Thursday, June 25, 2015

Disability, invisibility

I've spent the past two days at an academic conference (it's been excellent, thanks for asking; probably among the best I've been to). I also went to two conferences earlier in June. An odd thing has happened, on more than one occasion, at both of these events: running into people whom I'd met at a previous conference in November, while I was having significant mobility challenges and using my scooter, and finding that they had no idea who I was. Now, I'm the last person to criticize people for not recognizing others, ordinarily; I've had embarrassing incidents where I don't recognize people I know reasonably well: my (lifelong) dentist, friends, the person I was dating, my thesis supervisor. But this, I feel, was different, and speaks to something that seems to happen with disability, particularly when mobility aids are involved: suddenly, you become a wheelchair, walker, or scooter, rather than a whole human being.

The incident today can illustrate all three moments when people didn't recognize me, though perhaps it was the most extreme. I ran into someone who was on my panel at the November conference. [Since nobody reading this was actually at my panel, here's some context. There were just three of us on the panel, plus a moderator, and two audience members. It was a small room, so involved lots of discussion amongst five of the six of us who were present (the sixth texted for the entire time - but that's another story for another day!). Three relatively interlinked papers, a half-hour question period where presenters got to ask questions of one another (this doesn't happen often, but was perhaps a bonus of having such a pithy audience). So needless to say, remembering who the other people are should be a given, even if the name or face is initially a hold-up.]. I say hello to her, and get a blank look; remind her who I was (hi, I'm [my name], from [university]; we presented together at [conference] last fall). She looks perplexed; asks if I'm mixing her up with someone else. No, I'm certain that I'm not. So I tell her about the panel - its egregiously early timing for a Saturday, small group, how we all came together with cohesive papers despite having never communicated until that day. Then she seems to recall who I am: "oh! were you the one with the scooter?"

The one with the scooter. This might sound like a neutral statement, but to me it is anything but. I could have been the one who talked about whatever aspect of my paper she may have found memorable; the one who asked her a range of questions about her paper; heck, even the one whose own mother, awkwardly, happened to be our only vocal audience member, and who rather took her to task during question period. Instead, I was the one with the scooter. Not an academic, a presenter, a colleague, or even a woman, a person. Just "the one."

When I used my scooter, people recognized me, from day to day, on the bus. Except, they didn't - they recognized my mobility aid, and the vague shape of the person it carried. You can't blend into the woodwork when you beep each time you reverse, take up time and space any time you go, well, anywhere. To people I met briefly, I was the scooter, and the scooter was me. I was paradoxically both hyper-visible, and invisible.

I admittedly don't know where I am going with this thought, but it is something troubling that I need to remember to think about further.

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