Talking Disabilities: Stop Staring, Start Embracing
By Toni Furmanski
As my class was ending, the female student next to me asked our professor if he could help her with a question.
“Yeah, my office hours are right now,” he said. “There's a class waiting to come in here, so let's go to my office."
I also needed help with the paper we were assigned, so I asked if I could get help, too, or if I needed to come back later. The girl, who I had grouped up with several times during group discussions, told me her question was quick so it wouldn’t take long.
I tucked my notebook and laptop in my arm and swung my purse over my shoulder. I started following them out the door to his office on the first floor of the three-story building.
At the top landing, right as I was about to take my first steps down the stairs, the girl turned to me and said, “Do you need help or anything?”
She reached her hand out.
It was a moment before I figured she was talking to me and her hand was outstretched to take the two things I was holding. I looked at our professor — who I had actually had for several of my undergrad courses — and my face instantly flamed with embarrassment. Me? Need help down the stairs?
I quickly stammered an awkward, “Oh, uh ... No.” I quickly pasted on a smile to look friendly and unaffected. “I’ve been doing this for years. I’m used to this!” *insert awkward giggle here*
My professor watched the exchange and I felt like I read compassion, and maybe a little bit of astonishment on his face. I hoped the compassion was for me and the astonishment was for the girl. In several classes, she talked about feminism and once even said, “If she wants to get tied up in order to enjoy sex, let her get tied up.”
I left campus that day wondering how someone who talked such a strong, independent female game, had such an ass-backward view on ableism.
I am an amputee. I have been an amputee my whole life. I have class C PFFD, or proximal focal femoral deficiency. While I don’t know the medical explanation for this disorder off the top of my head, I always explain it like this: I was born with a very, very, very tiny and misshapen femur bone in my right leg. My right knee is where my right hip should be and my foot (if it wasn’t amputated) is where my knee should be.
When I explain my anatomy, I typically end up drawing it out to help explain what I mean.
Within the last few years, it's become my mission to create conversations to educate people about disabilities and differences.
If I had been stronger or braver at the top of that landing, I could have educated this girl from my class. I could have told her my prosthesis helps me walk so I can be as independent as I want to be. I could have told her that just because I am an amputee, it doesn’t mean I can’t walk down the stairs holding a few things. I could have told her that if I didn’t think I could handle going down the three flights of stairs, I would have taken the elevator and met them in the office.
But not only wasn’t I braver, I also had — and still have — compassion for people, their misunderstandings and their misconceptions of what it’s like to have a disability.
We rarely have people with disabilities represented in society through print, television and movies. That makes it hard to understand that a disability doesn’t make someone incapable of doing things able-bodied people do. Being disabled just means we probably do it differently. It means a person with a disability or a difference (because I know not all disabled people like to be labeled as such) has probably learned how to accommodate their body to a myriad of different situations.
While at the time I was a shocked, I wasn’t upset by the exchange. It’s hard to be mad or angry by someone coming to the same conclusion this girl did.
Just think back to when you were a child and when mom or dad or really any adult caught you staring at someone in a wheelchair, with a walker or maybe someone with a mental disability who didn’t have full control of their body movements. What did the adult say? Probably something like, “Stop. Don’t stare!" or "It’s not polite to stare!” And then you grew up probably looking away from people with disabilities because you didn’t want to appear impolite.
When society tells people to stop looking and stop staring, it almost feels as if we don’t matter; that we are unseen and irrelevant. When society teaches people to ignore, it creates ignorance. So I encourage all members of society to teach people to ask questions politely, respectfully and with the understanding that not all people enjoy telling their story.
Along with educating people on disabilities, I am a strong advocate for normalizing differences. I would love to see shows, movies and books demonstrating how able-bodied people and disabled people interact in society in normal and functional ways. That way, when we come across people with different levels of ability in the real world, we understand not to assume that if someone is disabled, they're unable.
It’s been more than five years since that moment on the landing. I think about it often. I think about that girl often. I think about her when I am in similar situations and have similar conversations with co-workers, children at the childcare centers I've worked at, strangers, my nieces, my friends. It was one of the first moments when I knew I wanted to be an advocate and a guide for more and better conversations. It was one of the first moments I knew we needed to change our mindset and the conversation about disabilities and differences. It was the first moment I knew we could do better.