Wheelie Gripes: Ignorance About the Culture of Disability

Eugenics is a topic that comes up quite often in modern discussions of disability. There are truly terrifying people who subscribe quite literally to the Nazi theory that disabled people should be exterminated, and that’s obviously horrifying. But there are subtler eugenicists who operate within socially-accepted norms while still promoting the eradication of disabled people.

The group that navigates those waters with the strongest attempts at stripping disabled people of our rights is made up of those people who think disabled people should not have biological children. They’ll operate under different flags, but the common ground is that any of us who have the possibility of passing on our disabilities to our children are cruel and should be prevented from doing so. There is no way to try and control another’s reproductive freedoms that isn’t based in immoral demands of arbitrary control over the lives of strangers. It’s grotesque. At best, they’re claiming to be better judges of disabled lives than disabled people themselves. At worst, they’re flat-out telling us that disabled lives aren’t worth living. There is no way around this fact if you’re arguing that disabled children should not be born into this world. They are telling us that our lives are worthless, that we’d be better off not existing (AKA, “better dead than disabled”).

Those who ride trepidatious waters are those who advocate that disabled fetuses be terminated. This is a slippery slope, because there is no circumstance in which it is appropriate to strip a woman of her right to choose to terminate her pregnancy. Still, choosing to abort because the fetus is disabled is an act of ableism. It is still the mother’s right to make that choice, but it is unavoidably a choice rooted in bigotry and eugenics.

Then there are the people who believe that if a disabled child is brought into the world, everything must be done to make them “normal,” ie erase their disability. This is a dangerous game because it strips the child of their autonomy, and removes them from the culture they were born into.

Many able-bodied people don’t realize that disability is very much a cultural construct. Not all disabled people feel they are a part of a greater community, but most with “severe” disabilities recognize the culture they are a part of that is very unlike the greater able-bodied culture. There are true communities for the d/Deaf, the blind, autistics, and the mobility impaired, often especially those who are at the more severe end of the impairment spectrum.

Since becoming a wheelchair user, I’ve become part of a disabled culture unlike any I could have imagined as a walker. And able-bodied people look down on cripples like me, or at best pity us, without understanding that being in a wheelchair is not something to be ashamed of, or something we inherently wish to change.

See, I don’t actually mind being a wheelchair user at all. Truthfully, I’m very happy as such, and would be sad if I had to give up my chair. Does this mean my disability is all fun and games? Of course not. It would be amazing to not suffer constant pain, but the answer is to mitigate that pain, not eliminate people like me from existence. The only things that truly frustrate me about being a wheelchair user are not actually about my disability, they’re about the ableism in our culture. If every building, bus, and house was wheelchair accessible, I’d be in heaven. I don’t want my wheelchair to disappear, I want society to accept and accommodate it. I want the Americans with Disabilities Act to actually be enforced (which it truly isn’t, at all). I want sidewalks to be free of holes and fissures, I want wide doorways without high thressholds, I want ramps in place of stairs, I want bathrooms with large stalls and stores with wide aisles. I don’t want to exist without my wheelchair, I want the world to let me exist with it.

But this decision is seen as aberrant, and often as flat-out wrong by able-bodied people. These are the people who argue that autism must be “cured,” who think all hearing impaired children should receive cochlear implants, who think striving for “normalcy” should be everyone’s ultimate goal.

What I ask is: What’s so great about being normal? I wasn’t always in a wheelchair, so I know what the grass is like on that side of the fence, and yeah, there are some perks. I can’t chase my daughter through the park anymore, but you know what? We sidewalk-race all the time, and it is super-fun rolling downhill with my little one nipping at my wheels. I can’t sit in the reclining chairs at the movie theater, but I’m guaranteed my memory-foam wheelchair seat and an unobstructed view. I need to crane my neck to look people in the eye, but I’ve got a great view of my partner’s spectacular ass. It’s not a worse life, it’s just a different one. And the things that make disability especially difficult are those imposed on us by an inaccessible, ableist world.

Why try to eradicate (“cure,” “abort,” “avoid”) a whole class of people rather than just accomodate them? Our lives are worth living, exactly as they are.

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About bunnika

shout at the brick wall; if it doesn't hear you, shout louder
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2 Responses to Wheelie Gripes: Ignorance About the Culture of Disability

  1. Smoochagator says:

    Something that just occurred to me: We say we don’t want to be cookie-cutter assembly-line clones of each other, but we try to erase everything that makes us (and others) unique. Funny that. The more we accept our own special snowflakeyness and stop perceiving ourselves as “less than” because of our differences, the more likely we are to stop seeing OTHERS as less than and trying to remake them in our image.

  2. Thank you for this. I particularly like how you thread the needle of affirming reproductive choice and the ableist aspect of choosing to abort a fetus based on a prenatal disability diagnosis. The distinction has always felt clear in my mind, but it really stymies a lot of people, and I’ve never been able to articulate it as well as you did. I really wish that more people … especially but not exclusively non-disabled … understood how many layers and dimensions there are to the disability experience. I’m afraid that most people will always see “overcoming” paradigms as the only remotely positive way to deal with one’s disability. The notion that you can be happy in your wheelchair just makes no sense to them, and maybe never will. For what it’s worth, I have physical disabilities that are genetic in origin. I don’t use a wheelchair, but I do have mobility impairments. My disabilities are so diffuse and spread out over all of my bodily functions that the idea of a cure is very different than, say, not being able to walk and then just being able to again. I’ll admit that for me, if it was that cut and dried, I’d probably sometimes wish / hope / work for a cure, or some significant improvement in functionality. But like reproductive choices, that’s a very personal thing … some people want it, and that’s okay for them, and some people don’t, and that’s okay too. And some, like me, are neutral on the issue. My disability isn’t an awesome thing to me, nor is it horrible. It just is.

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