Why don’t you see us?

In a recent episode of Will and Grace called “So Long, Division”, Jack, the gay guy, was arguing with his boss, a black guy about which of them was more oppressed as a minority. Over time, the narrative built to include Latinos, Muslims, Asians, all arguing over who was more oppressed. A voice spoke up, and no one could work out where it came from. A door closed, and Jack thought it had closed by itself. It was closed by an elderly woman, the point being that seniors are so oppressed as a minority no one sees them. A witty way to bring the issues of minority groups to a wider audience .

But do you know which minority group wasn’t there at all?!? Disabled people! As the group grew larger and the arguments for who was the most oppressed continued I looked for one sign of a visible disability – never mind an invisible disability. There wasn’t a wheelchair, a prosthetic limb, a white cane – all of the typical representations of disability – in sight.

We are so invisible we didn’t even make it into a script about how oppressed – and invisible – minorities are!

I’m honoured to have been nominated for the Woman of the Year award for the City of Kelowna, and amazed and humbled to be in the final three. The awards are announced at a ceremony at the Kelowna Community Theatre. Once I read that, I knew what was coming next. My seats for the ceremony are on Row Z! Not only the last letter of the alphabet, but the last row of the theatre. And, either on the far right or the far left – have a look in the picture, and the red oval in the far right corner. What message does it send when the City says “congratulations, you’re been honoured for your work in Disability Advocacy! Now, go sit on the back row in a corner!” I stopped attending events at the theatre after I went to a Great Big Sea concert, where everyone stood for the whole concert and I couldn’t see a damn thing. This is a common theatre experience for anyone in a wheelchair. We pay the same as everyone else, but we have no choice over our seat, which are always at the back, at the side, with bad sight lines. But this is an award ceremony, where I should feel as valued as the other nominees, but I’m left feeling as an afterthought, the person stuck on the back row.

photo of seats in the auditorium with highlighting on the far right of the back row

Gaelynn Lea is a disabled singer and violinist, who uses a wheelchair. She tours and has arrived at many venues to find green rooms in the basement and stages with stairs. As she says, “Didn’t you look at a picture of me?” She expresses one of my concerns well, in this article in The Guardian “We’re good at remembering LGBTQ and people of colour and women in our policies, but we have to stop leaving disabilities out of the conversation.”

Think through the times you hear a politician talking about how they support inclusion, and want to stand up against those who discriminate on the basis of the colour of someone’s skin, their gender, who they choose to love, their religion. It seems like the list is getting longer and longer. Missing from the list? Disabled people. The word ableism, or that people are discriminated against on the basis of their ability. We are so invisible that the words to name the discrimination we face are not even well known.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. We need allies. We need non-disabled people to say that it’s not acceptable for us to be forgotten and to be stuck in a corner, physically and metaphorically. We need more people than just us to speak up and say that disabled people cannot be invisible anymore.