Friday, January 24, 2014

Waving Back: On Staring and What To Do With It

Sometimes the world does not know what to make of me. I have been stared at for all of my life, sometimes out of interest and curiosity, and just as often out of plain rudeness. Even though I like to think of myself as a routine part of a diverse society, it seems that so many people are just not there yet. I suppose the sight of me is discombobulating, or at least surprising sometimes. My small, slightly crooked frame resting in a black wheelchair that is, and always has been, a little too big for me. The constant jingle of the lanyard around my joystick, and the unnecessary number of pens spilling out of the side pockets. The shreds of colored fabric, the pink exercise band hanging limply off the back of my chair, the ever-growing collection of social justice, dark humor, and snark themed buttons rattling on my headrest.
 It’s a lot to take in sometimes. I get that. Still, it can be saddening to know that people often don’t know how to look at me. Even sadder is knowing that some people just won’t look, because it’s easier not to, and easier not to think about the attitudes and assumptions that put the uncertainty in their gazes. Trust me, I don’t enjoy being stared at like a lab specimen, but I’ve spent many years thinking about what to do with those stares, how to handle them, and how to prevent them from becoming downcast eyes that render me invisible. I don’t want to be stared at, but much less do I want to vanish, to become unseen by a world learning how to “be polite”. 
This is what I believe occurs when embarrassed parents redirect a child’s widened eyes, and shuffle them away, as if hoping that child will forget what, and importantly, who they saw. From that well-intentioned attempt to salvage a child’s manners comes the beginning of the fear, the shame, the idea that my corner of the world is not worth being understood. That kid grows up, and becomes an adult whose gaze shifts dutifully towards the ground, because that is the procedure when making sense of my presence. How much I wish that each of those embarrassed mothers and fathers would tell the child that it’s okay to say hello. How much I wish they took the time to reject the culture of shifting eyes, mystery, and misunderstanding. I love children, and when the tiniest, most impressionable among us are hastily ushered away from me, I begin to lose touch with those that I consider our hope for the future.
Just several weeks ago, as I approached a local pizza restaurant, a small girl with brown hair and chubby cheeks was pressed against the window. Her tiny finger pointed toward me, another trying to find a place for me in time and space. In this moment, I decided what it was I had to do. This precious child was looking at me, and not in a situation where she could be whisked away before I looked back. Returning her gaze, I lifted my hand and waved. Then, something beautiful happened. She waved back.
 This simple exchange made us human to one another, and gave me the hope that this little girl may continue to wave back as she grows older, keeping me visible to the world around me. The glass between us seemed a perfect metaphor. We are living two very different lives, and in some ways, there will always be a slight space between our worldly experiences. Like two people from drastically different cultures, some things in our lives will distinguish our fates from each other. But ultimately, we can choose to not just look at, but to see one another. We can notice what we do have in common, and convert the silence and fear to appreciation for each other’s humanity. We can affirm the presence of all people. We can wave back.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Tragedy in Seventy Seconds: The Death of Keith Vidal and the Importance of Coming Together

I wish this story never had to be printed, but perhaps it is a call for people with all types of disabilities to come together. When we all have different diagnoses, it can be easy to see what separates us. Because we’re… well, different. It can be easy to say, “I’m not one of those people; his or her story has nothing to do with mine.” I am not trying to shame those who have perhaps indulged in these easy options, but rather to teach them that today is the moment to think again. To recognize the power of a cross-disability coalition, one that empowers, supports, and protects its members without hesitation. If for no other reason, build this dream in honor of Keith Vidal.
Keith was an 18-year-old young man with schizophrenia reportedly shot and killed by a North Carolina police officer. Keith’s family called the police for help during an episode in which he threatened his mother. Despite the fact that two officers arrived and successfully calmed him, a third allegedly arrived “fourteen minutes later” and shot him as he lied on the floor after multiple shots with a Taser. The shot was fired seventy seconds after the third officer arrived. Seventy. In just over a minute, an officer that “didn’t have time for this” took a parent’s child, snuffed a young life, and reinforced the culture of fear and misunderstanding surrounding people with psychiatric disabilities.
Nothing can be done now to bring this young man back, but I hope this tragedy is one that will demonstrate how far we have to go to improve our attitudes toward psychiatric disabilities in this country. If we work together to promote understanding and education, perhaps we will see a day when people with these diagnoses will be treated with dignity. Yes, Keith’s disability is dramatically different than mine. I will never face the same exact set of challenges as he did, but I count him as a brother in the disability movement, and a fellow human being. Keith was someone’s son, someone’s friend, someone’s brother. Someone with a future. Keith matters to someone, and so he matters to me.
Perhaps you have a disability much different than Keith’s, or maybe quite the same. Perhaps you will have one someday. Or maybe you don’t have one at all. No matter the relevance of his situation to your own experiences, Keith is a person. Keith is a dramatic example of what can transpire when stereotypes, prejudice, and fear become bound to our culture. He deserves to be alive today. Instead, his life was ended in less time than it will take you to reach the bottom of this page.