Editor’s note: The following post is from Renee at Womanist Musings, which touches one of many forms of ableism people with disabilities have to negotiate on a daily basis.
Last week, my family life and the unhusband’s working schedule was extremely chaotic. This meant that it fell to me to do the grocery shopping. This is something that the unhusband normally does, because it is physically exhausting for me, and means that for at least the rest of the day, and sometimes even the next day, that I am unable to do anything else for my family. I did what I am not supposed to do – double up on the pain medication and headed off to the grocery store. By the time my cart was loaded and I had checked out, even with the extra pain meds, my entire body was covered in sweat, I was exhausted and I hurt all over.
When I called my cab to get home, the first thing the driver said to me was, “you’re looking so much better and moving around more. You’re cured now aren’t you?” Cured? I bit down on my lip and closed my eyes to avoid giving him the side eye.
As a disabled person, I am constantly encouraged to rise above. The super crip narrative is absolutely universalized. What rarely gets discussed is the fact that when disabled people do actually push themselves and rise above, it is taken as proof that a disability no longer exists, and that accommodations no longer need to be made. This kind of thinking also does not take into account that someone could actually be having a good day. Yes, they happen. A day when the pain level might not be as bad, disabled people might take advantage of it, and do something that they are not normally able to do, but this in no way means that the disability has disappeared into thin air.
When one is disabled, there is constant discipline of one’s behavior. Just from looking at us, people think that they have the right and the ability to determine whether or not we are really disabled. Of course, after they make this determination, they then treat us accordingly. Depending on the situation, this may mean paternalistic behaviour, or an accusation that we are faking. No matter what the public decides, disability is an identity which one most constantly defend, or explain. This creates a no win situation for the person who is negotiating a disability.
Though this was simply one situation, it is reflective of an ableist belief that there exists an absolute right to question disabled people about our health. The question in and of itself may seem innocent to the person asking, but it is absolutely loaded with privilege. It also comes with the added benefit of being stress inducing for the person who is forced yet again to defend their identity as a disabled person.
While identity policing is vexing, it is something that is not unique to disabled people. As a medium hued woman of colour, I have never had to argue to be understood as Black, and as a cis woman, though I still deal with the racist ‘unwoman’ meme, but generally speaking, in public interactions, I am understood to be decidedly female. Perhaps if I were gender queer, or didn’t dress in a conformist female manner, this might be more subject to discipline and questioning. The point that people need to understand is that there is no way to be, X marginalization.
No matter the reason, you don’t have a right to question or dissect a person’s identity. If they say that they are disabled, gay, gender queer, asexual, etc., you don’t get to question them to determine if they are living their life in a manner that suits your determination of what the specific marginalization in question is. If the questioner is already a member of a marginalized group, this further problematizes the issue, because it is a reflection that a person has internalized a standard of behaviour that comes directly from an oppressors point of view. People have a right to their various identities and labels. This desire to question is not only proof of a lack of understanding of the margialization in question, it is disrespectful on a personal level.
One of the things that frustrates me about this incident, is the knowledge that for as long as I am disabled, this is a question that I will continue to negotiate. No matter how many times I write posts, or educate those who I interact with about disability, and the rudeness of questioning my status as a disabled person, I know that many are far too invested in their privilege, to actually take to heart what I am saying, or attempt to self educate.
When it comes to disability, I believe it is because this is an identity which is determined by a gatekeeper, and this encourages the belief that gate keeping must be an ongoing fact, lest someone able bodied person receive some unfair advantage from being understood to be disabled.
To this, I must certainly call bullshit. There are no benefits from taking on a disabled identity, if one is not indeed disabled. Whatever disability payments are paid by the government, are not nearly enough to compensate for the constant questioning and hostile ableist treatment. Surviving on government disability in most places is living below the poverty line, and so no one is living high on the hog. The questioning is just another excuse to engage in disciplining the identities of others.
In short, if you are tempted to engage in identity policing, please, just stop. As marginalized people, we already have enough to deal with without having to prove, or explain why we identify in a specific fashion.