After a 3.5 hour commute from DC to Penn Station, my crip comrade drove me to my crip sister Sunaura’s apartment. Our first call of duty for the afternoon was to take our service dogs (which we adopted on the same day, without planning to do so, over 4 years ago) on a walk in Washington Square Park. The children got their olfactory needs satiated. Their get their smells, whilst we got our stares. 2 wheelchair users with non-typical bodies and ridiculously cute dogs often causes quite the stir, but it is exciting doing this together because we feel powerful. The stares change meaning as we roll together, it’s really wonderful and something we have waxed poetically on about for much of our 11 year friendship.
It’s a powerful truth to know expressions of ableism (i.e., stares, intrusive questions, lacking access into spaces) are much easier to handle when we are together. There is strength in our togetherness. The root of our friendship is based in disability solidarity, after meeting on the Free Our People March with ADAPT in 2003. It was likely one of the weirdest most emotionally intense experience of our lives and I’m so grateful I meet my best friend on the march.
As we experienced the gaze of many people, one person stood out as wanting crip connection. There was longing in her eyes, as she scanned our wheelchairs and our fur children. She looked to be in her twenties or so, seated in a non-power chair that has to be pushed by someone else, with no assistive device to aid in communication. Sunaura and I wheeled past giving a gimp nod acknowledging a fellow disabled person in the space. But something pulled me back.
Maybe I noticed that look in her eyes of sadness about lacking access and freedom that felt hauntingly reminiscent of feelings I had as a teenager. Or maybe it was just eagerness to interact. Or maybe I just projected a lot onto her. I felt simultaneously like we could be provoking anxiety (ableism trains us to fear disability, and try desperately to stay away from it – this is part of the reason even some of us born gimps are the only disabled person we know for much of our lives, and the first time crip socializing may be intense) or forging welcomed crip camaraderie. It’s much like my insistence on giving visibly disabled people a crip nod, to recognize that I see them and to offer props for going through the ableist world. Some don’t respond, though they notice.
Despite some back and forth of whether we should go to her, I decided we had to say hello. As I noticed her eyes tracing Sullivan’s path, I asked if she would like to pet Sullivan. She eagerly shook her head in affirmation. I lifted Sullivan up so she could pet Sully. The person with her told us her name and how she really wanted a dog but she couldn’t have one. Though there was no verbal communication between Sunaura, the young woman and I – we think we saw in her eyes a desire to wheel with us or other crips.
That feeling of her longing for crip camaraderie was solidified as a long tear slowly rolled down her cheek, as she reached for more Sullivan love.
After a few minutes, Sunaura and I wheeled away. Initially, I just needed some silence to let my tears roll down. I felt ache, I feel it now writing this. That ache reflects reemergence of my own longing for community and feeling stuck. I felt her wanting, just of a damn dog to pet – perhaps a friend to wheel with.
When we began to speak, Sunaura and I wrestled with the probability of our actions being paternalistic or otherwise ableist. I could certainly hear a change in my tone, at least when we first spoke to the woman. That weird disability tone is similar to the switch people make when talking to a cute dog or a baby – there is distance and it generally feels that it comes in a top-down format. When addressing disabled people, the higher pitched tone sounds like it is not spurred by appreciating cuteness – instead, it comes from a space of discomfort and an attempt to cover it with happy notes. Was my initial tone indicative of this being a paternalistic experience in which Sunauara and I were expressly higher on the disability hierarchy? Or can it be that even the krips who work on their politics and work to hold each other accountable these values – still screw up and express ableism?
It was a complicated emotional experience for us, and it was genuine. There was communication without needing to rely on verbal engagement. Sullivan the service dog speaks without words and opens up space for people to feel comfortable. Having ze around helps me communicate with people I otherwise would likely not speak to out of pure gimp grumpiness from often-fulfilled expectations of ableist interactions with people. In this way, Sullivan truly helps bridge gaps and open doors that I otherwise would absolutely ignore. I love that little munchkin for this and many other reasons.
In hindsight, I would have liked to offer more of myself to the person – contact information, figuring out ways to support her if she wanted assistive devices to augment her communication or whatever else she would like support around. Several months after that encounter, I continue to have no real clarity around this, as I still question if the interaction was overloaded with paternalism and projection. I hope it was a cool moment for her.
Would you have stopped? How do you recommend we engage in these kinds of interactions better? Where is the line between benevolence and paternalism? How do we know the difference between it’s good to offer help and when are we only doing so to make ourselves feel better?’