Thursday, 3 November 2011

When a "Token" and an "Activist" Is the Same Thing

"Token" and "Activist"

Something that I wrote in a comment the other day got me thinking.

I've never felt awkward about being the only person with disabilities in a group, or the "token disabled person", if you will). I credit this to my experiences with people with disabilities before the stroke, telling people that they had the right to try whatever they want, and to having a support system that really encouraged me the same way after I had my stroke. I've definitely been aware that I've been the only one in groups like writing circles, meetings, or my ballet class with a visible disability, but the disability is rarely my biggest worry. So I'd never really considered, until I commented on it earlier this week, that when someone with a visible disability is *the* person with a disability in an organized activity, they're automatically an ambassador for the rest of us...whether they like it or not.  And if a person's invisible disabilities are known to everyone in the group, and they're the only one who has them, the same applies.

Automatic Activists

It's a big responsibility, and not everyone asks for it. Sometimes people just want to go to an activity and enjoy it, without the pressure of having to represent everyone like them.

I don't think that humans deliberately regard people like this. It's not meant to be hurtful. I don't think we're even aware that we're doing it most of the time, and I probably do it myself. Perhaps it's one of those "short-cuts" that the brain uses to categorize people, much like stereotyping. I think that we're certainly able to rise beyond a bad impression of one person and not generalize it to everyone else, if we choose.

I just think, for people struggling to come to terms with especially acquired disabilities, it can be another layer of learning to deal with large-group social interaction that we don't necessarily anticipate. I didn't come out of the hospital ready to embrace activism, through my words or my writing or by being the token disabled person in an activity. I just wanted to get back to a point where I was feeling well enough in my new life to get back to feeling like me.

Activist on My Own Terms

But I wasn't "me" anymore, was I? I was "me" in a wheelchair..."me" with a cane..."me with a weak arm...but not the "me" who had gone into the hospital for surgery.

It took me a while to realize that the new version of me was okay. And then accepting everything that came along with it, and then celebrating it, was okay.

But I do understand why some people are never comfortable in activities where they are the token disabled person.

Can you think of other groups that might be uncomfortable when members are the "token member" in a group?

1 comment:

  1. Oh Sarah I love your blog!!! You are so thought provoking and insightful; so tender in your regard of others. This might be my favourite of your posts. I think about this too, in my mind I have named myself as one of these people a "PR Person" or an "accidental advocate".

    Most often it has happened to me when I am in a group and I am the only out gay person or lesbian and suddenly strangers strike up conversations with me that invariably involve Martina Navratilova or Ellen, or questions about the size of k.d. lang's hands (gifted in lesbianland). I'm a pretty patient person and I try to be forgiving of their clumsy inquiries, I know that the people who open these subjects do so because they are curious and they, for some absurd reason, lead a life so sheltered that they don't meet lesbians anywhere... I also take it as a compliment because I have been deemed approachable enough to allow them to feel free to make inquiries.

    My particular line of argument in this area is that I am NOT defined by my sexual preference. I've been a lesbian for nearly 30 years and it is only a tiny facet of my complex entirety. (After 30 years it isn't even all that interesting... after all how often does a red head want to talk about having red hair?)
    Disability (not something I have fully accepted yet) is relatively new to me and my condition is mostly invisible so I have yet to be singled out by the hyper-curious strangers in this area. I imagine like being an unpaid PR person for all gay and lesbian people, it gets kind of boring after a while... but if we want people to understand we really need to make individual contributions to raising awareness and correcting misapprehensions.

    God, I am writing so much I should have blogged this myself LOL... I just want to say that the phrase in the previous paragraph "if we want people to understand" is really critical... is that what you or I or John Citizen wants? If you want to raise awareness and increase understanding are you such an "accidental" or "token" activist or advocate after all??? Perhaps there is nothing accidental or token about it? Perhaps we are activists just setting up our soap boxes wherever we find an audience? Perhaps it is our desire not theirs?

    Thank you for raising such an interesting topic!