The “Compassionate Can’t”: A Form of Discrimination No One Talks About

Hello readers,

I was inspired to write this post thanks to Angela Ruzicka, author of the Wendy on Wheels books. If you’re unfamiliar with this children’s series, it concerns Wendy, an adventurous ten-year-old who happens to use a wheelchair. She has friends, participates in school, and sometimes deals with discrimination from temporarily able-bodied people.

Today, Angela Ruzicka announced on Facebook that there’s going to be a new Wendy book. It’s not finished yet, but it’s called Wendy on Wheels Moves On. From what the posted preliminary sketches tell me, it concerns Wendy’s love of music and singing. The music teacher places students in certain groups, such as show choir and chorale.

Wendy is always placed in chorale, despite her desire to participate in the other groups. I don’t know, but I presume it’s because the teacher assumes she can’t participate and refuses to make modifications. Sketches show Wendy talking to her principal and writing the music teacher explaining that she feels discriminated against.

This plot hit me where it hurt, guys. I was in chorus as a student. I was allowed to participate, but never given solos or special parts. I was never allowed to do anything in the school musical except be in the chorus line because of dancing (even if some secondary parts did not require dancing, and even though the chorus line’s main function is to dance). Yet I never felt I had the power to fight back. Chorus was one of only two electives I could participate in (foreign languages was the other) and I was afraid of the controversy speaking up would cause. I was afraid of being kicked out.

Now, some people would say, “That was a long time ago, you’re a grown woman, get over it.” I don’t sit around stewing over it if that’s what they mean. I am “over it” because I know there’s nothing I can do. But I am not “over” the way the arts community discriminates against PWDs like Wendy and me. I am not “over” the compassionate discrimination our society continues to call acceptable.

What do I mean by “compassionate discrimination?” Simple–it’s what happens when a TAB person says to a person with a disability, through words or actions,

“I know you want to do this, but it’s just not possible. It’s too hard/expensive/disruptive to modify this activity. You should do X instead, where it’s easier or you’re with your own kind.” TV Tropes sometimes calls it Sorry Billy, You Just Don’t Have Legs.

Now, understand what I am not talking about. I am not talking about situations in which PWDs would be in danger, or situations where they legitimately cannot do what is required. For example, I wanted to be a policewoman in second grade (for about ten minutes). I could probably be a forensic psychologist or criminologist, but because of visual and physical issues, there is no way I’m firing a Beretta or chasing a suspect across the Golden Gate Bridge. And I am fine with that.

What I am talking about are situations in which, with or without support, a PWD could do what is required and should be given a fair chance, but isn’t because the TAB world makes excuses. And then, to twist the knife, they couch discrimination in kindness. As in, “I’m worried you can’t handle the physical demands of teaching.” “I would date you, but what can you do on a date?” “Before we enter a relationship I need to know–can you have kids/sex?”

Stop it. Just stop. This is gonna sound harsh, but at this point I don’t care. You all think you’re being kind and compassionate, but you’re not. You are bigots. Yeah, I said it. You are bigots.

The bigotry has got to stop, folks, and I mean all forms. Everything from, “Sit in the back of the bus, crip” or “Out of my way, retard” to, “Oh, honey, the penguin house doesn’t have an accessible entrance. Wait out here by the trash cans–here’s some ice cream.”

And stop making excuses. When a PWD says something is hard, we say, “Stop whining and meet this goal!” But because TAB people don’t have disabilities, they get to make all the decisions? I think not. Get off your butt and start thinking outside the box.

Let’s replace compassionate discrimination with true compassion, understanding, and interest in the wants and needs of other human beings.

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