Freaks

I love the way kids react to my wheelchair. They're fascinated, checking out the knobs, buttons and repeatedly coming back to the one thing that is verboten due to risk of injury: my joystick. They'll ask a quick question or two about why I'm in the chair and why I can't walk and we get on with other things, the chair never mentioned again. That is, if we are given the opportunity by parents, who will rush over and pull the child away, shushing wildly, apologizing again and again for their offspring's inquisitiveness and in one fell swoop, teach the kid that I am Different, Strange and Uncomfortable. I usually engage in educational mini lecture #380b, explaining that it's perfectly okay for kids to ask questions and no, it's no bother at all, but by then, it's too late. The freak suggestion is already there.

Kids don't have problems with disability. Adults do.

One of the BBC shows for children is co-hosted by Cerrie Burnell, a woman who was born with one hand. The BBC has received several formal complaints about how this woman scares the children. How it is not suitable for her to be on a children's show. One particularly bright light has banned the show in his home to prevent his daughter from having nightmares and even better, some commented that hiring Burnell is motivated purely by having to fill an employment quota – because, I guess, us cripples will never be qualified to do anything - and why, oh why, must the BBC inflict all this nasty diversity upon the audience?

"No person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object or improper person to be allowed in or on the public ways or other public places in this city, or shall therein or thereon expose himself to public view, under a penalty of not less than one dollar nor more than fifty dollars for each offense."
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Chicago Municipal Code, sec. 36034, repealed 1974

In the past, the only real employment of people with disabilities was the freak shows, where we were displayed to give the paying populace a shuddering thrill when they gazed upon the deformities, the twisted bodies, the not-quite-human. But they wanted us to stay there, at the freak show, not living among real people and if there wasn't a freak show o be found, they put us away in institutions, for the betterment of all.

And then, in the 70s, deinstitutionalization happened and the freaks came to live in the community and almost 40 years later, we're still weird. But these days, instead of gaping - although there are some who do that - people teach their children to avert their eyes, to not look at deformities and assistive devices, to not ask uncomfortable questions, to not interact with the freak.

It's why the laws are there. Laws that mandate the inclusion of people with disabilities in society, in employment, because without the laws, we wouldn't be hired. Without the laws, we wouldn’t be living in the community. We come with problems, with requirements for ramps, accessible bathrooms, attendant care and different ways of doing the job. We question the necessity of the way it's always been done, make you change the way you do things and people don't like that. Those laws mean that you have to look at us, because we're right there in front of you, in the grocery store, at the bank, in the office and on TV. Not much and mostly in places that are government funded and therefore mandated to follow the law - whereas for many other, it’s optional - but this mandated presence, inclusion supported by law means that regular folk can’t avoid the exposure. And after a while, exposure breeds acceptance and eventually, we will no longer be freaks, but neighbours and maybe someday, people who quietly take initiative to be inclusive won’t be such a delightful surprise.

Until that happens, try not to freak out when your kid’s talking to me.

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