Violating stay-at-home orders directly harms Disabled folks, but what else is new?
The numbers of dead bodies piling up mean nothing to these people because they'll be okay. Because they aren't a part of high-risk groups.
Content Warning: Ableism, Car Accident, Death and Discrimination
by Dominique Alexander McPhearson
I’m in my room watching old NBA highlights, since the NBA, along with the rest of the country, is on lockdown.
Quarantine doesn’t bother me as much as it seems to bother other people. After an accident left me paralyzed from the chest down, I’ve found ways to avoid crowds and I feel no pull to gather around others as a need for socialization. Parks, museums, movie theaters, and botanical gardens are what I miss now.
Society isolated and sectioned me off as soon as I became differently-abled. I can’t visit the mall without kids staring at me, wondering if I’ll transform into their favorite action figure. Adults gawk at me asking themselves how the young man got into the wheelchair. Perhaps the worst part is how people assume I’m helpless and ask (or presume) I need assistance when none has been requested. People don’t directly communicate with me and I’m largely ignored, as if me and my chair are invisible but they still make reference to us both.
Days ago, when the pandemic was in the beginning stages, I visited the grocery store with my fiancé. The store wasn’t overly crowded, nor were people as cautious as they are now, sporting gloves and masks as daily accessories. I sat in line and waited for my fiancé, who had the shopping cart, to come back from grabbing cheese. There were two older women ahead of me waiting to check out.
Another woman, let’s call her Amanda, came up behind me and started to wait in line, toting two containers of broth in hand. A surgical mask covered her mouth and nose but didn’t hide her impatient wandering eyes. Less than a minute passed when she spoke and asked the woman in front of me if I was in line with her.
I answered with an emphatic no. While I am perfectly equipped to respond to Amanda’s inquiry, she assumed I was too helpless to answer her question.
Amanda, shocked that the man in the chair spoke for himself, replied with a statement of defiance, claiming if my fiancé did not come back within a reasonable time, she would take it upon herself to go in front of me. As she was telling me what she would do, she inched closer towards the conveyor belt– another attempt to display her superiority over my Disabled body. I’m confident if my 6-foot frame could stand, her tone would’ve been very different.
Nevertheless, I instinctively swung out my arm and drove my chair up to impede her progress. And like clockwork this woman who’d invaded my personal space because she didn’t feel the need to respect me, cried victim. She claimed my chair was a weapon, and said that if my chair hit her, she’d mace me in return.
An argument ensued and Amanda threatened to call the police. Though my fiancé came back three minutes later, it felt like an eternity as my heart rocked in my chest. Amanda repeatedly invaded my space and inched towards me. More people crowded around to watch and I thought each of them might harm me. After our verbal tussle ended, Amanda continued to talk about it with strangers within earshot of me.
“They can be just as rude as everybody else,” she said.
“They think they special.”
“They can’t just do whatever they want.”
If Amanda were a white woman, I would’ve chalked it up to racism. But she’s Black. And the entire situation made me wonder: Why and when did I become a they? Are we that much different from each other? We’re both Black folks who frequent the same grocery store. We might share a cousin in common. And yet, what she said and assumed about me hurt.
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Those words pushed me into a deeper state of loneliness and despair. It seems that no matter the circumstance, I find myself suffering because of the decisions and assumptions other people make about my Disabled body.
People make me anxious. It’s the main reason why I avoid them. I often find myself trying to escape out of my skin when I’m surrounded by strangers who are unsure of how to react to my presence. So, to avoid the haunting anxiety creeping down my spine, I self-isolate.
Like I said, distancing myself from other people during shelter-in-place is easy. But because I’m paralyzed, I need assistance in and out of the bed, which causes me to be around more people than I’d prefer. Today, I decided to lock myself in my room as I waited until nighttime to get back into bed.
While in my room, a notification popped up on my screen screaming that the United States officially passed all other countries in the world with 10,000+ deaths from Coronavirus. My chest constricted, tightening to the point where I struggled for breath. In the past few months my anxiety attacks have been occurring more frequently as the number of people infected with the disease increases.
I have quadriplegia and after barely surviving a near-fatal car accident, I’m hyper-aware of the different ways I could die. Anxiety attacks my mind anytime I get into a vehicle. Any swing, any swerve kicks my hairs into upright positions. Anything can trigger me spiraling towards thoughts of an untimely death by someone else’s hands.
Because of my quadriplegia, it’s difficult for me to cough without assistance, and it makes me more susceptible to lung-attacking diseases like the coronavirus. I am a part of the group who’s most at risk if I was to become infected with it.
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I take all the extra precautions – wearing gloves and masks, hand washing, sanitizing surfaces, increasing my vitamin intake, etc. But it’s infuriating when other people around the nation continue to party and congregate in public spaces with no protection as if we’re not in the middle of a pandemic. As if asymptomatic people can’t pass the disease to scores of other people. All because they have cabin fever from being in the house. The numbers of dead bodies piling up mean nothing to these people because they’ll be okay. Because they aren’t a part of the high-risk groups.
I want to know what happened to us. When we talk about community, who do we mean? When did the safety of people like me become inconsequential when it comes at the price of seeing friends and attending events?
I don’t expect everyone to prioritize my safety at all times, especially because folks sit idly by as police officers escape jail time for murdering Black people. I do assume, however, that the people I’m surrounded with daily will take caution.
I’m learning that this bare minimum assumption is lofty and unrealistic because no one really cares about Disabled people. My parents are still having get-togethers during stay-at-home orders. My aid, whom I’ve asked to wear a mask for safety, conveniently forgets to bring it or wears it improperly.
No matter what precautions I take, I am not safe. We are not safe. We can make attempts to protect ourselves but they’re all undermined when people defy the rules of quarantine. I feel like a slave to choices other people make. I’m locked in my room right now because I’m trying to ensure my safety in a world that does not care. This dog eat dog world is killing Disabled people and we deserve more than this.
Dominique Alexander is from Decatur, GA. He was paralyzed at 19 and after almost dying, writing found him at the darkest of times.