Young, Sick, and Invisible Excerpt: What is Normal?

The concept of normalcy is confusing, and ultimately harmful. Normalcy implies that there is a standard, a norm, for all experience and behaviour. The normal human being can see, hear, walk, move in a certain way, speak a certain way, act a certain way. Where this concept runs into problems is that it doesn’t hold up under examination. No two human beings see in exactly the same way. We have long known, for example, that the perception of colour changes from person to person. The green I see is not exactly the same as the green you see and so on. We also have varying degrees of sightedness. If this were not the case, we would not have so many people who wear glasses. Our concept of normalcy is that you can see this clearly at a certain distance. For convenience’s sake, let us call it 20/20. A close examination of our society however would probably reveal that the majority of the population does not correspond to those criteria, that in terms of population, the percentage that can actually see 20/20 is actually quite small. Despite this however, our concept of normalcy is still centered on 20/20 vision.

We’ve already seen the way the concept of normalcy backfires in other aspects of our society. It was once thought, for example, that the normal human being was white-skinned. As much as we would like to think otherwise, this concept of normalcy is still prevalent in our society. This concept is what continues to influence racism: I don’t have to treat people who are not white as human beings because they are not normal.

Other examples of normalcy include sexual orientation, sexual expression and desire, gender expression, and more. Time and time again, concepts of what is normal backfire and are ultimately shown to be untrue. People who are completely straight and interested in “normal” sex, and fit completely into the established normal expressions of gender and gender roles are ultimately rare, if they truly exist at all. Think about that. A personified model of normalcy doesn’t actually exist. There is no completely normal person out there. Moreover, what is considered normal changes from one society to the next. If normalcy existed as a standard, it would be the same regardless of whether you are presently in society A or society B.

As long as we maintain these standards of what is normal, we will continue to run into systems of oppression simply because the real human norm is diversity.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t celebrate the accomplishments of people with disabilities or people from other minorities. Their accomplishments deserve to be lauded the same way as anyone else’s. Rather, my problem with many of these stories lies in that they ignore an important truth – the reason their stories are impressive is because our society is not accessible. The stories are not about celebrating accomplishments but rather about easing our own guilt. They are accessibility’s version of the republican’s bootstraps story. By showing how one person can overcome the obstacles we as a society have thrown at them, we can pretend that those obstacles really aren’t all that bad or even that they don’t exist. That anyone complaining about those obstacles is just lazy, or looking for an excuse, or a “professional victim”.

In many cases, the stories of people with disabilities really are impressive, but they shouldn’t have to be. In a society where we have incredible capabilities for technology and innovation, the ability of a person to succeed should not be limited because of a physical impairment. It is not our physical conditions that dis-able us, but rather society itself.

If you ask most able-bodied persons whether our societies are accessible, most will answer yes. After all, elevators exist almost everywhere and we see ramps all the time, so clearly accessibility must not be an issue. If you think this way, I offer you a challenge. For the next week, every time that you had to use even so much as one stair in order to get somewhere, I would like you to put a dollar in a jar. This includes going to a store, coffee shop, classroom, workplace, restaurant, event, house, apartment, anywhere really. For one week, every time you have to use the stairs or inaccessible entrance in order to not be late, because the accessible entrance is far out of the way, I want you to put 50 cents into the jar.  Every time you encounter an entrance that doesn’t have automatic capabilities or that the handicapped button is broken, I want you to put 50 cents in the jar. I guarantee that if you are aware and honest, by the end of the week, you will have an impressive sum of money.

When we discuss accessibility there is a tendency to think of only certain types of disabilities. As long as we cater to those, we consider ourselves accessible. Ultimately however, that leads people who don’t fall within those specific categories being disadvantaged. I will give you an example from personal experience: During the period where I had to walk with a cane, I had a hard time using the stairs. Going up stairs was painful as it engaged my hip more than many other activity. Given the choice, I preferred to take an elevator. More often than not, however, the elevators were placed in areas far out of the way. This would force me to have to walk for longer periods of time, a process that was also extremely painful.

For Ottawa residents, you may or may not be familiar with the UOttawa Campus bus station. It is one of two transit way stations that service the University of Ottawa campus. The Campus stop services the science and engineering buildings.  The eastbound stop is across from the university buildings. Rather than risking students having to cross a street filled with buses, they built an underpass. There is an elevator on the eastbound side allowing access to the upstairs station; however, in order to get down to the underpass, there are no elevators. Instead, the university has built a curving ramp on either side of the long stairs leading down. There are also steeper stairs that lead directly from the westbound station to the underpass.

For someone with a wheelchair, access is assured with the ramp. For someone like me however, the choice is either going several meters out of my way, followed by a long trek down a ramp, or braving steep stairs. Moreover the steeper stairs next to the westbound station also happen to be closed off most of the time in winter. This may not seem like a big deal, but the choice to add a long ramp rather than an elevator means more pain for me and anyone else in a similar situation. It means taking the risk when you choose to take the shorter route of the stairs – more pain but over a shorter period of time – that your leg will give out somewhere around the middle step. I’ve had that happen. I know what it is like to have your leg suddenly stop working right at the most dangerous moment. So much am I familiar with it that, even years later when my leg giving out is no longer as big a concern, I still experience a moment of severe vertigo and flashback when standing at the top of a flight of stairs.

Young, Sick, and Invisible Excerpt: What is Normal?

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