It’s the hottest day in July, but it’s not
the sun that’s making me sweat. It’s a man.
I’m alone in a park and a grizzled,
smoking stranger in a dirty t-shirt is staring
at me. He’s shifty. Nervous. Standing in the
grass off to my left. Staring when he thinks
I’m not looking. Shifting his gaze when I do.
With my computer out on the picnic table,
and my phone beside it, he could easily
grab both. He could grab me before I could
pull myself to my feet and take even three
steps with my walker.
My fingers shake too much to keep
typing. Can I pack up without him noticing?
Of course not. I do slip my phone into
my waistband, when he’s eying my car. It’s
parked off to my right, as close as I could
get it to the picnic table. Exactly twenty
steps away for me. Maybe twice that for
him. I decide this: it’s better to be mugged,
or mugged and assaulted, while trying to
escape, than it is to be a wounded sitting
duck, waiting to be hurt again.
I slip my computer into my bag, zip it up
and stand up. He frowns.
I grab my walker. The brakes release
like gunfire. He jumps toward me.
I aim for my car, trying to gage the exact moment when I’ll be safe. At half way, could he still reach me? Absolutely. I open my back door. He has time. I throw my walker into the back seat. Plenty of time.
Over my shoulder, I see him coming. I grab my door handle. He’s behind me. Panicked, panting, I launch myself into the driver’s seat and punch the lock on my door.
He’s in my rear view mirror.
He’s sitting at my spot at the picnic table, calmly finishing his cigarette.
I’m 63. I’m both disabled and chronically ill, born with congenital defects in both feet, complicated by osteo arthritis. Like many senior women, I live alone and on the poverty line. I’m four-foot-ten and weigh twice what I should. Carbs are cheap. In eroding mobility and unrelenting pain, my life in the world shrinks a little more every day. And here is my equal dilemma in my every moment on planet earth: I do not know if I am reasonably alert given my so obviously vulnerable state, or if I am unnecessarily fearful. I can’t tell if I’m a responsibly cautious disabled senior, or a ridiculously paranoid, so very-lame and pathetic, little old lady.
The statistics don’t help. I know disabled people are twice as likely to be assaulted as abled people. I know disabled senior women face the highest risk of all. But I tell myself that hiding from life is no life at all. I’m a writer; I should be able to find rational words to calm myself down. I’m a CanLit activist fighting for accessibility in the literary community; I have a responsibility to be seen as strong. Ironically, it is the very open pride with which I claim being a disability activist that makes it harder to admit and share my concerns about my mental health. Over the last three decades, as disabled people built community and demanded justice, we began rejecting the traditional model of disability, the medical model, which says that it’s our “defects,” our “impairments,” our “abnormal bodies,” that disable us. Instead, we embrace the social model of disability, which holds that it’s not our disabled bodies that are the problem. The real problem is ableism: society’s systematic normalizing and rewarding of abled people, and the “othering” and marginalization of disabled people. Abled privilege requires disabled punishment. Inaccessible buildings built by abled people for abled people, continue to ensure that the abled 80% of the planet continues to benefit from banning the 20% who are disabled. In return for the advantages of ableist privilege, abled folks willingly swallow the enmeshed lies of capitalism and colonialism: that the only worthy bodies are working bodies, dominant white bodies, male bodies, productive bodies, young, healthy bodies that reproduce workers and generate capital.
Thanks to the social model, the disabled community has reasserted the worth of disabled bodies. We reclaim the word disabled with disabled pride. Disability is not negative, or
pitiable, or inferior, or shameful. Disabled people are not burdens. A disabled life is a valid, complicated, worthy, human life. The disability community is fully intersectional,
includes all genders, geographies, classes, races, ethnicities, nationalities, ages, sexualities, cultures and beliefs.
We embody the endless diversities of struggle and joy.
But there’s the trap: given how ready I know the world is to see little old me as a burden, as fragile, as childlike, as needing the care and assistance of big, strong, younger, abled folks, I sometimes feel like I’m betraying my disabled community to
admit that, yes, I am often fragile. I get so very tired, that I often need help. Needing help feels infantilizing, feels a step closer to death. But I hold back from telling even close friends and loved ones that I’m anxious and depressed, because I know they’ll pull out this ableist trope, “Well, of course, you’re upset and defeated. You’re bloody disabled, for heaven’s sake!” I absolutely don’t want to hear one more “friend” tell me that they would kill themselves if they were me. This is not an unusual event. It’s the casually brutal ableist “help” disabled people hear every day.
How do I claim the right to grieve my degenerating body, without fueling that
negative stereotype? I have worked hard all my life to avoid admitting my pain. After multiple childhood surgeries, I walked unassisted until my forties. I walked through one marriage, two children, one divorce, and three decades as a teacher and union activist. In my fifties, I needed a crutch. Then two crutches. Then a walker. Today, for any outing of more than a block, I need someone to push me in my wheelchair. As I age, I age disabled. As my energy and mobility shrink, there are increasingly things I cannot do. Like my laundry. Like making my bed. Like dressing myself and brushing my hair. Like wiping my bum.
As life leaves me, my grief grows. With each passing week, I lose something else.
I can’t get used to the loss before I lose something else again. I’m increasingly barred from stores, concerts, restaurants, literary festivals, and the homes of most of my friends. I’ve never seen my son’s apartment; it’s up a flight of stairs.
As these losses accumulate, as I absorb each new punch, I bounce back and forth between fury and despair. The fury I can share openly. Activists are expected to be angry. The despair I have always kept private. I know self-silencing is unhealthy; I know it’s the stigma of internalized ableism that makes me ashamed of my disabled despair, but I am still ashamed.
When you age as an activist, when you look in the mirror and need to see a proudly disabled little old lady, the pressure to be seen as independent, to stubbornly refuse help, is overwhelming. It feels like a capitulation to the medical model to admit that my pain is debilitating. Because pain is not imposed by ableist society. It is not a social construct.
Pain is my every breath. Despite surgery and meds, it cannot be cured. It most definitely cannot be changed by activism, by rallies, Twitter campaigns, accessibility initiatives, and human rights legislation. To best defend my community, I know I must be more open about my mental health. I know I have to learn to say this out loud: “Yes, here at the intersection of ageism and ableism, the impairments of chronic pain are a problem. I need help.”
But I can’t say it. Not yet. It makes me feel like a traitor.
I’m back in the park a week later, when another man shows up.
This one has clean, fashionable clothes and doesn’t smoke. He’s blonde, blue-eyed, and considerably younger. He comes right up to me smiling. My 1950’s programing as a nice girl makes me read him as a nice boy. I smile back. And he says, “Gimps really do it for me.” He tugs on his fly. “Wanna watch me cum all over your walker?”
I get away this time too. But I wonder how many more times I will do so?
Men in parks have power over me, not because I cede it to them, but because the world gives it to them. It’s material, not a matter of attitude. Misogyny, ableism, and ageism—they are the three ropes that braid the tether my life. My curtailment fuels their strength, empowers their entitlement. The power of strange men in parks is not strange. It’s the norm.
Welcome to rape culture in the daily life of a disabled senior woman.
But I’m lame. I’m old and so very lame. So please don’t tell anyone I complained. ♦