Tag Archive: Different


The other day i wrote a post titled, ‘Do the Different Need a Disclaimer?’ in which i touched on how meeting someone with a disability or condition that makes them quite different to you can be challenging or scary in terms of not wanting to be awkward or embarrass them [or yourself] and my friend Michelle wrote a long comment in response. i asked her if she would upgrade it to a post as it felt quite crucial to this important conversation and this is what she sent me [which is one of the most powerful things i have read and had the privilege of sharing on my blog, thankx Michelle!]:

SONY DSC

There is a huge culture of silence around encountering different bodies so thank you for posting an honest account of your reaction (internal as well as external) to this moment.

When trying to unpack some of the stuff around what I call “responding to difference” it’s hugely important to remember that those who embody the difference often experience silence as absolutely imperative to acceptance and easier relating.

This means that when encounters like yours happen (and they are bound to as we all move through our worlds) they hold an awful lot of baggage on both sides. Baggage which is most often unspeakable. Unspeakable because the so-called “able-bodied” are taught not to stare at difference and because the different are taught that value is found only in sameness.

What we’re left with then is embarrassment, guilt, awkwardness and silence on the part of both the different ones and the same ones and the nagging question of what constitutes difference or sameness anyway?

So what are we all supposed to do? Are the different bound to disclaim our difference upfront; “Sorry, I have no fingers”. I guarantee you the “sorry” will always be uttered – I’m sorry that for some reason out of my control my body won’t conform to sameness.

I want to say here that I believe that difference exists. It is a reality not a construction. This is actually a pretty torrid debate amongst disability theorists, many of whom claim that physical impairments are simply constructed as different in opposition to a dominant norm of sameness. So for example, these scholars have suggested that blindness is simply an alternate way to see. Interesting and mind-shifting but my personal belief is that eyes are meant to see and hands are meant to have fingers and so to lack these things is to be really different in real ways that make a real difference.

At a conference recently, a colleague who is quadriplegic said that when people meet him they never ask the normal questions that people ask other people (“what do you do?”, “are you married?”) they ask “what happened to you?” His different body automatically excludes him from work, love, relationships and he is reduced to “a bad thing that happened”. Difference is allowed to eclipse everything else about him and mostly dominates any relationship going forward.

So different people exist in a tricky place between real difference that makes a difference and, at the same time, wanting to be recognised for the sameness parts of us, the shared humanity of things like the music we like and the places we’ve been and the people who are our children and spouses and friends. Not to mention the ways that difference in itself is part of what it means to be human and that vulnerability is an essential part, as much as we may try to deny it, of humanness. We could, in fact, shake anyone’s hand, skip the formalities and ask, “So, what has happened to you?” Somehow, the disability difference, written as it is all over bodies, invites this question more readily.

So, are you overthinking the hand-shake moment? No and yes.

No because this is a good kind of thinking (and not just thinking but speaking too). This kind of stuff has to be spoken about, debated and thought about. Otherwise, the silence continues.

Yes, because a hand-shake is essentially just a weird thing that people do when we meet each other to make some sort of tactile contact and that’s exactly what you did, albeit differently, in this moment. I work with a lot of people with various disabilities and always reach for hands when I meet people and sometimes those hands are different hands. Hands without fingers or fingers that can’t be extended. Of course, this is made more complicated by the fact that I can’t see but however things end up we have still managed to have the “Hi, I see you (except I don’t but you know what I mean)” moment of connection that people need to have.

I think every person is going to respond to their own difference differently depending on what their journey has held. The only possible way to get to know this is by building real relationships with people based around more than just their difference.

[To return to the original post, click here]

[To read more from Michelle who shares about living with a degenerative sight condition, click here]

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disclaimer

This morning i went to a prayer meeting i used to regularly attend when we lived in Oakland a year ago.

This other couple arrived just behind us and so i turned around and greeted them, shook his hand and as i went to greet her i assume i must have put out my hand, and so she put out her hand and i wasn’t even properly looking and so it must have been my extremely great peripheral vision [cover your cards when you’re sitting next to me in poker] that alerted me to the fact that something was different. She only had one finger in the place where i was expecting a whole hand and so there was a last second adjustment and i think i ended up shaking her wrist, rather than her hand. Which felt a little bit weird.

What is the protocol when shaking hands with someone who has a finger where the rest of the hand should be? Is it to shake the finger? Or to go for the wrist? Urgh, wrist felt wrong and so i felt awkward and it all happened so quickly and other people arrived and so other greetings were made and then we very quickly got into the meeting and so i still don’t know the answer to that one. i also don’t know if it would have been okay/right/normal/polite for me to have asked what happened [or did something even happen or was she born like that?] or whether you just pretend everything is normal and try not to stare.

i wonder how it is i once managed to write a post titled ‘Blessed are the Retards’ without one bit of push back? Maybe it’s cos that was way back in 2010 when no-one was reading my blog… i mean clearly i get the point of what i was trying to do then, but i didn’t even disclaim or give reference to or anything… or maybe that was the point? But the question was the same, how am i supposed to be around someone who is different if i don’t know how to be around that person?

speciali mean i feel like a bit of a dick writing this. i don’t think i’m a complete dick. But something about this feels like it should be completely obvious and yet, it just sometimes isn’t [and sometimes it is a lot more obvious than other times]. i also hope that above picture isn’t advocating that we hold little kids in wheelchairs above our heads cos i don’t know how safe that is.

i found the series i ran on the Taboo Topics section on my blog on Living with Disabilities to be super helpful in this regard. My friend, Louise, who has Asperger’s [which i always had heard as asBergers before, so even that little bit of learning was helpful] wrote this really helpful piece, but she also took time to explain a lot more in depth and send me links to helpful articles and videos. So i feel like i am a little more equipped now to understand some of what might be helpful to her when we hang out.

i have asked a few different people to write a piece on Down’s Syndrome but so far no takers. My experience has been that people with Down Syndrome  for the most part tend to come across as incredibly joyful and happy people. i would love to know more. Is that even true? And i feel like someone taking the time to share a story with me and some insight might help me to interact better next time i come face to face with someone with Down Syndrome.

story

i imagine there is not a one-size-fits-all to this. But also that unless i’m the biggest doucheball the world has ever seen [some would very likely attest to that!] that others might be feeling the same things or wanting to ask the same questions. And i imagine that a lot of the education comes through story-telling and so maybe i just need more people sharing more stories of different  people who are living with disabilities.

i mean, this is the answer to our race issues, right? And also a big help for those who are trying to figure out being married to hear from others who have journeyed for various numbers of years at that? And again and again it has shown to be true of the so-called Taboo Topics, where stories shared on areas that have rarely been spoken about [like losing a child or being single, struggling with an eating disorder or trying to be a parent of a young child when it hasn’t been all that easy, and more] have given encouragement, strength and hope to others who find themselves in similar places.

i’m convinced that story-telling and relationship-building is one of the biggest keys to living life well in all spheres and this is just another one of those. And probably a good reminder for me to realise that as different as a different seeming person may be to me, i am the equivalent amount of different to them and so maybe my story is important as well.

What do you think about this? Is it way more simple [or perhaps completely more complicated] than i am making out?

What story would you like to hear?

[One of the most incredible responses ever, thanks to my friend Michelle Botha]

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