Part of a Whole

My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

When Admiration Reflects Low Expectations

I use a wheelchair. At least once a week I overhear comments from well-meaning, but ignorant people about me. They express admiration at the fact I am doing mundane things such as grocery shopping or exercising. I’m tired of this misplaced "respect" or "admiration".

Starting With The Conclusion

These people’s world-view appears to be that people with disabilities are helpless and merit admiration & respect merely for doing everyday things. If you admire us for going on about our lives, you’re saying that we’ve exceeded your expectations of us. This directly implies that you expected very little from us in the first place. That is the part that really annoys. Because we have a disability, we are not expected or even capable to do everyday activities. That message is dangerous and destructive.

It would be completely different if you admired someone working on their fitness because it’s the good and healthy thing to do, regardless of ability or impairment. Don’t admire them "despite" or "because" of the wheelchair.

Comments At The Gym

I’ve lost count of the number of times people are impressed by the fact I do my own grocery shopping. But let’s forget the supermarket just now and talk about the gym. I go to the gym 4 or 5 times a week. I’m not the only one to do that, thousands of people go to the gym several times a week.

Two people made comments in the last month. The first was a teenager that elbowed his mates, pointed at me, and said something like "Hey there’s a guy in a wheelchair, how cool is that?". The second was a woman in her 30’s who looked at me, said something like "It’s so good to see people like you here", and then promptly burst into tears. The kid’s reaction was amusing. The woman’s reaction made me laugh, but it wasnt’ amusing.

Comment On Twitter

Today, I was made aware of a tweet by Frazier Tharpe:

"Damn there’s a wheelchair guy *and* a blind guy up in NYSC working on their fitness. Salute.”

I made a smartalec response to that, pointing out that: "I use a wheelchair, I’m at the gym 5 times a week. I even grocery shop. I don’t think that’s worth saluting". It wasn’t long before Mr. Tharpe started calling me "angry", "self-conscious fuck", and a "bitter fuck" (see transcript of his tweets below).

There’s a "tone" to comments that you quickly learn to recognise. I’m not referring to the swearing here. It’s hard to describe. It’s a bit patronising, it’s a bit ignorant, it’s uneducated and unaware. The people who make these comments are generally well meaning. That makes it harder for them to understand why we react badly to their comments. Yet when you call them up on it, they get upset really quickly. When you try to explain, they don’t listen. They stopped listening before you even began.

I don’t expect Mr. Tharpe to read this post, much less understand it. But he might surprise me. Shall I admire him if he does?

Frazier Tharpe’s Stream

The tweets here are listed oldest first.

  • @vavroom @BlindMyths @adm_76 I’m very happy for you now stop being sensitive and taking my tweets too literally
  • I’m getting so many angry tweets from paraplegics and blind people about my NYSC tweet the other day. Self conscious fuckers.
  • @vavroom @blindmyths @adm_76 what was ignorant about it? I said salute b.c. Idk that I would have the same endurance.
  • @vavroom @blindmyths @adm_76 you just chose to read it as ignorant and patronizing
  • @vavroom sorry for the admiration then you bitter fuck
  • @vavroom @blindmyths @adm_76 just cuz the tweets are public don’t mean you have to read em. Stick to your own timelines
  • In a tweet battle with a paraplegic. I feel like @MattyBueller lol

3 thoughts on “When Admiration Reflects Low Expectations

  1. I get it, but I think we all deal with at some level.

    For me it’s my weight, but skin color, hair colour, sex, sexual orientation, wealth, poverty, education… they all generate stereo types.

    It’s when we step outside the boundaries of our stereotypes people react with surprise, admiration… whatever.

    Rightly or wrongly I think its a wide spread part of being human and not likely to change any time soon.

    Interesting post though… gave me reason to stop and think.

  2. Personally, I see this as an extension of pity. It is assumed that people with disabilities are going to mope around wishing they can do the things that everyone else can do. When they actually do go out and do these things, it is seen as “poor you, being able to tackle everything despite your circumstances.” It’s as if they don’t expect people with disabilities to live the same lives as everyone else and do the same things like grocery shopping.

    I use a wheelchair and whenever my friends and I are out, we don’t get the comments but we get the looks. We can often decipher them. Towards me, the looks say, “Good for you, being able to make friends despite everything.” Towards my friends, the looks say, “Good for you, being able to hang around someone in a wheelchair.” I didn’t need to point this out because my friends interpreted it the same way I did. Both of these statements are obviously patronizing and have a hint of pity in them.

    Instead of patting us on the back for doing the simplest tasks, why not try some other form of engagement? I get especially touchy when someone talks to me and the first topic he/she touches on is my disability (unless the person has a less visible disability and has a question about something related to that, which I have encountered as well). I generally don’t mind talking to people about my condition but only if they make an attempt to talk to me as a person first.

    I’m rambling now. I think you get my point.

  3. @Priority Seating:
    fully agree with you! I think in most cases the admiration is just one expression of their pity. I had a fair share of those too and did a few times try to explain to people why it is in fact demeaning to express admiration over ordinary things. Most people get offended though because they meant well and don’t want anybody explain to them how we might in fact feel (pissed). So they dismiss us as rude and bitter “crips”. But does meaning well excuse us from arrogance and stupidity? Surely not.

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