I am scholar who studies and teaches about representations of the body in visual culture. I am the designer and instructor for 3 BLS courses: Art of Life, Photography: Context and Illusions, and Representing Women. These classes include examples from fine art, film, television, advertisements, medical images, and so on, and in my own writing, I focus specifically on these representations of the visibly disabled body. I also consider everyday social interaction as a form of visual culture. As a woman with very noticeable physical disabilities, I know a lot about the stare. And often for me, daily life can become a theater for performance. At the Kroger near my house, I have been stared at, mainly by children; asked how long I have been disabled or what “happened” to me; told various stories about other disabled people; and told I am admired, because if the person speaking were “like” me, they wouldn’t want to leave the house. Now, it’s always good to be called amazing, but it’s not so great when that term is based on low expectations for what I can and should so. I always have to consider whether to use the moment as a teaching tool or whether to blow it off and not waste my time. I like to respond to children, for example, by telling them I was “born this way,” or that I don’t have legs because I don’t need them. I didn’t know how to respond when the cashier at CVS asked me how long I had been doing things for myself, as if implying the question “how long have you been out of the hospital?” I wish I had had a better come back, but I just declared, “Since birth!” Sometimes these moments amuse me, but sometimes they make me angry and sad. Not so much sad about myself, but sad that disability has such a bad rap.
The other day, after I left the doctor’s office, I scooted across the parking lot to Rose’s discount department store. I was happy to find 2 pairs of cute, inexpensive sunglasses, since recently it seemed that all my other cheap sunglasses had been breaking. I thought I should call my husband to come to pick me up, but then I realized I had forgotten my cell phone. I asked the woman at the checkout line if there was a phone nearby I could use, and I explained my predicament. She responded that I better get a hold of him soon, because what if I were to get abducted. I found this to be an odd response, because we were in a public space in a nice neighborhood. I scowled and said in a joking tone that I wasn’t worried about that, but I just wanted to get home. She then told me I should worry about that (being abducted), because “they go after all kinds of women.” I scowled again, in more anger. Was that supposed to be some sort of twisted compliment, that even though I was disabled, that I was still attractive to abductors?! And in the first place, the fact that she was talking about me as being abducted meant she was classifying me as helpless, dependent, childlike, or somehow already vulnerable. I don’t think all that people think before they speak, and certainly don’t realize the assumptions and stereotypes that are communicated through their utterances. And, I realize their comments have much more to say about their own ignorance and insecurities than mine.
And all these interactions aren’t negative. In some ways, I feel like a celebrity. I stand out in a crowd, and I attract attention. I do exchange many smiles and hellos with people around my usual haunts. In some restaurants where my husband and I eat often, the wait staff may even remember what I want to order. Sometimes the comradery is nice, yet at times, I wish I could remain incognito. I’d love to hear from others who have these experiences.