Chuck Aoki has used a wheelchair for most of his life and he’s heard plenty of remarks from strangers over the years, but there was something about the way the guy in the grocery store pointed at him that felt different.
It happened a few weeks ago when Aoki, a member of the U.S. wheelchair rugby team, was out picking up a few things. He heard the guy near him griping and complaining about something to his friend, then he pointed at Aoki and said, “See? I could have it worse.”
“Now I consider myself fairly thick skinned, I try not to let things get to me,” Aoki shared in a Twitter thread about the incident. “But this hit me like a ton of bricks.”
Around the same time, Paralympic swimmer Mallory Weggemann was also in a grocery store when a complete stranger came out of nowhere and said to her, “It must be so miserable to live life like that,” as he gestured to her body and her wheelchair.
The man in the grocery store with Aoki didn’t know that he was a two-time Paralympic medalist, or a Ph.D. student, or that he’s surrounded by loving family and friends, Aoki wrote. He only saw the wheelchair and assumed his life must be awful.
Neither did the man who spoke to Weggemann know that she, too, was a two-time Paralympic medalist who entered the Paralympic Games Rio 2016 as the world record holder in 10 different events, or that she’s happily married, or that she delivered the keynote address to the United Nations for the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. How could he? He’d never met her. He only saw the chair.
Aoki and Weggemann both took to social media to share what happened with the hopes of calling out ableist language and behavior and making others aware of just how pervasive the belief is in society that someone with a disability is somehow less than and deserving of pity.
Or, as Weggemann wrote on Instagram, “Our next generation needs to know that regardless of our perceived differences we are all alike — we all deserve to be seen rather than dismissed by a one-liner in the grocery store.”
The comments people make are rarely intended to be hurtful, Aoki said. Often times people believe they’re paying a compliment, when in actuality what they’re saying is demeaning.
“The classic one is along the lines of, ‘I don’t know how you manage to do this; I’m so impressed,’” Aoki said. “It comes from a well-meaning place but it’s this very basic idea that, ‘What you’re going through is something really bad and you’re suffering and I should pity you.’ It comes from a basis of, ‘You poor thing, you’re amazing for overcoming this horrible obstacle,’ when in reality it’s really not a horrible obstacle.’”
Impressed with what Aoki does on the field of play? That’s fine. People telling him he’s an inspiration for how hard he trains and works in order to help the U.S. compete at the highest level is a compliment.
Telling him he’s an inspiration for leaving his house to buy laundry detergent at Target is not.
Essentially, Aoki said, if it’s not something you would say to an able-bodied person you shouldn’t say it to someone with a disability.
“Would you walk up to a random person at a store and say, ‘Wow, it’s incredible to see you shopping today’?” he said. “No. You wouldn’t do that. You’re going out of your way to say something because you believe that person has something wrong with them and that something different is negative and what you’re seeing is not normal.”
Weggemann’s default approach when someone says something offensive is to smile and give them the benefit of the doubt that they’re not trying to be hurtful. However, some comments rankle her to the core.
There was the woman on the plane last summer, for example. Weggemann was traveling home from a training camp and her first flight arrived a bit late so she missed pre-boarding for her connecting flight. When she got to her row on the plane the woman already seated there suggested that next time she may want to plan better “so that people wouldn’t have to see this,” Weggemann said.
“It was just one of those things, one of those aha moments, that we still have a level of ignorance in our society even though it’s 2020 and we’re close to celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act,” she said. “I think that as Para athletes we’re in this bubble where we’re celebrated for our incredible athletic achievements and what our bodies can do, but when we come out of that and into society we realize we’re still not where we should be. I’ve just found my voice and I want to use it and share so that people really step back and think about it and change the conversation about how we act around individuals with disabilities.”
Some people ask why she’s in a wheelchair, Weggemann said, without even stopping to think that they could be asking a person to recount his or her worst day to a stranger in the middle of the condiment aisle on a Tuesday. Others try to make themselves feel more comfortable by trying to relate, which often turns into a story about how someone they knew was once in a wheelchair for a week.
Still others are completely surprised to learn she is doing the same things able-bodied people do, like the man who once asked Weggemann about the ring on her finger.
“I said, ‘That’s my wedding ring,’ and he said, ‘You’re even married!’” she said. “I’m smiling because I try not to come off bitter or combative and I hope that maybe at the end of the conversation to change his perception and educate him on his ignorance, and he proceeds to tell me how incredible of my husband to sacrifice his future to follow his heart.”
That doesn’t happen every day, Weggemann said, but often enough that when she’s on the starting block at a race one of the reasons why she’s there is to show others, especially kids with disabilities, what’s possible.
“It’s about how you can put a voice to it to counter that so when people like the guy in the grocery store or the woman on the airplane make their comments it’s a reflection of them, not a reflection of you, and it’s not a reflection of what you’re worth or what you’re capable of or what you’ll accomplish,” she said.
Aoki said the reaction to what he posted was overwhelmingly positive, for which he was grateful, and he was heartened by the people who called it informative. That was the goal, he said.
“A lot of people in society don’t realize how ingrained ableist thoughts and actions can be,” Aoki said. “If it can teach just a couple people to be a little more thoughtful and cautious with their words, that was the goal. And it seemed like that was the case.”