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Cane You Not? Navigating the Able-Bodied Gaze as a Newly Disabled Woman

A year and half ago, an imperceptible neck injury led to a few strokes that drastically changed pretty much everything in my life from my employment trajectory to my sweet new glasses to my burlesque career (on indefinite hiatus for retooling). I also now walk with a cane, which – unless I’m trying to carry things while walking my dog – I generally see as pretty neutral.

Others see it differently, though. I know this because I get looks of pity from people on the street. Some lady once cheered me on with a well-meaning “You can do it!” as I climbed the stairs at Wellesley station, and strangers regularly ask me why I have a cane. I’ve been called “hop along,” which is messed up. (I do get priority seating on the TTC, so I guess it’s not all bad.)

I deal with invasive interactions a lot. Usually I’ll either not answer, mumble something about my stroke, or very infrequently get emotional if someone is particularly insensitive. I spend my life in a near-permanent state of cat-like readiness for someone to provoke the brunt of the sassy one-liners I’ve accumulated over countless moments of esprit d’escalier, but I’ve yet to tell someone that it’s a staff and I’m actually a very important wizard, that I blew out my knee while engaging in particularly vigorous coitus with their mother, or improvise a rap about mobility aids/disability inspired by “None of Your Business” by Salt n Pepa.

I guess I just haven’t been presented with the ideal opportunity to be snarky. I’d also like to honest-to-goodness ask somebody why they think it’s okay to ask a stranger about their cane. Maybe they’d gain knowledge, but I can’t think of a scenario where that wouldn’t be super uncomfortable/ kinda sad.

I’m trying to understand my reactions better, so why does it make me feel bad?

Well, I’m 29 and was able-bodied prior to the strokes. I was not expecting this. Very few of us are! The world is not made for the disabled, and it definitely doesn’t make it easy for disabled people to move through life feeling attractive and powerful, which are two of my favourite things. Before my strokes, I had complicated feelings around being a fat-but-still-disproportionately-busty femme experiencing frequent cat calling, come-ons, and other behaviours from people indicating they felt entitled to my time, energy, and body. I don’t miss cat calling – I didn’t like that part – but I do notice how drastically things have shifted.

The thing is, it’s not that I’m invisible and free to live my life unencumbered by watchful eyes – I’ve just traded in being subject to the male gaze for the able-bodied gaze. It feels less lecherous and more pitying. There’s the same feeling of people looking at me, but it’s more sad than sinister. There are still moments where I’m actively concerned about sexual violence. Honestly, I find myself feeling afraid for a different reason: I’m a slow-moving target now. While I use my cane really well for self-defense in my fear-based fantasies, I’d more likely fall over if I tried to wield it.

People still feel a sense of entitlement to comment on my body, it’s just now equal opportunity and automatically pokes at my most vulnerable areas. Not only am Iothered” and having my differences clearly pointed out to me, but I’m also reminded of a terrifying experience every time. I’m sure folks assume I twisted my ankle tripping over my cat in a charmingly befuddled clumsy manic pixie dream girl kind of way, so they’re not TRYING to re-traumatize me, but they sort of do. It reminds me that I will probably always be sick, and visibly so. That doesn’t feel great.

Part of my issue with the cane is that it’s read as geriatric. I recently had a wonderful bro-out with an old man at the corner store wherein we discussed the merits of wood versus aluminum canes. Sometimes I feel a real temptation to shake my cane at people. I don’t have a lawn, but if I did, those darn kids should get off it. But there are other elements, too: I can’t wear high heels, chronic post-stroke fatigue means I rarely have the energy to dress up and do the things that make me feel put together, and I’m just generally missing the feeling of entitlement to take up space and be read in the way I used to be. Again, not to be hit on by randoms, but to feel the embodiment of sexiness that used to be an important aspect of my life.

I’m working on it. I am trying to make my cane sexy to myself and find new ways to feel elegant, smooth and attractive physically as well as in other ways. Engaging with disability and using mobility aids is deeply personal. Sometimes it’s really challenging. Other times it’s really easy to lean into an alternative way of being beautiful. I lean naturally now, anyway. But do you know what makes it a whole lot harder to achieve? When people look at me sorrowfully, use pick-up artist tactics to neg me about my disability, or yell “CAAAAAAANE GIIIIIRL” at me as I walk down the street.

I’ll close with a note to well-meaning folks who are curious, want to start conversations, learn something, and maybe even comfort a disabled person in the process: please do not do it like this. Start conversations with people you know who consent to these discussions. Learn by Googling or by going to the library. Know that your comfort to people with disabilities will rarely if ever come in the form of unsolicited interrogation from strangers in public. Do the work on your own, let me figure things out on my own, and don’t make it weird.

8 Comments

  1. GwendolynMiller
    January 14, 2017

    I bought a really beautiful artsy cane that makes me feel fancy and sexy and I named it Frederick, a la Fredericks of Hollywood! Also a 29-year-old recently disabled woman. ❤️

  2. Lee Hyphen Anne
    January 14, 2017

    I have had a recent onset of symptoms from osteoarthritis that gives me a geriatric limp that I get asked about all the time. In a busy office, I definitely got snarky with well-meaning commenters. This piece spoke to me.

  3. JayMEilers
    January 15, 2017

    Good start to the discussion. I wish this woman the best on retooling her performance career in burlesque.

  4. Esdras01
    January 24, 2017

    Let me start by saying I’m an Asperger, I’m married to an Asperger who is also disabled due to an auto-immune disorder, and we have a beautiful, bright, and happy daughter who is also autistic. I consider us fortunate that we’re all from a small town in the rural southeastern USA, where everyone knows everyone and everyone is friendly wherever you go. Of the three of us I’m probably the most “outgoing” and comfortable traveling to places I’ve never been and talking to people that I don’t know. (I wasn’t always this comfortable, however, but living where I do I eventually learned to) I googled Wellesley station and TTC from your article and it would seem that you are in Toronto, Canada. I guess what I’m really curious about is whether folks in Toronto are accustomed to speaking with “strangers” on a whim, or prefer everyone just keep to themselves. I can understand not wanting people to start a conversation with you where you and your cane are the topic. But if someone you don’t know were to look you in the eyes and say “Good morning. Beautiful sunrise, ain’t it?” would you be open to non-personal conversation, or would you just prefer they don’t?

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    January 26, 2017

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  6. RhoCassio
    January 26, 2017

    I suppose in some ways I’m lucky that my reasons for using a cane starting age 20 are the sort which make ablebodied people shut up.

    I got hit by a car. 
    And my god does that make people pull really funny faces and shut up when I say it. But even though I’m reasonably comfortable with airing my reasons for using a cane, I shouldn’t have to.

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