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Don’t be a jerk to those with disabilities

Don’t be a jerk to those with disabilities
  • On July 15, 2015

Jeanne Phillips should stick to giving advice about topics she has some knowledge of—like how to be an insufferable hag, perhaps, or being a truly awful human being. She seems really great at that.

Maybe that’s a bit unfair. But how much ableist, sexist, homophobic, fat- and slut-shaming advice do we have to read before we stop giving her space in print?

Take the aid she offered to a 70-year-old person who is sick of busybodies asking why they use a wheelchair. The letter writer said they don’t think it’s anyone else damn business why they use the mobility aid (and they’re right, by the by). They asked her for some snappy one-liners they could use to use humor to deflect the situation—and let the other person know what an intrusive question that is to ask a stranger.

Phillips gives some lukewarm comebacks that the letter writer could have come up with on their own. (Seriously, LW, if you by some miracle of the Internet end up reading this, come find me. I would be happy to come up with some zingers to get people to back the hell off.)

But then she decides to put her nose where it doesn’t belong: She tells the letter writer that she shouldn’t make light of needing to use a wheelchair. “Joking about a medical condition isn’t funny. So perhaps you should reconsider and just be honest,” Phillips writes.

Perhaps you, Dear Abby, should take your condescension and shove it up your butt. The Letter Writer doesn’t owe anyone anything: not reacting in a certain way, not an explanation as to why they use a wheelchair, not acting the way anyone else thinks someone with a disability should.

People with disabilities and chronic illnesses—visible and invisible—hear often that we should be positive and kind and uplifting. We should smile a lot and talk about how much better it is now that we are ill, how are suffering makes us better people, how we have learned so much.

We do not exist to make you feel better about yourself. Full stop.

If the Letter Writer wants to use humor to deflect impertinent questions, they have every right. Using humor to get through adversity is a fairly common tactic—and one that has been proven to actually make people feel better. Medical conditions may not be funny, but joking about them certainly can be. And you don’t get to tell the Letter Writer how to cope. They get to do that the best they can. If some days, they decide to use humor instead of telling some rude stranger to piss off, then good for them.

So if you’re thinking about asking someone using a wheelchair or a cane or a handicapped parking space (whether or not you think they need it) why they’re using it, don’t. Seriously. It’s none of your damn business, and you’ll be lucky if the comebacks the person on the receiving end comes up with are as tame as what Dear Abby suggests. Mine certainly aren’t.

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