Rarely do I consider my wheelchair an object which gives me a certain level of privilege and I’m not referring the kinds of things a lot of able people see as privileges like being first to board a plane. I’m talking about the kind of privilege that people refer to when they address white privlage or socio-economic privlage. Believe it or not there is a certain privlage that comes with being visibly disabled. Surprised? Me too.
Tennessee holds its annual Renaissance Faire every weekend of May. This year was the first chance I had to go in years plus there was the added bonus of getting to go with a childhood friend who offered to drive us out there as a birthday present before she moved out of state.Dear Friend struggles with mental health issues and has a service dog to help her deal with them. Dear Friend is also not noticeably disabled other than her mental health. The employees and actors of the Tennessee Ren Faire were wonderfully kind to both of us as far as I saw. Many folks went out of their way to ask if Gideon had enough water which was a good thing because somehow extra water didn’t make it into the day pack. (Bad SD partner bad) It wasn’t until driving home and talking with Dear Friend that I realized she had spent a good portion of the time we weren’t together being hassled because other visitors to the Faire assumed that she didn’t need a service dog and that K* was just a pet she snuck past in spite of the clearly stated no pets policy.
DF and I have known each other since she and my sister started the eighth grade together. Her issues are just as real and ever present as mine are even though people who do not know her as well as my family does may not see them at all. To those people who would demand proof of a psychiatric disability from a complete stranger I have more than a few things to say. The first one is how dare you? You have no idea the kind of road a person has to travel to feel up to doing whatever “normal person” thing you happen to encounter them doing that day. My friend and I plan this particular trip for weeks in part because she has difficulty in crowds. She did it because it was something important to me. She probably knew that some ignorant fellow patron would gripe that she didn’t “look” disabled and it wasn’t fair that she got to bring her dog while a complete stranger was so inconvenienced because they had to leave their dog (who has probably never been in a crowd half as large and therefore would have very likely been freaking out anyway) at home. The second thing I have to say is that disability whether it be physical or cognitive or psychiatric has no particular look. In that way disabilities are similar to chess, there are an infinite number of chess games. For every disability with a label there are an infinite number of permutations for how that disability may manifest. I know of some people who are obviously disabled but whose doctors cannot find a label which includes all their idiosyncratic difficulties and therefore they’re given only the vaguest terms like “motor delay” or “dysfunction” or “brain injury”. I know other people who have multiple diagnoses to describe their difficulties each including at least two three syllable words.
The third thing I would like to say to people who demand proof of a stranger’s disability you be careful what you ask for because you just might get it. My personal disability is fairly straight forward I was born two months and 10 days premature at a hospital that isn’t much more than glorified Band-Aid station. They had no neonatal intensive care unit to speak of and so I had to be transported to Dallas which was two hours away. Whenever anyone asks I say it was oxygen deprivation which caused my brain damage but in truth nobody is quite certain whether it was oxygen deprivation or too much oxygen during the ambulance ride which caused the brain damage which resulted in my disability. The point I am trying to illustrate by telling you that story is that each persons disability and the back story for it are extremely personal things which some people are more comfortable sharing then others. I have been in public speaking situations about my disability several times in my life so for me personally sharing isn’t a problem. I can talk for several hours and you can ask pretty much any question you could possibly think of and so long as you were asking it from a place of genuine curiosity and an effort to understand and not some sense of voyeuristic entitlement that makes me think you believe I owe you the answer, I will answer with as much detail as I can muster, which in some cases maybe way more then you expected. Every person with a disability is an individual and it should not be assumed that they are comfortable with being an open book.
Author’s Note: Dear Friend is used in place of the person’s name. K is the first of her dogs name.