “Good intentions” aren’t enough anymore.
Because the impact of “good intentions” is cumulative. At the end of the day, underneath “good intentions” generally lies discomfort with disability, and a complex of superiority – that the non-disabled person is more informed about the world, more entitled to invasion of personal boundaries, and more knowledgeable about the disability experience than a disabled person.
Someone else’s “good intentions” means that they can walk away from an experience with a disabled person and go about their day. They can pat themselves on the back for doing a “good deed” (which, for the record, is SUPER condescending, and that thought also needs to die); they can walk away annoyed or hurt because their offer of help was declined because the disabled person didn’t need help at all… or they can walk away defensive after being called out because their “offer” of help or interaction crossed physical or emotional boundaries that are generally accepted as universal (except DISABILITY, so rules don’t apply).
But they can walk away and tell their partner about that ungrateful person they reached out to and were told they weren’t needed – or weren’t needed in the way they thought they should be. They can lump all disabled people together because of one interaction with that wheelchair user who asked them to stop pushing their wheelchair, or that blind person who told them they really didn’t want to discuss what made them go blind… That interaction took 30 seconds out of their day and they can move on.
But I can’t.
Because ONE person’s “good intentions” affect that one person for 30 seconds, or maybe a bit longer if they’re self-aware enough to understand their impact and actually make an effort to do better (this is rare, but this does happen).
But I can’t move on from the impact of one person’s “good intentions” because there’s another person’s “good intentions” right around the corner. I struggle to accept true compliments anymore because I receive so many that are based on low expectations of me. I have to forcefully deflect personal questions about my disability itself because politeness rarely works. I have to make a choice between drawing more attention to myself or shutting up and getting along when I’m physically grabbed and directed, when the person doing the grabbing was never given consent to do so.
One person’s good intentions impact them and me. Another person’s good intentions impact them and me. A third person’s good intentions impact them and me.
Impact is more important than intent. One can intend well and still have a harmful impact. And I’m impacted over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.
It’s never one person’s action alone, but the cumulative impact that has me – and others – so tired.
And every single person tells me they have “good intentions.”
Those aren’t enough. If that’s all you’ve got, skip them. Good intentions mean nothing when they come from a place of entitlement and superiority.
Do you really mean well, or is it that you want to feel better about yourself?
If you really mean well, take a split second and actually think about the impact of your comments or actions. Would you appreciate the comment or question if directed at you? Would you like to be physically grabbed, or would you prefer to have autonomy over your body? Would you like to spend the rest of your life talking about one personal topic, or would you prefer to talk about sports or the weather or local politics or…? I truly believe that a split second of reflection could have immeasurable positive impact on my experience and – by extension – yours.
And if you just want the warm fuzzies?
Move along… You don’t mean well at all.
Andrea Rossi said:
Thank you for writing how I feel.
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Annie Chiappetta said:
Joy, had the touching thing happen just yesterday, ugh. Thanks for sharing what needs to be said.
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Meagan H. Houle said:
Thank you, thank you, thank you–for this and for all the things.
Yours in love and mutual exhaustion,
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Chris Swank said:
Funnily enough, when I’ve Googled looking for articles about intent versus impact, most people seem to believe impact is more important than intent. So I guess having a disability turns every day into Opposite Day. It’s utterly illogical and twisted. So what matters more is how the non-disabled person in the interaction sees themselves as kind or otherwise non-hostile with no thought to the impact of what they actually do or say in reality. And for blind people, is it believed we have some kind of special intention-reading firmware unknown to mere mortals so we can just know this? And really, I think intent is used as a deflection because I know my negative reaction to people is not because I’m misreading their intent, is because people are being pests and I want them to stop bothering me.