Friday, June 20, 2014

Inspiration outside a coffee shop at LaSalle Street and Chicago Avenue

Two days ago, a colleague of mine and I met with the person who runs disability services for North Park University in Chicago.  The disability service person also happened to be a long-lost friend of mine who I hadn't seen in probably ten years.  Because the meeting was probably going to cover than just business and disability, we met at a coffee shop a block away Access Living rather than at the office.   After about 50 minutes in the coffee shop, we headed back to Access Living, where I was going to give Drew, the North Park employee, a tour of Access Living.  Just outside the coffee shop, at the corner of LaSalle Street and Chicago Avenue, a woman approached us.  As she did, she looked right at me.  She had short, cropped, blonde hair, and she wore a white tank top and shorts.  When she spoke, she spoke with an Australian accent.  I don't remember what she said, but the words were full of what the disability community calls inspiration porn.  She said something like, "Oh my god, you are so awesome. I want to give you a hug."

I looked back at her and said, "You don't know me." 

She then explained that she had a friend who was super awesome.  I assumed that her friend is a dwarf and because I also am a dwarf, she drew the conclusion that I am super awesome. At that point, I told her that her words and actions were insulting.  It is nice and all if someone thinks you are super awesome, but I want to earn whatever awesomeness I have.  I don't want it handed to me on a platter simply because of my dwarfism. 

By now, the light had turned.  My group began to cross the street, and the young woman in the tank top started to drift in the opposite direction down the sidewalk.  Her face lost a little bit of the enthusiasm and her eyes betrayed disappointment.  But she didn't give up on me.  Her final words were, "My friend has done so much, and I know that you can too." 

"Maybe you can as well," I said. To this, she nodded, turned her head away from us, and went on her way down the sidewalk.

The experience was unexpected.  It is not uncommon to confront challenging situations on Chicago Avenue.  There is one woman who I've run into at least twice who is shocked every time she sees me and runs away in fright. Another time someone exclaimed to her friend, when I was but ten feet away, that I was the first midget she had ever seen.  Other people of short stature may or may not agree, but sometimes, based upon the look in someone's eye, you can tell how he or she will respond to dwarfism.  The Australian with the white tank top caught me completely by surprise. 

The worst part of the experience is that she is going to tell her friend, who again I assume is a dwarf, about the bitter dwarf she met in Chicago.  But the best part about the experience is that Carrie and Drew were with me.  Carrie and I work together.  We don't share the same disability, but she has had her fair share of encounters on the street based on stigma and prejudice against disability. The specifics of those encounters are often different than mine, but the themes overlap and we can relate to one another. So she knew right away what was going on, and what I would be feeling. 

With Drew, we joked afterwards that it was as if we had staged the whole thing.  In the coffee shop we talked about ways that North Park and Access Living could collaborate in terms of raising awareness about disability.  In the course of that conversation, Carrie and I stressed that stigma and  prejudice toward disability can sometimes be more of a barrier than any physical or programmatic obstacle.  What better way to illustrate that point than for a young woman to approach us and engage in a dialogue based upon disability assumptions and bias.  In my memory, Drew took in the encounter with this grin on his face, almost with a look of disbelief.  As we went back to the office and we debriefed on the experience, he said, "I am expecting the hidden cameras to come out at any moment." No hidden cameras, but plenty of entertainment, and things to talk about.