I am a magnet for kindness. Like the center of a black hole, my body attracts every good deed from across the expanse of the universe to the foot of my wheelchair. I move through parking lots and malls, farmers’ markets and airports, bookstores and buffets, and people scramble to my aid. They open doors and reach out their arms to help, they offer prayers, grab my handlebars for a push, watch over me, and hold out wads of cash.
Okay, so not every single person who comes within my orbit suddenly sprints to my service. There are plenty of people who don’t seem to notice me, and some people who are actually repelled by my magnet. They look down, pull their bag or their child closer to them, draw their legs up to their chest as I roll by. (Yeah, it doesn’t feel great.) But it’s the abundance of kindness that gets me all tangled. It’s the fly that won’t stop buzzing, won’t hold still long enough for me to swat it, won’t die.
It’s harmless, really. What damage can a tiny fly do? But then why do I feel like tearing down the house every time I hear its familiar buzz? And here’s the real nasty cherry on top of the fly: more than any other subject I write about, people do not like what I have to say about the complications of kindness. Because how could kindness be anything but good? What do I possibly want from the people if not kindness? And really, what kind of ungrateful hag must I be to complain about people trying to do nice things for me??? I’ve talked enough with folks to know—this conversation is uncomfortably disruptive.
As a culture, Americans are pretty well convinced that disability is something they’ve figured out. In fact, this was a puzzle solved years ago. How could ableism exist when we’ve memorized the rules? Don’t say the R-word; don’t make fun; disability doesn’t define anyone; just try to be helpful; and the rule that guides them all: Be kind. I’ve seen so many people perform these creeds in one form or another.
Like the folks who try to do me a favor by keeping me separate from this disabled body of mine: All I see when I look at you is a beautiful woman. I don’t even notice your wheelchair! I don’t think of you as disabled. It’s meant as a kindness, but it feels like erasure. These words handpicked to soothe the wounds of disability are weapons themselves, reinforcing the deep-seated belief that beauty and value can’t coexist with the deviations we all know I embody.
I think I understand how it happens: If you live in a community where disability is framed as tragic, sad, and inferior, then claiming not to see that so-called defect feels like a favor. We try to extract the disability from the person, because we think disability is ugly, and the rules tell us that this separation is nice. But do we attempt to extract thinness, Ivy League education, or wealth from a person? Of course not. We see these characteristics as inherently positive. Maybe individuals hold on to these features as part of their identity, maybe they don’t, but as a culture, we don’t take it upon ourselves to graciously inform people that we see past their fit bodies, fancy diplomas, and piles of cash. There is no urgency to ignore thinness, no discomfort in recognizing education, no knee-jerk desire to erase wealth. Deep within our cultural understanding of what it means to be a human with a body, we position disability below ability and at odds with health, beauty, wholeness, success, and happiness. But I don’t need my paralyzed legs to be erased in order for me to be seen as able, healthy, beautiful, whole, successful, or happy.
Time and time again, people in my life and readers of my work become uncomfortable with, ruffled by, and hostile to the stories I share about sitting on the receiving end of “kindness.” Maybe it’s because so many of us claim “kindness” as one of the most important qualities a human can possess. Disrupting our understanding of kindness is a direct threat to our sense of self and understanding of the world around us. But as a veteran Kindness Magnet, I’ve found people’s attempts to Be Kind can be anything from healing to humiliating, helpful to traumatic. It’s complicated.