Seeing beyond these things? No, I want something better.


In going through the numerous and interesting entries for Blogging Against Disablism Day, I’ve read a lot of posts that say, “We need people to see past the disability.” People name different things that need to be “seen past”: Wheelchairs, white canes, flapping hands, body or facial shape, etc. Apparently, what is “beyond” these things is the real person.

I’ll start by saying, I know what it is they mean by this, and I don’t need it explained to me. They mean that some people focus in on some attribute, and then sort of cover over the rest of you with the things they think that attribute means, rather than seeing you as a person.

It’s not as if I don’t encounter this on a regular basis. I use a wheelchair. I can’t use speech to communicate, which becomes obvious if you either know the significance of my communication boards or try to talk to me. I move and react to my surroundings in a way that’s distinctly atypical, in fact so atypical that many people seem to think I am not reacting to or understanding my surroundings at all. (That includes hand-flapping and other things like that.) I have a facial and body shape that, combined with these other things, subtly (sometimes not-so-subtly, as in I get remarks, but often I’m not even sure people realize they’re taking it into account) influences people’s perception of me. So I know very well what it’s like for people to not treat me like a person, on the basis of these things. And it’s definitely rare that people see me for who, and what, I am.

However, my wish is not for people to look past those attributes of me. Because it is not really those attributes of me that cause them to form all their stereotyped and mistaken opinions of me. And because, the term “looking past them,” even as a shorthand, turns these things into something undesirable, something not to be looked at.

I want people to be able to look at me, and see a person, and see all those other attributes and not have to look “past” them or minimize them in order to see me as a person. I want people to be able to see beauty in flapping hands. Not otherworldly, ethereal beauty attributed by someone going the other direction and putting us on a pedestal, just everyday ordinary beauty.

I don’t want people to have to look past anything. I mean, how insulted would most women be by “I look past the fact that you’re female and see that you’re a person”?

I want people to look straight at what they’re looking at, including all the things they supposedly have to look past, and like what they see instead of constructing all sorts of bizarre theories in their head about it, instead of being repulsed or frightened by it, and instead of concentrating on “looking past” certain aspects. If they have to look past those attributes in order to see us, they aren’t ever going to see us for who we are. They’re just going to see another substitute for who we are, little better than the first.

As long as people still have to “look past” things to see us, they’re never really going to see us. It’s the stereotypes they need to ditch, not the aspects of our appearance that they attach to those stereotypes. It may sound like only a semantic difference, but it’s more than that.


About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods. Crochet or otherwise create constantly and compulsively. Write poetry and paint when I can. Developmentally disabled, physically and cognitively disabled. I'm not really part of any online faction or another, even ones that claim me as a member. The thing in the world most important to me is having love and compassion for other people, although I don't always measure up to my own standards there by a longshot. And individual specific actions and situations and contexts matter a lot more to me than broadly-spoken abstract words and ideas about a topic. My father died in 2014 and that has changed my life a lot in ways that are still evolving, but I wear a lot of his clothes and hats every day since he died and have shown no sign of stopping soon.

8 responses »

  1. Spot on!!! Absolutely! I came to this realisation a few years ago (finally!) but haven’t yet managed to put it into writing. Thank you for doing so. I don’t want people to ignore my CP – I’m *not* normal, and I don’t want to be. It’s dangerous for people to pretend I don’t have CP, it means I don’t get the help I need and I spent years in incredibly dangerous (physically and emotionally) situations because I bought in to the `look past my disability’ myth.

    I never comment here enough, but every one of your posts resonates with me so deeply and puts into words what I can’t or don’t have the energy to write about.

    Thanks so much. :-)

    I’ve linked to a couple of your posts for BADD, BTW.

  2. This rings true on many counts. When Charlie has had a tough moment in public—an experience in which I had to phang onto him while he tried to hit his head on a manhole cover on a train platform stands out–people often do not stare. Their faces and body posture suggest that they do “not” see us–that we’re invisible—not something they are willing to look at.

  3. *nod*

    I don’t want people to “look past” my ADHD, either. It’s shaped my personality, my outlook on life – it’s part of me, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health…

    Of course, I “pass” for normal more often than not, and have all my life. The oddities I have can be brushed off by those around me as little quirks that are just part of “Janna”. But my best friend, who’s known me for over twenty-five years, told me a couple of weeks ago that in the last six months I’ve seemed the most “normal” to her. I attribute that “normalcy” to a few things: finding the right meds; finally landing a job that allows me the freedom to work within my ADHD instead of constantly pushing myself to “overcome” it; and an overall lessening of stressors in my life.

    The positive changes I’ve made in my life are, I think, an example of what life *can* and *should* be able to be like for everyone. I still have interesting “ADHD moments” (I left my car lights on twice in less than two weeks and drained the battery, for example; I now have a sign on my passenger seat that says ‘Turn off the lights, you silly silly girl!’) because medication doesn’t eliminate ADHD – and I wouldn’t want it to.

    Don’t “look past” my ADHD; it’s impossible to do so. It’s wrapped up within my very being.

  4. I think this relates to something I discovered years ago while working with those who are of black/brown culture and that is that they would prefer instead of “color blindness”, “color appreciation”. Appreciation for what the background and influences and experiences bring a person and not ignorance of it or looking the other way. The ‘blindness’ is perhaps more of an egalitarian aspect which has it’s own validity but in a different context of being equal as a group amongst other groups. It is also not so important in terms of actual “color”.

  5. I should also say that I’ve seen the poetic rendition of “Black is Beautiful” quite a few times in my sojourns through the military and through school but also in other groups/activites and it makes me feel a lot closer to “my brothers and sisters” on earth. I relate this somewhat to autism and realize that many groups feel arbitrary at some point. I’m my individual self but I happen to share so much experience with a large group of autistics. None of these need to be unscreened. I’m not trying to watch my PC or anything and just saying it how I’ve seen / experienced it so I might not be saying things accurately. PC “eggshells” I am sometimes annoyed with at the same time, I do have to sometimes actively think outside my experiences.

  6. Pingback: Janna’s Thoughts… » Blog Archive » Blogging Against Ableism/Disablism Day :: My Post

  7. how about a post on better word choice…….what can we say/think other than “seeing past” “learning DIFFERENCE” as opposed to disability……and things like that……I believe that people genuinely don’t know better things to say or think……..and others might think better things but cannot put those things into the right words……..and the phrases I put in quotes are the best verbal approximation……….

    I think such a post, if/when you are able/have a desire to do so, will help a lot of people……if there are already such posts in existence…….could you or n or andreashettle or anyone else familiar with them please post them for us?


  8. Ivan: I think the key issue here is not the LANGUAGE but the ATTITUDE behind it. In this post, for example, the offense is not simply using the term “looking past,” the offense is the IDEA that a disability is necessarily something so shameful or bad that it NEEDS to be overlooked in the first place in order to accept the person as a person.

    If I try too hard to interpret what Amanda means when she writes this post then I’ll risk putting words into her mouth. So instead I’ll say what it means to me:

    I don’t want people to “look past” the fact that I am Deaf in order to accept me as a person. NOT because I object to the terminology but because I object to the idea that there’s anything wrong with being Deaf that people should have to ignore it in order to accept me. If people can only figure out how to accept me or tolerate me by pretending that I’m basically just a hearing person who “hears differently” or whatever then I just don’t want that brand of “acceptance” because that’s not “acceptance” at all. That’s just dressed up failure to accept who I REALLY am. And, yes, being Deaf is one part of that. It’s not all of who I am, it’s not even the most important part of who I am, but it’s there, and to try to pretend that out of existence is to reject one part of who I am–no matter what synonym you come up with for “looking past.”

    There is a time and a place to have dialogue about language. But if you worry too much about terminology then you run the risk that you could end up overlooking far more fundamental issues related to how disability is perceived, or how people with disabilities are treated.

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