If You Can't Speak to Me As An Equal, Don't Speak to Me At All

It's Saturday morning and the sun is glistening off the bay. I take a deep breath and feel thankful. Thankful for sunny February days, thankful for this accessible path right in my backyard, thankful for Justin, grateful for new legs and new abilities. I set out on the path with a target in mind - I'll make it to the second dock and walk back. My first time on my new legs in public has me feeling a bit uneasy, but I try to stifle my uncertainty with gratitude. 

As quickly as it came, my bliss is interrupted.

"Hellllllloooooooo", says the dog walker on my left. This wasn't your friendly-neighborhood-I've-seen-you-before-so I'm-obligated-to-say-something- hello. Oh no. This was the Oh-wow-your-disability-makes-me-so-uncomfortable-I-have-to-say-something-and-laugh-awkwardly hello. It's easy to tell the difference by the number of extra syllables forced into such a simple word. 

But whatever, I can't say I'm surprised. I snap a quick, "Hi!" and soldier on. 

I keep my eyes focused on the second dock and push forward. This will be my longest walk post-SDR, and I'm showing these legs who's boss. Walking in this corrected pattern takes a lot more thought and effort than my pre-op gait, and I'm consciously working on shifting my weight and moving the opposite foot.

As I walk, I think to myself, "Shift left, move right." "Shift right, move left." Shift left, move- hellllllooooooooooo."

I look up to find another greeter smiling enthusiastically. 

My internal monologue switches to confusion and annoyance as to why this keeps happening.

Seriously, did they all attend Condescending Ableism 101??? How did they all learn to say hello in the exact same tone with the exact same number of syllables?? Did they all learn to tilt their head and smile in such a pitiful way? Who taught them this was how to speak to disabled people??" (I'm still wondering this - so if anyone has any intel, please advise.)

Justin validates my annoyance with an eye roll and we move on. The second dock is in sight now. We're almost there when two women approach.  I brace myself for another special hello. 

"Greeeeeaaaaat JOB," one woman coos. "You're doing a GREEAAAAAATE JOBBBBBB," her partner reiterates, in case they weren't loud and slow enough for me to understand the first time. 

I can't take it anymore. "SERIOUSLY?"  I snap, trying to let them know that their comments weren't welcome.  My attempt fails. 

'YES!" Woman 1 yells enthusiastically. 
"YOU LOOK AWESOOOMEEE," shouts Woman 2. 

A million comebacks boil over on my tongue but I figure my sass would be lost on them. As we continue on, I'm quiet for awhile, lost in my thoughts. 

"I don't know," I finally sputter. "I mean, I guess they were being nice?"

"I think the difference its, they wouldn't speak that way to an able-bodied person," Justin says. (I just love him).

It's true. I understand that saying hello or telling someone they are doing a great job is objectively nice. I understand that they mean well. But the fact of the matter is, they saw my physical differences and spoke to me differently because of it. Fact is, people are still so uneducated about disabilities that they presume incompetence in the face of a physical disability. In their eyes I wasn't a neighbor on a walk, but an object of pity whose struggle needed to be acknowledged, applauded.

As a disabled person, I have to spend every day thinking of how I'll be perceived, because in an ignorant society, my actions speak for my community as a whole. I dress nicely because people expect me to be sloppy. I smile in the face of injustice and inaccessibility because I don't want to be seen as bitter. I don't speak up when people talk to me like a child, because they mean well and it's just easier to let it go. But when is enough, enough?

I shouldn't have to plan my walks at low traffic times to avoid people's condescending comments. I shouldn't have to avoid speaking up for myself because it's easier to play nice. I am educated, successful, and live and work amongst my fellow Saturday morning trail-walkers. I'm proud of my abilities and want to feel comfortable being physically active, without feeling like I'm out on display. 

I just want to be treated and spoken to as an equal, because that's exactly who I am.


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