My Body Is Not Public Property
Most of the time, I wear these fairly hardcore, punk rock-looking finger splints. They’re sterling silver and admittedly look more like jewelry than medical devices. While the aesthetic is a nice side effect, their main job is to reduce my daily pain levels. A less pleasant side effect, however, is the attention they garner me in public.
A few months after receiving them, I stood in line at a coffee shop. As with all new medical devices, I had adjusted to their visibility by this point and no longer felt so acutely aware of the stares I received on their behalf. So, there I stood, thinking about nothing more than my need for caffeine, when the man in front of me abruptly turned around. His eyes locked onto my hands and I groaned internally. I often have the same conversation about my splints four or five times per day; the usual script is committed to memory. In the split second it took me to decide whether to explain their actual purpose or just thank him for complimenting my “jewelry,” he broke that script. He grabbed my hands and held them up to his face, turning them this way and that in awe.
Think about this for a second. A strange man thought it was okay to forcibly grab a woman’s hands in public. This man manipulated my very painful hands and violated my private space for the sole purpose of satisfying his own curiosity. Done to an able-bodied person, this would be absolutely outrageous behavior. But because of my disability, those rules no longer apply. The people around us, who did not blink an eye at this interaction, would have been shocked were it not for my splints.
Why do disabled bodies become the property of the very public which disables us? We become exhibits to ogle rather than humans to respect. Disability is not abnormal. In reality, it’s an incredibly normal fact of life that eventually affects each of us in one way or another. A sprained ankle represents a temporary state of disability. Aging introduces health conditions that may result in disability. But let me be very clear. Disability is not a problem – it’s a natural part of who we are. The way society fails to accept and normalize our existence is the problem.
Treat me like a human, like any other stranger you might see on the street. If you like someone’s hat, you don’t snatch it off their head. You compliment it, then ask where they got it. The man in the coffee shop could have easily handled our interaction in this way and avoided violating my right to not be touched unwillingly. Such is the life of a disabled person in contemporary society: objectified in the purest sense of the term. For this reason, we continue to fight for equal footing in our society, for the right to exist as full members like our able-bodied peers.