This isn't a whiny post. I swear. In fact, I'm actually a bit delighted to have run across such an elegantly simple example--a way to show what mundane, everyday and--yes--even well-intentioned ableism does.
Here's the scene. I recently met a lovely woman at a workshop. She has a son my kids' age. They share a lot of traits in common and enjoyed playing in the kids' part of the workshop. At the end of the workshop we exchanged contact information, chatting lightly about how we would get together sometime.
I do usually follow up on such contacts but only rarely ever see the person again. There are good intentions and then there is the chaos of family life, jobs and the daily grind.
But this time, the contact came through. This woman was eager to see us. I had invited her to bring her family to my place and she took me seriously. Finallly, the date was set and they came, including her hsuband who I had met briefly at the end of the workshop.
At the workshop I used my white cane because it helped to persuade people to identify themselves verbally. He had seen that and seemed a bit cold when we were introduced.
The family arrived while I was cooking lunch. My husband was at work and the kids were running wild about the place. I welcomed the guests and brought them into the kitchen. Then I returned to the stove.
"See," the woman said gleefully to her husband. "She can cook just fine."
He mumbled something unintelligble and she turned to me.
"He didn't think you'd be able to cook," she told me.
I feigned confusion and laughed. "I know people say Americans can't cook, but I've been in Europe for nearly twenty years. I'm civilized now."
The man shrank back a bit more and seemed ready to flee.
The woman corrected me. "No, he wondered how you'd cook with a white cane."
I put my arms out as if I was holding a stick and stirring a giant cauldron. "You use a very big pot and stir," I said.
We all laughed.
I went back to the stove. I had to make gravy for the chicken-pasta thing I'd made. Nothing fancy. The kind of gravy I've made a hundred times before. This was a day with kids and I had chosen not to wow my guests with anything fancy, but rather to make bland, kid-friendly food.
Still I'm not sure what happened. Maybe my hands shook just a bit. Maybe I was distracted by chatting and nerves. Maybe on some level, I wasn't really laughing, even though I didn't feel bad about our light exchange. The husband of my new friend warmed right up and we were soon in the midst of lively conversation about parenting.
But for the first time ever, my gravy clumped. My mother used to warn me about clumps in gravy but I've been fortunate that even when I first started out, I never had problems with lumps in my gravy. This time, the flour solidified into hard little globs, not lumps so much as gravel.
I felt my face flush and my hands really did start to shake. My throat closed with fear.
Over lumpy gravy.
But I gritted my teeth and thought fast. I found a slotted spoon, strained the gravy and finished the lunch. All was good. The guests barely noticed my anxiety.
But here is the thing.
If the gravy had been lumpy and the hostess was not blind, it would have been just a bit less than perfect. We would have laughed about it and muddled through. It was because I had been told that there was a question about whether or not I could cook because I was legally blind that it mattered.
Sure, no one would have said anything. But they would have gone on believing that I couldn't cook well because of my vision, rather than that I am a less than perfect cook because I have other things to focus on.
If a Hispanic person at a gathering is addressed as the maid by accident, it isn't just a social gaff. And if a child from a poor background is mistaken for a slow student, it isn't just a misunderstanding. These things have deeper roots and wider ranging consequences.
There is a reason they're called "loaded" issues. It's the difference between a gun that's loaded and one that isn't.
I had fun with my guests and the kids had a blast. It was one of only two real playdates all summer and I was glad for it. I was also utterly exhausted by the end. The strain of making sure I don't fulfill someone's stereotype takes it out of me.
That is what harmless, everyday, well-intentioned ableism does.