This post was originally published on Claiming Crip.
Recently, I logged on Facebook to find my newsfeed flooded with posts about a video called, "How Do You See Me?" The video features actress Olivia Wilde, and is narrated by a young woman with Down Syndrome. While the narrator describes all the different things she sees herself as and all the different things she sees herself as doing, Wilde does those things. At the end of the video the narrator is shown as she declares, "this is how I see myself. How do you see me?"
After I watched the video, I sat quiet for a minute, unable to shake a slightly queasy feeling in my stomach, and then the memories came flooding back. I thought of the statements I had heard too many times to count.
"You know, sometimes I totally forget you're in a wheelchair!"
"I don't think of you as disabled, you're my friend!"
"I don't see you as disabled, I just see you as a person!"
I have heard this from friends, teachers, acquaintances, and even random strangers, all attempting to assure me that to them I'm not any different. I know they mean well. I know they're trying to be kind, and when I was younger I longed to hear those words.
As a child, and even beyond, I desperately wanted people to ignore the chair. I wanted people to understand that I could be just like them. I thought that if I could get people to forget about the chair, they would see me for all the other amazing things I was. I thought that if I could get people to overlook my disability, if I could just get people to understand that I wasn't really different from them, then they would see me as a worthy friend, a good student, an awesome potential prom date, a talented writer, and whatever else I wanted to be. I wanted them to look at me and see those things. I wanted them to look at me and realize that the chair didn't matter.
"As a child, and even beyond, I desperately wanted people to ignore the chair. I wanted people to understand that I could be just like them."
When I think about it now, I get the same feeling in my stomach that I got when watching that video. When I think about it now, I cringe because of how wrong I was. When I think about it now, I realize the chair does matter. I am disabled. I am a wheelchair user.
When you look at me, I want, no, I need you to see those things. I need you to acknowledge them. Being disabled dramatically affects every experience I have in this world. It affects the way I move, the way I interact with other people, and the way I experience the world around me. My disability is a part of me, it shapes who I am, and that is not a bad thing. For so many years, I wanted people to see me without my disability, but now I realize that would mean they weren't really seeing me at all.
The idea that success means being viewed as able bodied is not only false, it's downright dangerous. It completely decimates the value of disabled lives, and sends the message that in order to be seen as a writer, a student, a friend or anything else, you must first erase disability from the equation. There is no reason that a disabled person cannot be a daughter, a friend, a writer, a singer, or even a CEO, in fact plenty of us are. The danger comes when we perpetuate the belief that we must overcome, or learn to ignore disability in order to do so.
"My disability is a part of me, it shapes who I am, and that is not a bad thing."
I cringe when people tell me they don't see my chair, or my disability, because the reality is, that statement completely erases my experiences in this world. As disabled person, I experience prejudice on the daily basis. I live in a world that is fundamentally not made for me. There are still major parts of society I cannot access because they are not physically or socially accessible to me. When I make plans to go out with friends, I cannot just go. I have to double and triple check that I will be able to get inside the venue.
I cringe when people tell me they don't see me as disabled, because before I even get out of bed in the morning, I have to consider at least 20 things that probably never go through the mind of the average able-bodied person. I cringe because accessible transportation and accessible housing are still nearly impossible to find. I cringe because my disability makes me more likely to be unemployed, homeless, and the victim of violence. I cringe because when people tell me they don't see my disability, they are telling me that they don't see the injustice and inequality that still exists in the world.
How you see me matters. See me as me. See me as a daughter, sister, friend, writer, and student. See me as smart, strong, outgoing, and capable. See me as all these things, but see me as disabled, too. See my chair, and acknowledge that it changes the way I experience the world. See my disability, and understand that is an integral part of who I am. See me, and realize that I don't have to erase my disability in order for any other part of me to shine through. I can be a complex and valuable person while still being disabled.
See me for me. Disability and all.