On April 12, the Washington Post published a questionnaire designed to show readers if they hold ableist assumptions. However, the questions reveal their authors’ own prejudices about matters of love and death.
Throughout, for reasons explained in my post “Disability and Censorship,” I will freely use the terms “disabled” and “nondisabled.”
Here’s “Scenario 5” of the ableism questionnaire and the three multiple-choice options:
You see someone on a dating app who is attractive and shares your interests. Then you realize they have a physical disability. What do you do?
1. Be honest with yourself if you don’t think you can date someone with a disability
2. Ask them on a date and see where it goes
3. You realize this person has probably been rejected by others and decide to go on a date
In order to read the answers that the article’s authors deem correct, I’d need to subscribe, which I don’t wish to. However, it takes no special intuition to recognize that the questionnaire’s designers view the first suggested answer, accept that you don’t wish to date anyone with a physical disability, as bad. But is it really wrong to balk on finding that a prospective date has a physical disability?
Fairness is, and should be, obligatory in education, employment, healthcare, transportation, and a host of other areas. However, laws barring interracial or same-sex marriage have rightly been overturned. Disability activists have no more right than racists and homophobes to tell people how they should handle amorous relationships.
I don’t subscribe to “All is fair in love and war.” However, choosing a date is not about being fair. It’s about finding the right person. It’s about ME ME ME! Yes, after you get to know someone, you ought to be fair to them, too. Fairness comes into play only then, although it could be as soon as an agreement to meet for a drink. Until then, our obligations to anyone listed on an app are zero.
Rejecting a dating candidate because of their physical disability is no more arbitrary than doing so because of their hair color, height, accent, or the many other features that influence us, for better or worse, in matters romantic. These factors don’t necessarily speak well of us human beings; one could say they undermine the whole feel-good aura around romance. On the other hand, romance can also be about unlikely unions. A lovely tall woman marries a shorter man who is merely cute. A professor and a plumber find themselves attracted to each other. And yes, a man who runs five miles every day falls in love with a charming wheelchair-using woman.
No question, being rejected because of one’s disability can be upsetting. In my long-ago dating days, I was on the wrong end of this scenario several times, once explicitly. I took the momentous step of placing an ad in the Village Voice’s personals in which I made no reference to my disability. In that pre-email and texting era, My Village Voice mailbox got several letters in response. After a lively conversation on the phone with one respondent, I told her I was blind. Silence. Then she said she couldn’t handle a relationship with a blind man at this point in her life. In the moment, I stayed calm, but after hanging up I was incensed. Time passed. A few weeks later, I heard from her again. She wrote to ask if I was the guy with the white cane standing at the intersection of Eighth Avenue and 58th Street at a certain time one afternoon. She’d been in a car waiting at the traffic light. She must have thought I was about the only blind person in the whole of the City of New York. Yet it happened that I had been waiting to cross 58th Street at that moment. I called to tell her, yes, it had probably been me, and I asked if she was now ready to meet. No, she replied. She’d just been curious. I was furious all over again. But I soon realized my good fortune. She’d revealed herself as a manipulating control freak, someone I’d want nothing to do with.
I recognize that today, it’s easy for me to take this position because my dating days are long since past, and I’m happily married. Still, even back then, I would have hated a woman to have dated me for reasons connected with my disability.
For the record, that ad led to at least three dates, one of which resulted in a relationship that lasted six months. Stories for another day.
I’ll dispose of Scenario 5’s third option next: this person has probably been rejected by others and you decide to go on a date. What a terrible place from which to start. You’d be acting on pity. You’d likely end up patronizing your date, and the relationship would go downhill from there. I assume, and certainly hope, that the questionnaire’s designers deemed this option unacceptable.
No doubt the “correct” answer is deemed to be “Ask them on a date and see where it goes.” But doesn’t this one also risk patronization? Suppose that in lieu of a physical disability, the questionnaire had inquired about attitudes toward political opponents. Scenario 5 and this middle option would read as follows:
You see someone on a dating app who is attractive and shares your interests. Then you realize their politics are extreme and are diametrically opposed to yours. What do you do?
2. Ask them on a date and see where it goes.
If a prospective date avowed political views opposed to mine, should I feel the least obligation to see them? None whatsoever. Maybe even best for everyone’s mental health that I avoid an exchange that might well end with one wishing the other a slow death. I’d go on such a date only if I had some weird curiosity about what it might be like to share precious time with someone who held hateful views, e.g., a Nazi memorabilia-collecting, election-denying conservative or a hard-edged, uncompromising ultra-woke liberal. Most of us would rightly reject this option out of hand with no qualms.
Many sensitive people would have qualms about turning down a prospective date due to their physical disability. This goes to what I believe is a false assumption underlying the notion of “ableism.” Many, many nondisabled people get involved on any number of levels with physically disabled people. It could be as friends, as office colleagues, as assistants, as fellow artists, even as romantic partners. It’s true that, initially, many nondisabled people don’t know how to go about it. Here is where disabled people should be willing to take the lead or to join their new acquaintance in making things work.
To come at this process not with an understanding of how relationships begin and develop, but with rules, is a disservice to both disabled and nondisabled people. The answer to Scenario 5 should be: When assessing dating prospects, do what feels good and right for you.
Here’s one more scenario from the Post article, this one number 3:
You’re making medical decisions for a friend with life-threatening injuries but no advance directive. How would you advise doctors?
1. Ask for lifesaving measures in all situations except brain death.
2. Ask for lifesaving measures except in the case of paralysis from the neck down.
3. Ask for lifesaving measures except in the case of a brain injury and cognitive disability.
Having lost my vision at the age of thirteen, I can attest that even though blindness has real drawbacks, it needn’t prevent one from leading a fulfilling life. But what about someone who cannot move, speak or otherwise communicate? No doubt each of us can imagine one or more disabilities that we’d consider intolerable.
Also, it’s one thing to be born with a disability or to become disabled at an early age, but quite another to lose an ability when we’re elderly and our learning capacity might be diminished. Can we be confident that we’ll adapt enough to enjoy life? I’m not implying answers; only affirming that such questions are valid.
The dilemma at the root of Scenario 3 is whether life can cease to have value in some circumstances, and if the answer might be yes, who decides what those circumstances may be. The questionnaire’s wrinkle is that it’s a friend making the decision, not the patient. But a friend is likely to know or sense the patient’s feelings. Even if this friend doesn’t, it could be a genuine kindness to reject resuscitation under any circumstances. The risk would be that such a difficult decision could cause the friend lasting remorse. On the other hand, the other two proposed options could also lead to remorse.
The problem of end-of-life decisions has been debated for many years. Disability advocates see it as a life-and-death matter for the so-called disability community. It’s a valid concern. Hospital and other institutional staff have historically assigned less value to the lives of people who have physical, cognitive or emotional disabilities. Prejudice is real. It’s crucial that disabled people be perceived as equal before whichever God one worships or philosophical principle one adheres to.
My own view, which many disabled people contest, is that the only way disabled people will win anything like full accessibility and true equality is for more and more of us to get mainstream education, jobs and friends. As nondisabled people interact with those who have various disabilities, they’ll witness them not only surmount obstacles, but more importantly, lead fulfilling lives. In turn, their fears about living with disability might abate, and “Do not resuscitate” orders might become less frequent or draconian.
In any event, the answer to past and present institutional obduracy can’t be a blanket prohibition against allowing individuals to choose to go quietly into that dark night. Decisions about the circumstances under which to terminate life belong to the individual or the people close to them, not to institutions. Nor to disability advocates.
Love and death have unfairness in common. We may not choose to love; we definitely cannot choose to be loved. Love happens. So does death. But when love does happen, we can help make it work. And sometimes, when calamity arrives, we can manage how death happens. Disability advocates need to be as conscious of their assumptions as they contend nondisabled people should be of theirs.