The soul walks upon all paths

I suppose I’m coming to it rather late, but I’m beginning to realize I still have a lot to learn; there are some things that I should have figured out by now, others should have been evident from the start.

Identity, I think, is one of the obvious ones. After all, who we are matters deeply; to belong, to be accepted, is important; to be rejected is disappointing. But to be rejected for some obvious difference can be even worse: it can be devastating because it’s not something that can be altered like an attitude or belief. It’s destructive because it shouldn’t matter.

But ‘shouldn’t isn’t doesn’t’ -I’ve always remembered that platitude from Sarah Forster, one of my philosophy post-doc instructors in university. When I first heard it, a small group of us were sitting around a table in a seminar room discussing some ideas we had been exploring. She was fond of putting our beliefs on the spot to see if we could extricate ourselves from her relentless objections.

“So, Jasper,” she started, after checking her notes to see if she had the correct name. “You said you think we would have a better society if we were more tolerant…” She waited until Jasper nodded in agreement, and then she smiled. “That certainly sounds like an admirable quality for a society… Does that mean we should accept the right for other opinions to exist?” She paused for a moment. “Or do you mean we should tolerate them -as we might tolerate the bad behaviour of a friend’s child?”

I think everybody in the room could hear the italics, and Jasper wasn’t sure what to reply without falling into one of her traps.

“I… well… yes, I think we should allow other opinions as long as they don’t hurt others in the society…”

But his hesitation suggested to her that he hadn’t really thought it through. “Allow? What do you mean by ‘allow’? Tolerate them, or interrogate their validity?”

He glanced around the room for help, but we were all waiting for his reaction.

He decided to shrug. “Well, I don’t have to agree with them… Just understand that they probably have a reason that seems valid for them.”

She nodded with a little smile beginning to form on her lips. “So if someone in a wheelchair, say, applied for a job as a cashier in a supermarket, but you thought they might have difficulty bagging the groceries or entering the items on the register, how would you handle that?”

Jasper sat staring at the table for a moment, trying to reason it through. “Well, if she just wanted a job…” He considered it further. “I’d see if there was another job available in the store for her…”

The professor rolled her eyes briefly. “She? Her?”

Jasper actually blushed. “Well, I had to make a choice, eh?”

Forster’s smile hardened and swept around the room briefly. “If you knew it was a female applicant, perhaps, but otherwise, a gender neutral pronoun might have been more appropriate to signify your tolerance, don’t you think?”

Several of the women in the room nodded their heads, but the men just stared at the table in front of them.

“But not to put too strong a point on it…” -she glanced around the table again- “…would anybody like to suggest another approach for dealing with the applicant?”

Suddenly her eyes fastened on me like flies to honey. “G…?”

I remember blushing like Jasper at being singled out. “Uhmm… They must have had a reason for applying for that position and felt that they could cope. So, I would let them see if they could do it -maybe before the store opened, or something…”

The smile on her face softened, but her eyes narrowed. “Is that what tolerance entails, then?” She unglued her eyes and sent them flitting about the room. “Are you tolerating the person’s condition because you’re the manager, or is it rather a matter of respecting their decision to apply?”

Like Jasper, I too found myself at a loss for words -the italics I could hear again, seemed designed to pin me in my seat. “No… Just being their boss, shouldn’t privilege me to treat them with any disrespect…”

Forster looked at the intent faces around the table. “Anybody find a problem with G’s obvious attempts to appear magnanimous with the applicant in the wheelchair?”

The otherwise attentive faces suddenly found something interesting on the floor or on their laps.

“Shouldn’t isn’t doesn’t!” she said, glancing at her watch and gathering up some papers on the table in front of her. “Because we think we know how we shouldn’t behave, doesn’t mean that we won’t. Toleration is done from a position of power; respect is accorded from a recognition of the merits of what is being offered. A consideration for the position of the other…”

She unhurriedly shoved her notes into a briefcase by her feet, reached for her walker-frame and slowly limped out of the room.

I was reminded of that seminar when I came across an absolutely fascinating essay by Joanne Limburg at the University of Cambridge. She is a writer with a self-confessed disability.

Her disability was not one that was particularly obvious, however -she is on the autistic spectrum- but struggled at times about whether or not she should admit this on forms that asked if she was disabled. As she points out, ‘For most of my life, I’ve been used to thinking of disabled people in the mainstream way – that is, in the third person… when I picture disability, my mind still defaults to the stock images: the wheelchair symbol, the guide dog, the white stick, the prosthetic limb, the accessible toilet… the paraphernalia associated with disabled comes to stand for the people who use them.’ But even more unfortunately, ‘The stick person appears fused to the wheelchair, suggesting not just that a disabled person can be only a person who uses a wheelchair, but is someone who cannot be separated from it.’

So, what happens when the disability is not obvious? Does that disqualify it as a true disability worthy of special benefits? Empathy? Respect? Is the disabled person ‘always and only disabled’? And if they are not obvious, ‘Why would you want to be the person who other people are grateful not to be? Why would you want to identify as one of The Most Vulnerable In Our Society – the group that exists to be rhetorically useful to politicians and campaigners, but who are rarely the main topic of speech, and always assumed to be unable to speak for themselves?’ A good question. Who would respect someone like that? And further, ‘Why would you want to own up to an ‘underlying condition’ that apparently makes your death from unrelated causes less regrettable than someone else’s?’

As Limburg complains, ‘In the cultural imagination, a claim of disability is a demand for something – extra effort, extra attention, extra resources; or for something special – special treatment, special favours, special dispensations. To be disabled is to put other people to more than ordinary trouble.’

Dealing with others on an equal basis without showing the disability card can be challenging. ‘In a just society, it should be possible for everyone to assert their right to live and thrive without editing out those parts of themselves that are difficult or challenging.’

Thinking back to those halcyon times at university, I begin to understand Forster’s point. Few of us are perfect, so any particular disability should not be held against us; few of us excel at what we attempt, but that should not justify discrimination either. We are not our disabilities -far from it, in fact. We are simply… us.

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