This is the first example of a new kind of post I’m trying out, if you want an explanation, please go here: https://thenegrosubversive.com/2017/03/24/pending-thoughts-2/
I had an interesting experience at my job recently, I work as a tour guide on an open air doubledecker bus, and one of my guests was a young man in a wheelchair traveling with his mother. With some difficulty, I had gotten the gentleman secured at the beginning of the trip and now they were ready to get off at one of our stops. As I and the driver bumbled through getting him unsecured so they could get off the bus, the young man said: “I’m sorry.” At first, I wasn’t sure what he was apologizing for, so I absentmindedly responded: “For what?” as I continued trying to get him ready to disembark. Once it occurred to me that he was effectively apologizing for being in a wheelchair, I mumbled something like: “No, no, it’s my job.” Had I more presence of mind I would have stopped what I was doing and said: “It is not in the proper order of things that you should apologize to me because I don’t know how to do my goddamn job. You may pity my ineptitude, but I should be the one apologizing.” While I am nowhere near as well versed in issues of disability and ableism as I should be, I’m a firm believer that no one should feel constrained to apologize for existing. His being in a wheelchair had done nothing to me, and I and the bus company, by any objective standard, were firmly in the wrong. I see this as analogous to racism and other oppressions. Were he and people like him a priority, we would have developed a much more effective system for ensuring his safety and comfort. Or at the very least, I would have had more than five minutes of training in ensuring both his safety and comfort. The fact that he is treated as an incidental burden, instead of a social priority is no more his fault than the burdens which I endure as a descendant of America’s captive West African labor force are mine. He should have felt no more need to apologize for his wheelchair than I do for my Black skin. The fault and moral liability are society’s, not ours. While I must admit to having been proud to find that I have somehow so transcended internalized ableism as to have had no idea what he could possibly have been apologizing for, at first; I am well aware that the way we deal with this portion of the human race is reprehensible. There are a plethora of simple things which we as a society could try to do to make his life and the lives of those like him safer, more comfortable and, above all, more dignified. True, “we” have come a long way, wheelchair ramps are pretty common, many newer buildings use braille alongside visible signs, there are accommodations for the deaf which would have been unthinkable just a few years ago and millions of intellectually disabled people are given the opportunity to live productive, enjoyable lives. But the fact remains, this is a society for the “able bodied” and the “mentally sound,” and this fact is attributable to thoughtlessness conditioned by a disgusting level of unspoken malice. There are philosophers who argue that the disabled should be treated as a lesser class of persons. Even if we remove sentimentality from the equation, I consider such openly and willfully malicious persons to not only lack a basic sense of humanity, but to lack a basic idea of what it means to be human. Such persons undoubtedly think they are liberating the human species from a “burden” by consigning the disabled to a lower place in the great chain of being. They want to privilege what they see as strength and effectiveness. I would argue, that humanity is not only not held back by prioritizing the dignity of those whose conditions of life give them different needs, but, that the ability to do this is among the highest human vocations. Take gazelles. Anyone who has ever watched a nature documentary knows that predators go after the weak, the sick and the aged. It never occurs to the prey, because they’re gazelles, that if they stand together, they could ensure that none of them ever have to endure the horror of being killed and eaten by a vicious predator. Human beings, on the other hand, have been at our best when we have cooperated to ensure the dignity of all. Stephen Hawking is a genius, but, he couldn’t do his work if we as a species weren’t able to or willing to help him overcome his limitations as far as technology and intellect will allow. Truthfully, the same could be said of any and everyone. Mankind does not rule the world because we subscribe to some animalistic notion that those fit to live are those fit to survive, no, we rule the world because we cooperate and elevate every human being far above the place where nature would place them. Those who want to suspend this all-important impulse in the case of those whose abilities impose upon them an additional burden are not only inhumane, they are inhuman, they are enemies of the basic human project and everything, literally everything, which separates us from gazelles depends on obliterating every trace of such thinking. It is not enough that we don’t allow people in wheelchairs to crawl about on the forest floor until some bloodthirsty beast devours them. We must break the power of the malice that would create such horrors by killing our ableism and seeing the disabled not as beneficiaries of charity, but, as fellow humans to whom we owe the same basic debt that we all owe to one another. This debt need not be imposed by some deity, it arises from the basic needs of the human project, of the human species one and all, in all its diversity.