Ableism is a tricky bugger, if I ever saw one. Those of us in social justice/activist/advocacy/disability awareness (crip) circles use the term frequently to describe the actions of those who have blatantly ignored the experience of living a Deliciously Disabled lifestyle. In our heads, we tend to think of it as an overt, blatant display of inappropriate behaviour towards a Person with a Disability: calling them a derogatory term, refusing to help them with something they need, ignoring them or talking down to them. I always assumed that this was ableism—that to be an “ableist” individual meant that you were also an asshole of a special breed. I couldn’t have been more wrong, and I am compelled to highlight why in this blog today.
The other night, I went to a book reading and signing by one of my amazing friends who works in the field of Sex and Disability, Kaleigh Trace. She was talking about how we, whether we want to believe so or not, all harbour the capacity to access our own brand of ableism; that it was a part of each of us. I would very quickly learn how right she was.
After the event was done, one of the participants who was heading to the subway offered me a hand in getting there (this was great, if not solely for the fact that I am directionally challenged in all the ways, but also because I thought he was quite the charmer). We made our way out, and started making small talk about the kinds of stuff we liked to do, etc. Then he asked me, “what I was into?” In gay hook up terminology, this is undoubtedly an invitation to turn on the sexiness. I asked him what he meant, just to ensure that I didn’t step over any bounds (I have a tendency to do so if a cute boy/possibility arises). He sweetly said, he was just being polite, but he would be happy to discuss my sexual interests. I was giddy with anticipation: What?! The guy who I think is really cute actually WANTS to explore this avenue with me? Mind. Blown. As we continued to chat, we were about halfway to the subway, when I mustered up some courage and asked him to hang out a bit longer (true fact: I NEVER DO THIS. I get scared that the other person couldn’t possibly want to, and simply don’t ask). He agreed, and we dipped into a coffee shop and chatted more.
What I found most interesting about our discussion was his curiosities and fears around sex and disability. He told me that to learn about his sexuality, he had accessed conventional pornography (e.g. white, gay, muscular, homo-normative males), and that he had always wanted to sexualize a PwD, but didn’t know how. Sidebar: I am sure that any of you who know me, understand the wide-eyed grin that crept over my face at that exact moment. It was on, I had my chance and I was going to take it. I made a few passing remarks about how sex and disability is the best thing ever, and should he want to sample it, here I am.
Throughout the evening, as we stumbled around the city, I watched him watching me. I could see his wheels turning at the idea that this individual, a member of a group that he was taught never to eroticize, was sitting across from him provocatively putting a grape leaf in his mouth (in truth, I was shoving it in so that it didn’t fall—nothing sexy about that). I could see that he wanted to discover the deliciousness of disability, but all that he thought he knew was holding him back (that, and he had never met anyone as ballsy as I am). Every few minutes, he seemed to relax, and then every so often the fear of the unknown crept beneath his smile. It was so strange and beautiful all at once. He had a plethora of curious queries, and after each one, he would smile and say, “Sorry,” as if his wonderings had opened a wound I had long since tried to close. We talked about ableism a lot that night.
I am a proponent of people being given the space to access their fears and discomfort around disability. I think those are valid emotions that must be openly operationalized. Truthfully though, I never thought I would see it happen in front of my eyes, as it was happening. I watched this person confront his own ableism, and openly admit to me that the idea of sexuality and disability, both titillated and terrified him. The difference here was, that it was not an overt, aggressive act designed to oppress me. He wasn’t trying to hurt me or deny me; rather he simply wanted an understanding of something he had never been asked to truly consider before this very moment.
What I learned from him is that ableism seen in the small gestures, the little moments, and the things that we are too afraid to access within ourselves, but that we’re dying to know the answers to. It is there always, lying dormant beneath surface. What I learned from him (and for this I am ever grateful) is that it takes someone with a strong voice, a cheeky smile, and an understanding of the opportunity that lives within oppression, to wake it, while simultaneously shaking up everything you thought you knew.