by Kari Pope
When I think about the George Hodgins case, the first thing that springs to mind is something I discovered in peace and conflict studies as, “cultural violence.” Why? Well, as I am someone who supposedly inhabits “the top of the disability food chain,” with few overt accessibility needs and few obvious signs of the physical disability I do have, there seem to be significant parts of a collective disability experience that I don’t share, such as the level of physical assistance with activities of daily living that would necessitate continued, regular, intimate contact with a caregiver or personal attendant. Therefore, I feel the most I can say about the story of George Hodgins is that what happened to him only serves to reinforce, to devastating effect, the culture of violence that confronts people with disabilities on a daily basis and that has wreaked havoc on my mind ever since I learned that a term for it existed.
How, you might ask, can such a thing exist? After all, as Clint Eastwood infamously put it, “Nobody doesn’t want to help the handicapped.” But can that really be true when one considers that modern structures were purpose-built to exclude us? That accessibility measures, when added on at all, were added as an afterthought, in accordance with a law that is considered by many in the disability community, even 20 years on, to be “better than nothing” and by many outside it as too costly to implement? That too many people, their potential either ignored or disregarded by the rest of society, remain trapped in poverty by a system in which the loss of benefits is a constant threat?
But I won’t try to tackle all the issues in a single post. In fact my intention in posting was to reflect on how the culture of violence I perceive pervades my own disability experience. Whilst reflecting I happened upon an article discussing the importance and impact of “The Black Male Code” in the aftermath of the murder of Trayvon Martin. In it, the author details, among other things, the lengths to which a Black man must go, even today, so as not to appear threatening or dangerous in public.
That got me thinking. I mean, I’m white. I’m a woman. I’m disabled. And I’m in public all the time; I take public transportation everywhere I go. It dawned on me that I’ve seen, even before I knew what I was looking at, the Black Male Code in action: guys going to unnecessary, yet painful, even sometimes ridiculous lengths to make me feel it ease. Remembered compliments, smiles, even nods took on new meaning as I started to wonder, “What code governs my own interactions with disabled and non-disabled folks alike?” Experience and history have taught me that few things are as threatening to a person’s sense of self as disability. I asked myself, “How often have I stayed seated when I could have stood, paid the full fare on the train or bus, or worn trousers or long skirts instead of shorts or mini’s, all in the name of preserving one’s perceptions–and, I admit, my own feelings–of so-called ‘normalcy’? By the same token, how often have I ‘gimped it up,’ in order to assure my fellow cripples that, yes, I am one of you?”
The answer is, all the time. And every time, I have felt like I was a threat to, and like I was threatened by, each group.
For example, I’ve noticed that folks have a tendency to think it’s perfectly okay to ask personal questions. They don’t seem to understand–probably because they feel threatened–that when you ask about a person’s disability, you are asking about their body. End of story. Inquiring point-blank about my ability to stand for long periods of time is not a way to greet me. Asking the name of my “condition” is not the way to find out my name. Translation: If you want to greet me, just say hello. If you want to learn my name, try telling me yours. We’ll both feel a whole lot less threatened, I’m sure.
Being what is sometimes called a “walkie-talkie” among people with CP, I’ve learned that I’m threatening to other people with disabilities, and their families, for almost the opposite reason. Instead of being a threat through being different, I am a threat for being not different–and therefore not disabled–enough. And I get threatened, as I was during a Cerebral Palsy Family Forum at UCLA several years ago, because of that lack of difference, that lack, ironic though it may seem, of disability. Apparently I was too much for one mother, whom I encountered along with her son at this event in 2006. After watching me approach an information booth where they, too, were waiting, she turned to me after I had greeted her son and said, “Oh, you have cerebral palsy, too–barely.” Nothing more.
I wanted to answer, “Hey, look, lady; I didn’t get to choose. Most days, if it were up to me, I’d rather roll around like your son there with his tray full of Spider-man stickers. Which, by the way, in case you hadn’t noticed, I complimented him on. I hope that at some point you’ll teach him to appreciate that, because so far all I’m getting is that you’re teaching him to hate me for being ‘less disabled’ than he is.”
But I didn’t. Because as my own mom always says, “You can’t expect people to get it. You can’t expect people to know and understand.” Such discouragement from the home front I experience also as violence. It’s the constant threat of no protection, no empathy, no opportunity to express myself or to be heard from the tenuous place I occupy in public, on the “disability food chain,” and everywhere.
And so I find myself, until now, locked into a code of silence. Alone with the threats I face every day, I see them as the seeds of a culture of violence that, if left to grow unabated, will ensure that the murder and abuse of people with disabilities, both like and unlike George Hodgins, will continue. And if we, in turn, continue stratifying our disability experiences rather than pooling them for the greater hope and wisdom of a community that strives to not only recognize but also create a shared disability experience, the infighting that keeps us at each other’s proverbial throats will destroy us from within, while hatred, abuse, and death continue to wrack us from without.