You're so pretty... for a disabled girl!
You're so smart... for someone in a wheelchair!
You're such a good writer... for a person with a disability!
You're too pretty to be in a wheelchair!
You're way too smart to be disabled!
You're so nice; it's such a shame you're disabled!
These phrases swirl around in my head. Awkward snippets of conversation heard whilst disabled -- and I assure you, the list could go on for pages. Comments like these are almost always intended as some kind of compliment, said with a smile and not even the slightest hint of irony. Yet every time I hear them, I cringe, even if they're not directed at me. Even though I've been hearing these things my whole life, they always make me uncomfortable, and a little sick to my stomach.
The message behind these phrases is far from complimentary. In fact, it is hurtful, demeaning, and sometimes even dangerous. Qualifying somebody's talents, accomplishments, or even attractiveness with phrases like, "for a disabled person" or "for someone in a wheelchair" suggests that disabled people are inherently not as good or not as desirable as non-disabled people. When you tell somebody they are pretty, smart, a good writer, a good student, a good artist, a good cook, etc., adding a qualifier like "for someone in a wheelchair" reinforces the idea that the person's accomplishments only have value because the person is disabled.
Qualifiers carry the assumption that disability somehow puts an automatic, inherent limit on how talented, desirable, or attractive a person can be. The reality is that if someone has everything about them qualified because of a disability, they will begin to believe that they are inherently not as valuable as a non-disabled person. This kind of thinking can have disastrous consequences, like a cycle of self-hate that can be almost impossible to escape. It also teaches disabled people that they should expect less consideration from others, because they should just be happy with whatever treatment they get. Additionally, non-disabled people start to think that disabled people do not need to be regarded with respect. It insinuates that a disabled person's accomplishments will never be as good as a non-disabled person's, and therefore, in love, work, and friendship, non-disabled people are always the better choice.
Instead of viewing disability as the natural diversity that it is, qualifiers treat it as an automatic hindrance, carrying the assumption that the presence of disability automatically makes a person less of a person. They do not account for the positivity and beauty that can be found in the experience of disability, nor do they allow "disabled" to be a legitimate identity and way of experiencing the world. They do not consider the strong, powerful, and beautiful relationships forged out of the shared experience of difference. They do not acknowledge that love, beauty, and creativity can be the direct result of a disabled identity, rather than existing in spite of it. They do not demonstrate that disability has a beauty and value all its own that cannot be understood when being disabled is synonymous with failure.
My disability has no impact on my intelligence. My wheelchair has no impact on my beauty. They are a part of me, but they do not take away from anything that I am; if anything, they only enhance it.
I am not pretty for a disabled girl. I am not too smart to be in a wheelchair. I am pretty. I am smart.