May 01, 2008

Disability, Being an Ally, Invisibility, and Outness.

This is my post for Blogging Against Disablism Day. A friend suggested that I post a bit of a "status report" of where I am as a non-disabled ally. I have a few more substantive posts on the way in coming weeks so don't expect this to be the end of it. Please, if you have the energy, criticize it and call me out on things that I say that are offensive. I'm very early in my journey to learn more.

I don't really think of myself as non-disabled. I don't know if that is something that I need to work on and change. I can remember a time in my teens when I didn't think of myself as white and didn't believe race affected my life. Now, I understand that I was just a part of an unmarked category and so able to use my privilege to pretend to myself that nothing in my life related to my race. However, in a way being non-disabled is different - it's not having a disability that I know of, or not having a disability yet. In the disability communities where I am involved, there are so many people with such different disabilities that everyone is impacted by different barriers in their lives. In a way, it's like we are all allies to each other in that very few people have experiences around disability that are similar to each other's.

I spend a lot of time around people with disabilities - some have physical disabilities, some mental health issues, and some both. As far as peers, I have a partner, close family members, and close friends who I know have physical disabilities and/or mental illnesses.

I think of myself as someone without a physical disability but as an ally to people with physical disabilities. I am actively involved in various projects designed to make change at policy and community levels, and on a personal level try to host activist and social events in the most accessible spaces possible. I understand variable movement restrictions in a very intimate way as my partner and I trade off household tasks depending on whether it's a good day or a bad day. Perhaps because of the intimacy of asking these questions and sharing these experiences with someone so close, I have found myself able to comfortably travel through disability-spaces, particularly physical-disability-focused spaces with increasing ease. As an ally, I am confident in myself, know why I am there, and feel like I am playing a role that makes sense.

In mental health/illness related spaces, I often feel more confused. In my experience, there is more emphasis on disclosure or non-disclosure. I don't know if it is true, but it feels like there is more of a fuzzy line between being a person living with mental illness and not. When I have been involved in mental health related disability work, I tend not to disclose my status as a person who at least is not aware of any mental illness I do have, if I have one. It feels like each person disclosing their status applies some amount of pressure on others to disclose. Kind of like how great it is to have straight or non-trans allies committed to LGBT work because it gives people who aren't willing to be out the opportunity to be involved but to blend in. Or perhaps it's because I'm not confident enough in myself as an ally and not ready to be called out each time I fuck up. Or because I somehow think that if I say, for example, that I don't have a certain condition in my life, I am saying that that I judge or dislike people with that condition. In any case, I sort of blend in - I mean, everyone has issues so there is a level of empathy that just makes sense. However, I also know that my own issues, even my experiences of trauma, tend not to get in the way of what I want to do, or to hinder my daily life. I don't know if there is a "right way" to be involved.

But like my involvement in physical disability work, a lot of my involvement with mental health related disabilities is not on some organized picketing of a building. It's about asking someone how their day is going and wanting to hear the truth, or quietly taking on part of a coworker's project when he just can't do it that week, or stopping a bigot from spewing hurtful shit at least for today, at least for now. I don't think that these kinds of interactions make me an ally. They are basically the bare minimum necessary to make me a decent human being.

So maybe I'm not an ally after all.


maudite entendante said...

So, the idea that most people who don't have disabilities will have some kind of disability eventually is not new to me. But I'm a little confused by the idea that you might have a disability and not know it. It seems to me that if you don't notice anything interfering with your daily life, then you pretty much by definition don't have a disability - what am I missing?

Anonymous said...

You are right. That makes sense. I think this is a way in which my brain got confused by the medical model of disability. So you could have a medical condition you don't know about but if it doesn't (in combination with an ablist world) impact your daily life, then it's not a disability at this point - just a medical condition.


Laurel said...

If that's your definition of being a decent human being, then I would gladly claim you as an ally as well.