It was one of those days, you know? The type of day you get the kids out the door dressed, fed, and looking good, but you barely manage to get out of your pajamas. All I had to do was drop of the kids at school, no bid deal. Except that once we got to school I remembered I had to get the flyers sent for the fundraiser. At that point I was hoping that not too many people would see me in the school office for the 30 minutes it would take me to get it done. But then there was a school assembly, and it was a wheelchair basket ball team, and how do you not stay for that? And before you think, how bad could it be, really? Let’s just say I did not look pretty, and I can prove it.

she thought I was disabled-001

I took this picture as soon as I got home. I was tempted to edit it, add a filter to make me look a little better because let’s be honest,  this is not the kind of picture I share in public. It’s not flattering but I was seen like this in public. Yes, I left the house dressed, but I did not look in the mirror all morning, I did not brush my teeth, I did not brush my hair, I did not wash my face. I also want you to know what I really looked like because it felt significant to what happened latter in the day.

One of my daughters has cerebral palsy. Although she can walk independently, she feels safer using her walker or her wheelchair. Depending on her energy level or distance, she might choose one over the other. Because of the school assembly, she wanted me to get her wheelchair.

While I waited for her, I sat on her chair.

Everyone at school knows who I am: teachers, staff, even the kids. And because I do know them I made plenty of jokes about being out in public looking the way I looked. Nobody said, “You look just fine!” or any similar comments because I didn’t. And it didn’t matter because we had a good laugh about it, “We all have days like those!” they said, and besides I had mints with me so it was all good.

But while I sat on my daughter’s chair waiting in the hallway, a woman, who is not a regular staff member, turned to me and said, “Well aren’t you a pretty lady!”

I want you to get the scenario. Imagine a grownup talking to a little girl. Let’s say the little girl is two or three years old. Do you hear the tone of voice? Do you see the special smile? “Well aren’t you a pretty lady!”

And in that instant, as soon as she said it, I knew she thought I was disabled. She was treating me the same way I have seen other people treat my disabled adult friends.

My heart tightened and her comment felt so condescending. She meant it as a compliment but it was offensive.

Not once in my life has a stranger approached me to tell me, “You are such a pretty lady!” out of the blue. Not once in my adult life have I been addressed with the tone of voice and manner used for children. Not one person yesterday would have called me a pretty lady! The only difference was I was sitting on a wheelchair and the woman thought it was mine.

She didn’t see me. She didn’t see a person. She saw a chair. She saw disability.

wheelchair

And I knew it.

Because I did not look pretty.

Because of her tone of voice.

Because she made me feel like an object, not a person.

Because her words felt like pity.

This is not new for me, I know this happens all the time. It happens to my daughters even (my daughter who has cerebral palsy and my daughter who has Down syndrome). I have seen people do this to my friends too. But those experiences were never personal, never about me. Yesterday I felt it. Yesterday was personal. Yesterday it was about me.

I know the woman meant well. I know she was trying to be nice. But what she meant as a compliment was offensive. Actually, it was hurtful. It hurt not to be looked at as a person. It hurt that she was focused on the chair. It hurt that she used a tone of voice that was patronizing. It hurt that her words were empty in meaning.

And it hurt most to know that this is something my daughters live with everyday, and as they grow up and become adults, it will continue to happen.

And I thought, “What if I had to live with these types of attitudes all my life?”

So personal. So hurtful.

Disability attitudes. They matter.

I might have stammered a, “Thank you,” because it is the automatic response to a “compliment.” But I knew why she had said it, and what I do remember saying was, “You know? This is not my wheelchair, this is my daughters wheelchair. I am not disabled, I am just sitting on it waiting for her.” Her smile changed, her expression changed, she swallowed, she looked embarrassed. She was, as she stumbled through her words I could tell.

But here is the thing, she should have been embarrassed not because she said it to someone who was not disabled, but simply because that is not how you treat someone with dignity and respect.

And that’s it, isn’t it? We all want to be treated with dignity and respect.

There is not much dignity in treating a person with a disability different from an able-bodied person.

There is no much room for respect when words feel patronizing.

I have experienced being treated differently because I am Mexican, but I had never experiences being treated different because someone presumed I was disabled.

Disability attitudes matter.

It’s about dignity and respect to all people.

How would you feel if you were treated differently because you were sitting on a wheelchair?

(And you guys, I clean up too. Please remember me like this and I understand if you must roll your eyes at the fact I felt inclined to include this picture )

Ellen Stumbo

What are disability attitudes that you wish we could change?

Editor’s note: I struggle writing posts like this because I do not want to focus on the negative, I don’t want to make anyone feel bad, that is never my intention. I am an able-bodied woman, and I know I am guilty of saying and/or doing something that was hurtful to a person with a disability.  An experience like this challenges me. What role do I play in changing disability attitudes? How do I help people understand? This is something that many persons with disabilities experience, I’ve heard them talk about it, but when it happened to me I was momentarily in their shoes. It was a negative experience, and it was powerful. I will never forget it.

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