What Does Disability Look Like?

Question: What does “disability” look like?

Another question: What does “normal” look like?

***

I use a mobility scooter to get around, and when I travel by plane I’m the first passenger to board and the last one to leave. Before everyone starts boarding, the airline staff asks me to come up to the boarding entrance. That’s where I leave my scooter and transfer onto an aisle chair – a small and narrow wheelchair that an employee pushes me in so that I can get to my seat in the airplane. Regular wheelchairs and scooters can’t fit in the narrow aisles in airplanes. The aisle is so narrow that even I always forget how the aisle chair miraculously glides through it. I cinch and raise my shoulders, thinking that I’m going to hit a seat as I pass by, but the airline staff always pushes me with ease. The process is smooth, and it’s definitely easier to complete when there aren’t fellow passengers.

The last time the plane landed at my destination, I waited for the airline staff to obtain the aisle chair and my scooter as usual. I stayed in my seat and noticed that a young mother in her late twenties or early thirties with her three children also remained in their seats. One infant was straddled onto the mother’s chest while two toddlers swung their legs, restless and ready to leave. I first noticed them all when the plane took off, and I commended this mother for traveling alone with three children. She gently bounced her infant and my worries of enduring a baby’s screeching cries dissipated when the infant immediately fell asleep – and remained asleep – for the entire plane ride. Now though, all of them were antsy.

The mother noticed me as if she discovered an oasis. Her face glowed as she called her son and reassured him that me – “the nice pretty lady over there” – was going to come over and help him put on his shoe.

I looked around for any stewardesses. They were passing through the aisle in the back checking to see if any luggage remained. No one was nearby. I wondered how to tell her I couldn’t without sounding cold-hearted. It wasn’t about not wanting to help –I just couldn’t. I attempted to smile and nod while hoping a stewardess would appear, but no one came. Finally, I just told the poor mother.

“I’m so sorry, but I can’t. I have a disability,” I said.

The mother exclaimed. “Oh my gosh. I didn’t know! You look completely normal.”

I didn’t know whether to be offended or to thank her. I just remained still with a faint smile. Just then, two stewardesses appeared and rescued the shoeless son.

The mother received her stroller before the aisle chair came for me, so she and her children departed first. But I passed by them later as I came out of the bathroom stall in the airport. She now saw me on my scooter. I imagined the puzzle pieces all finally coming together in the mother’s mind as I left. But then I ran into her and her children again.

We were at an elevator. As we got on, she apologized again.

“Yeah I’m so sorry I didn’t know! Do you mind if I ask you what you have?”

I don’t have the privilege to hide my disability. It’s not that my disability is a terrible thing I feel impelled to conceal – it is a part of my identity, but like any facet of an individual’s identity, it’s a personal one. Sometimes I don’t wish to talk about it, and I believe I should retain the right to not talk about it. I realized that on this rare instance though, I actually had the chance to hide this part of myself as I sat on the airplane seat without my scooter. At least until this mother called me for help.

Because I sensed that she meant well, because I detected no malicious intent from her, I did not share these thoughts with her. Instead, I supplied her with a succinct answer, telling her my diagnosis.

“Oh, but you’re so pretty,” she replied.

I was confused again. Should I have thanked her? Should I have asked her what she meant by that? I knew it was a compliment, but it didn’t entirely feel like one. To her, my appearance challenged the way she thinks how a person with a disability looks like. I baffled her because I didn’t fit in with the way a person with a disability looks like or with what a normal person looks like.

But what does a person with a disability look like? What does a normal person look like? Who is pretty? Who is not? The mother’s response – as innocent and well-meaning as it was – is upsetting because she seems to equate beauty with someone who doesn’t have a disability.

Science says symmetry is considered beautiful. Romantics argued that softness, roundness, smallness is beautiful. There are certain ways to apply makeup to attain a popular beloved look – big eyes, high cheekbones, big lips. There are many proposed definitions for beauty. But you can’t be both, is the thought that resided in the mother’s belief system. Both beautiful and have a disability.

I want to ask her what a person with a disability is supposed to look like.

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