Early last year, I was featured in the Lebanon Daily News in a rather lengthy article, resulting in my becoming somewhat of a local celebrity for a few days.
The story: I was a member of the high school marching band and played hockey.
However, I was somehow newsworthy, just because I happened to do those activities sitting down. This is the reality that so many people nationwide live with every single day: being approached, often by total strangers, with the idea that they are somehow extraordinary or inspirational just for going about their lives with a disability. I have experienced this phenomenon myself, almost too many times for me to count. One particular incident that stands out to me occurred in April of 2015. While in Buffalo, New York, attending, ironically, the 2015 USA Disabled Hockey Festival, I along with my brother and one or two of my more ambitious teammates, decided to check out a local airsoft arena which was open after one of my games. For those who are unfamiliar, airsoft is a competitive combat sport similar to paintball in which two teams attempt to eliminate the other team’s players by hitting them with plastic pellets fired from replica military weapons known as airsoft guns. Although it is an activity obviously not suited to someone with severe mobility restrictions, my electric wheelchair allowed me the freedom to participate in the action just as well as the other players, while also providing me with some added protection as well. While there, attempting to limit the amount of welts (the painful consequence of being struck by a 6 millimeter sphere of plastic traveling at several hundred feet per second) I collected as much as possible, I was approached by another player, who said, “I think it’s really cool what you’re doing”. Somewhat used to this sort of thing, I responded with the obligatory, “thanks”, and we went our separate ways. This encounter was not terribly significant to either of us, but the implications of his statement are representative of a common perception of people with disabilities. Why, exactly, did he consider my participation so ‘cool’? Was it because I decided to go out and get my adrenaline fix on a Saturday night by channelling my inner soldier instead of laying around my hotel room feeling sorry for myself? Perhaps, but more than likely it stemmed from the able-bodied community’s tendency to perpetuate the idea that disabled people are only expected to do certain activities, and anything, however normal it would be for anyone else, not involving wheelchair basketball or being a greeter at Walmart is considered strange or unusual.
Aside from my direct experiences with people, objectification often occurs through less direct means as well. Among the most widely used example of this is the phrase, “The only disability in life is a bad attitude.” Oh, really? I beg to differ. I generally go about my life in a pretty positive manner, but, to paraphrase the late Australian disability rights activist Stella Young, no amount of radiating a positive attitude will turn a set of stairs into a wheelchair ramp. A blind person might be a shining beacon of positivity, but that won’t help to translate a shelf of books into braille; and, or so it seems, no amount of perfectly ordinary activity to the contrary is enough to change the world’s perception of disabled people so that they might be viewed, not as objects of inspiration, but as the perfectly ordinary people they truly are.
BY RYAN MONTAGNA