Dearest Able-bodied homie,
By virtue of the fact that I have Cerebral Palsy and you do not, we live very different lives. I fall once a week and it’s no biggie; you fall maybe once a month and it’s humiliating, hilarious, or both. I couldn’t put my own socks on until I was 12; you were way ahead of me. But even beyond the scars on my legs that are foreign to your two blank canvases, we are probably very different. I’m a white Jewish 19 year old queer cisgender woman in college, and I’m guessing you don’t fit that exact description. So this is me reaching across the great divide of human experience, because I’ve noticed something peculiar! You’ve been quite nervous around me, and those with bodies similar to mine, for quite some time now, and I’m here to let ya know that I see you, and there’s honestly nothing to be apprehensive about.
Okay okay okay. for fear of seeming convoluted- let me back track. Maybe “nervousness” is too strong a word. There hasn’t been anyone, abled or no, to come into contact with my limp or spastic mannerisms who has run away screaming in terror. At least not as of late. I think what I’m referring to is more of a hesitancy, or a general lack of sureness when it comes to touch, help, or moving together. And it’s, you know, gotten a little…awkward. But it so doesn’t have to be! If one is not used to interacting with peeps with physical disabilities all the time, hesitancy is understandable, and maybe you’re just confused as to what the right/polite/safe option is. So from one disabled writer to one abled reader, here are some pro tips on all the little things that no one explained, or was too afraid to ask.*
Most importantly: hugging, and casual touch in general. Excluding brittle bone disease, and a handful of other very specific/rare medical conditions, you are not going to break your physically disabled friend. This may sound hyperbolic, but this is often what it feels like when someone is coming in for a hug but then barely even touches me with the most ginger of arms, and we hang there awkwardly in an almost hug. If we have reason to make physical contact, most likely joy is a motivator in some sense, so my heart sinks when you then arbitrarily hold back your joy. It make seem small, but I swear to you it happens all. The. Time. Only once have I actually tripped because someone was hugging me with too much force, and that had less to do with my having CP, and more to do with the other person being four. And, in the unlikely circumstance that you do make me wobble, than the worst that happens is I fall, and I get up again and life goes on. In my experience, people with physical disabilities are more resilient, because our bodies are put through more in the day to day. In this way, pain is not an end or something to stop me from living my life, but an inevitable part of a larger journey. If you do knock someone over, whether it be because of hugging or anything else, please don’t make a scene. Life goes on, and you attracting a crowd only escalates the situation and brings attention to the fallen person that they may not want.
This “hugging hesitancy”, if you will, extends to touch more generally. I cannot tell you how many time someone has reached out to put a hand on my shoulder or my knee, but then awkwardly stops themselves before there hand actually reaches me. I can’t really put my finger on this, but the frequency of this experience is what really motivated me to write this. I’ve seen it happen to my other friends with visible disabilities as well. What is so disconcerting about this, is that it makes me feel untouchable, like there is a Palsy forcefield around me blocking even the most pedestrian touch. Again, your friendly gesture isn’t going to make me explode, which you know rationally.
I’ve seen this truth be even more prominent for people who use wheelchairs; just because a person is sitting down doesn’t mean they don’t also desire touch, or notice when you’re deliberately choosing not to make that connection. And at the end of the day, a wheelchair is just a chair, with wheels. That probably sounds so obvious, but in a society where so much meaning is tacked onto one item, it’s important to keep in mind that a wheelchair is just a tool that can be helpful for some people. To hug a person who is sitting down, simply bend down and hug them around the shoulders. Follow their lead. And if you can, get to the other person’s level when talking to them. Again, it may seem like small thing, but the effect of spending one’s day to day staring up at others can be staggering in terms of a person’s self image, communication skills, and expectations for relationships. Asking about things like touch may feel difficult or awkward, but communicating a little goes a long way, and helps foster a culture of consent**. Asking someone what their most comfortable with, regardless of ability status, shows that you care about them. Asking these questions privately as opposed to in front of others is always a good idea.
To you, abled homie, who has most likely never noticed the nuances of this interaction, such a casual thing may seem meaningless. But when you think about it, this phenomena directly correlates to stigma and a similar hesitancy around romantic relationships and sex with those with physical disabilities. If a subconscious bias of fragility or “untouchableness” is present, the likelihood of moving toward romance and/or sex is less, and that progression is slower and (probably) more frustrating. But that’s a whole other letter. For now, please please just try to keep in mind that you ain’t gonna break us, and while there are always those who don’t want to be touched, disabled people are just as much here for the hug as you are.
Today, this is where she stands
*I am one human, with one physical disability, who only has her experience to speak from. This advice is not going to “work” in 100% of all situations ever, but hopefully it will be generally applicable in most situations, and you can use your noggin to infer from there.
**This post was originally published on Spastically Yours- see it here