Earlier today I had a new experience. I delivered an Autism Awareness training session from my flat. I’ve been writing and running training courses on autism for over a decade, but today was the first time I’d done so using technology to deliver the session from home. This came about due to the restrictions we are all currently experiencing, arising from the Coronavirus Pandemic, and it generated for me a list of thoughts about what went well, what went not so well, and what we might do differently next time. I’d thought I might write up this experience – envisaging a sort of “How To…” contribution to the growing body of literature about “remote” pedagogy that is understandably sprouting up in the fertile ground of Lockdown. I had thought that I’d share how we navigated technology across a range of different platforms with varying capacities for running the software we were using, and how we communicated with people who had little experience of using this technology to get them logged onto the session, while not being able to see what they could see on their version of the platform. I thought I might share how disconcerting it feels not being able to see people’s faces fully as I talked to them, and how odd it felt to have a bunch of strangers in my home. I might well write such an account if I feel I have things to add that haven’t already been written about online interaction in the circumstances in which we currently find ourselves.
But there is another aspect of my experience that I didn’t expect to affect me in the way it did. There is a part of working from home in this otherwise very “public” part of my various work roles that I hadn’t even considered in my preparation for this afternoon, and in my angst-riddled role-playing about all the myriad ways in which things might not go according to plan. And it is an experience that my mind is left turning over, and wondering what I do with it – and what I do about it.
Funnily enough, this particular experience was one of liberation. It happened when I realised, as the session began, and I started to talk, that the participants could only see my face. This mattered because, unlike in face-to-face sessions, this meant that they couldn’t see my wheelchair. These were all people (with the exception of my colleague who was facilitating the session) who hadn’t met me before. They knew me only as a one-inch by one-inch square on a screen, and that was such a liberating feeling. I hadn’t realised until then quite how exhausting it is holding all the feelings that result from being on the receiving end of the Able Gaze. Other visibly disabled people will know what I’m talking about (and I know other groups of visibly “different” people articulate similar phenomena). It can be the quick-look-and-look-away, as people go out of their way not to be caught staring. It can be people falling over themselves to make it clear that they don’t actually see the chair (what?). It’s the ways in which people make exaggerated hand gestures as you pass – waving you on. Or the distance people leave around you, as though you might run them down – and how parents shoot out their arms to protect you from their incoming children (or vice versa) – do they realise they are taking part in this commedia dell-arte? Or it’s the silent wall of wondering – when you don’t know what people are thinking: if they’re thinking some of the things that other people will come out and say – like “what’s wrong with you?”, or “how long have you been wheelchair-bound?” or “have you got a license for that?” or “wow, you really have a job?” or “do you have anyone with you?”. Or if it’s the more hostile thoughts – like the people who will appear to offer to “help” you, as an opportunity to try to grab your bag, or your boob. It’s the people who explain that people like you are scroungers – not you of course. Just people like you. It’s the exhaustion of being constantly seen – until it comes to a time when it would be good if people did actually see, or think about, people like us; or factor in our concerns into their planning and shaping of society. Then we are very much not seen. The paradox of hyper-visible invisibility.
Anyway, this afternoon, sitting at home in front of my computer – none of these aspects of the Able Gaze was getting at me. I was an inch square in a grey box – just like everyone else. I even had to make verbally explicit that I was a wheelchair-user when it was relevant to a point I was making. It was a powerful experience. And the particularly striking thing is that while I knew I noticed all of those phenomena, I hadn’t appreciated quite how much of my time is spent adjusting for the ways in which they dart through my mind. And I hadn’t realised quite how very exhausting it is.
And then I thought, for just a very little while – wouldn’t it be heavenly to be able to work like this all the time! Wouldn’t it be lovely to be free of the Able Gaze! And then I got angry. Because why on earth should I retreat like that? We may all be experiencing the circumscribing of our opportunities to take up social space right now. But why should I be welcoming this as a longer-term solution to the un-expecting, uncomfortable, or hostile reactions to the fact that I navigate the world by wheels rather than legs? It is frankly terrifying how easy it is to succumb to, often seemingly benign, oppression – simply because it is the more comfortable solution. But that is unfair, and unjust. Enforced separateness is not equality. It never has been, and it never will be.
This experience has reminded me of the ways in which I share with many, many other individuals and social groups the discomfort, and the danger that goes with being visibly “different” – with daring to flaunt our transgression of society’s norms in society’s shared spaces. It has reminded me of how much work we have to do, before society is a truly safe and equal space. And it has also warned me of how very easy it is to settle for “separate” – when in fact, nothing other than equal should be acceptable to us. Ever.