Why Are We So Afraid Of People With Disabilities?

Emily Rapp, who wears a prosthetic leg, asks if the Paralympics serve to further the “othering” of bodies with disabilities, as she’d like nothing more than for everyone to acknowledge that we’re all on this physical journey together.

“Oh, is that like the Special Olympics?” This is often the response I hear when I tell people that the Paralympics is the “parallel” Olympics that takes place after the “regular” Olympics (if one can refer to any elite sports event as “regular”). “No,” I respond, trying to hide my annoyance. “The Special Olympics is for athletes with mental disabilities and the Paralympics is for physically challenged athletes.”

Whenever this statement comes out of my mouth I feel like a terrible fraud. Why? Because this conversation often happens just after someone has asked me “What’s the matter with you?” in reference to my prosthetic leg, a question I am asked most often a) in line at the coffee bar; b) at the gym; and c) in an elevator. This question (which presumes a standard of bodily normalcy from the get-go) is accompanied by a slow, almost un-self-consciousness scan of my body from head to toe. I feel exposed and fraudulent because a) I don’t want people to think I have a mental disability, which makes me feel ashamed of myself; b) I really want to say “crippled” athletes but am afraid of offending someone’s semantic sensibilities; and c) I am athletic, and although my efforts are often Olympic, I am no Olympian; however, when the body scan results in a compliment, I’m pleased. And so it is that during the time of the Olympics, when all small talk seems to focus on what happened on THE balance beam or in THE pool, I find myself knee-deep in a philosophical mess with interesting sociological implications.

Hegel, my favorite 19th century philosopher who created elaborate rules and systems to try and understand how we relate to ourselves and others, would lose his lunch with excitement at how deeply I am engaged, even committed to, the master/slave dialectic he developed and named. Briefly, Hegel postulates that when two people meet, their self-consciousness develops simultaneously and a dynamic is activated that bonds one to the other in ways that neither person can fully or understand or escape. This recognition of distinctiveness results in a “struggle to the death” during which the “master” eventually wins out but then realizes that she is even more enslaved because the “slave” is so beaten down that she is no longer able to offer the freedom (of relationship) for which the master fought tooth and nail to achieve. What cannot be freely given cannot be truly accepted, according to Hegel.

Why do I find myself babbling about how fast I can run one mile or how much I love spin class? I want to “win” this game of perception. I don’t want to be classified as “disabled” although I have been since birth. I don’t want people to see me at the gym and say “Hey, good for you! You’re an inspiration!” (Just for being on the Stairmaster? Really?) and yet I know that I’m hungry for these same comments that I immediately resent and then feel guilty about resenting. In this way I enslave myself through an addiction to being so-called “inspirational” because I engage in athletic pursuits with my able-bodied peers and therefore gain something that approximates an uneasy and surface acceptance. It’s complicated. And tiring.

The sociologist Rebecca S. Chopp coined the term “supercrip” to explain the tendency to elevate disabled people as extraordinary as a way to make them acceptable in society. Think about the media coverage of any person with a disability who attempts a difficult physical feat. The commentators narrate with breathless awe: “And then he climbed a mountain…with ONE LEG and a SINGLE EYELASH.” This effusiveness would be hysterically funny (and sometimes it is), if it didn’t reflect so deeply and accurately our society’s fear of people with disabilities, and the ways in which us crips are most acceptable when we approximate a standard of “normal” with our bodies—through athleticism, physical appearance, and other myriad achievements. Never mind that nobody fits this standard—literally nobody—but it is so deeply entrenched in our social consciousness that we are all ensnared by it. What drives this dynamic? One word (and I know Hegel would agree, although he would use a lot more than one word): fear. And fear equals exhaustion for all involved, from the master to the slave, in part because these roles keep bouncing back and forth between individuals.

Why all this effort? What’s the point?

Scholars in the field of disability studies explain that the fear of disability is the fear of losing the boundaries of the body; in other words, disabled people mirror a kind of loss, which is itself a kind of death. Enter distancing maneuvers. If someone can run a marathon on a prosthetic limb or play wheelchair basketball or move in other ways that (some) able-bodied people can, even if it’s not at an elite level, then they “pass” as normal. They can be honorary able-bodied folks. They are extraordinary (and convenient) reminders that “I am not like you.” If the disabled person’s body mirrors what you most fear, and yet they prove themselves to be in a different, extraordinary category, then you are safe because they’re not in your normal category that it is vital for you to remain a member of. Your identity is therefore safe, and so are you. If you can see a disabled person as “kind of like a real person” in terms of athleticism or general physical appearance, then it lessens the fear you have of becoming disabled yourself (which is an inevitability if you live long enough), and allows you to feel removed from the terrifying prospect of having the boundaries of the body dissolved. Think about the last time you read an article or watched a movie about an “ordinary” person with a disability.

So, what is wrong with the Paralympics? At its base, nothing at all. Bodies of all kinds should have a chance to do their Olympic thing, to experience being contenders in a great showcase of physical achievement that dates back thousands of years. The whole notion, however, of elevating a body—any body—as a result of physical prowess alone reveals interesting trends of sight and perception and acceptance in this culture and others. The Paralympics acts as a stage upon which these dynamics are acted out, dynamics that I participate in, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously, in the course of my everyday life.

Back to the coffee line, gym, or elevator after several moments of playful banter and body perusal. Enter an awkward moment of silence. Lattes are ordered, weights are re-stacked, buttons are pushed. Here’s the next question, because although we all participate in ranking people on a ladder of acceptable bodies, we’re afraid to be called out on it. We want to say the right thing. “So do you prefer ‘handicapped’ or ‘differently abled?’ or is there another word to use?” My response: “It’s up to you. Since all of us are an accident, a disease, or a decade away from having a disability, which would you prefer?” Here’s where the conversation normally stops. “Well, it’s just semantics,” I say, although it isn’t.

What I’d like to be is human. One that doesn’t have to negotiate other people’s habits of mirroring or othering on a continuous basis, and one who doesn’t get some kind of unhealthy psychological lift out of these interactions. I’d like to have an awesome jump shot, a solid triangle pose, and killer cardiovascular endurance without feeling like I’m overcompensating for not looking like a super model.

But even as I write this, I know that part of me is doing exactly that. Because I’m afraid, too. I’m afraid of being labeled a freak, I’m afraid of being an outsider, and I’m afraid of death. What’s so interesting about this list of fears is that everyone has them. I wish we could collectively acknowledge the inescapable reality that we’re all dying, our bodies are aging all the time, changing, morphing, preparing for that final change that we all try to avoid thinking about. I wish we could admit that we’re all mortal, and that we’re literally in this together. Olympic Humans without any national ties or loyalties. Just physical bodies on a journey, and headed in one direction.

Emily Rapp is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir (BloomsburyUSA, 2007) and The Still Point of the Turning World (forthcoming from Penguin Press, March 2013). She is professor of creative writing and literature at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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