As disabled people, we need to struggle to survive and thrive in a society that works so hard to pull us down. To Take Up Space was an alien concept for me growing up. To take up space entails walking (or wheeling) and in my case, limping into every room in an attempt to belong there. It is understanding one’s own reality and sticking by it, not allowing other people to overtake my own narrative that is so rightfully mine. It is being unapologetic and believing in your existence. For the longest time, I’ve allowed other people to speak on my behalf, to take my decisions for me, be it in minor things like speaking boldly in class, or allowing the other person to dictate how I feel in a relationship. To Take Up Space is not only an alien concept for the disabled community, but also for other marginalised communities. We are always born feeling like we don’t really belong wherever we go, we face hostility, abuses, entitled behavior that no one apologises for, made to feel less than, made to feel like an outsider, shunned, yelled at and made to feel like second class citizens.
Be it a simple incident – At a restaurant, when it’s time to pay the bill, the waitperson hands over the bill to the male instead of the woman. Or non-disabled people speaking over us, if it’s at the dining table or tone policing us, telling us what we should be called instead of asking us what we want to be called.
To Take Up Space is about feeling empowered, being sure of your decision, being damn sure that you belong and that you were destined to be. It takes confidence and power to walk into a room and believe in the heart of hearts that you belong there. This confidence takes years to build, when one faces everyday-discrimination in the form of ableism, when everyday one is reminded that no matter what we do, who we become, how much we achieve, we will always be looked at as different. In the case of a disabled person, uninformed and indifferent non-disabled folks will continue to perceive us as helpless, in need of help in everything we do, someone who is non-desirous, has no sexual needs, has no life, cannot engage in sexual relations, cannot be promiscuous, or casual, because imagine if a disabled woman were to engage in casual sex with strangers!
There’s no hookup culture for disabled people. If a non-disabled person decides to marry a disabled person it’ll be seen as a huge favour that they are doing, to the disabled person and their family as who would ever choose to marry a disabled person, someone who’s perceived as being incapable – incapable of reproduction, incapable of a successful life that they carve out for themselves, incapable of being seen as sexual beings. This is contrary to everything that a cis-het, non-disabled, upper-caste, upper-class man is seen as: successful, “sexy”, marriageable, wealthy. The Indian marriage scene is incredibly ableist and has several other faults but for now let’s just focus on ableism – Indian parents want an able-bodied, tall, fair, skinny “bahu” for their entitled sons. A woman who is capable of reproduction, and physically fit to execute housework. They don’t want someone who questions the regressive system, or is “flawed” in any other tangible, conventional ways. Indian matrimony services are filled with these regressive values that have carried on since centuries.
All the while, these sons have been taught since a very young age that they deserve the very best. They have been conditioned to believe that they belong to every room that they walk into: they are taught that to Take Up Space is their right. That is something that womxn, minorities and the marginalised communities are taught to feel guilty and intimidated about. The truth is, wherever we go, someone or the other is going to judge us, dislike us, not want us to be there. All we can do is believe in ourselves, and believing in ourselves is a process that might take a lifetime to do, especially after we’ve been taught and conditioned to believe that we need to try hard, so hard to succeed. And even then, we fall back just a little bit just because we were born in the wrong gender or were diagnosed with a chronic condition or have an irrevocable disability. None of this is our ”fault” and yet, here we are, continually reminded to earn our space in a place that is rightfully ours, blamed for being different, belittled and told that we should be grateful to be here, to exist when there are people out there who have grown up being very sure of the ground that they walk on.
So please know this – When I say I’m unapologetic and unbothered, it has taken me years to be this way. Fighting a society that has long dismissed my existence, fighting marginalisation, fighting bigotry, fighting systems that try so hard to break me down, fighting my mind and convincing myself time and again that I belong here. This is my space and I shouldn’t be guilty to take up space.
Ways In Which Ableists Try To Take Up Space Meant For the Disabled Community
One way in which we can prevent ableists to take up space that is rightfully ours is by being aware of the subtle ways in which they discriminate against us in everyday life. Consider this a beginner’s guide, because I’m still learning too!
By tone policing: Telling us what we should be called. I do not like to be called “Differently-abled’’ or ‘’Specially-abled’’ because that just means you don’t accept us for our disability and these are products of the ableist culture. Disability is a distinct word that sets us apart from the non-disabled population. The term not only creates a distinct identity for our community but it also gives us representation.
The most important point to understand while you’re living a trauma such as a disability is that you’re never alone, a sense of community is one of the most important feelings that made me proud of my disability. It took me years to celebrate my disability and Take Up Space in mainstream settings.
By not including us in everyday activities: I went to a non-disabled school where I experienced subtle ableism everyday in the form of patronising remarks. Teachers equated me to the Indian warrior princess “Jhaansi Ki Raani’’ which I thought was absurd. They called me an “inspiration’’ and used my disability to raise the PR of the school. All the while, they never took any efforts to make the school more accessible, the lift almost never worked and my mother had to carry me to class, which made me feel very dependent on her. I was also alienated in my class – While everyone else went to the annual dance fete, I stayed at home because no one included me in their plans. Or I wasn’t invited to the party because my friend automatically assumed that I would be sick.
Disabled people are alienated on an everyday basis. In conversations that involve dating and sex, the disabled are automatically excluded because it is assumed that they don’t engage in sexual relations or date. In a situation where a disabled person is sitting in a restaurant for example, among a non-disabled crowd, most of the time they’d be talked over and not heard. Our autonomy and decision making is not considered when it comes to deciding major factors for a workplace that we might be a part of. The struggles of the disabled community go unrecognised and our voices shunned overshadowed by ableists, and yet we persist.
Visual Media and Cinema: As a stroke survivor, I have noticed that TV culture has this habit of making funny faces and making casual, ableist remarks such as ‘Are you having a stroke?’ It is hurtful, as stroke survivors often have facial difficulties, crooked smiles, and have to go through so many hours of exercises to correct it. As for movies, both Bollywood and Hollywood have made movies where non-disabled characters have played disabled characters and appropriated their lived experiences. Imagine if someone makes an actual movie on disability and masturbation, where the disabled protagonist (who’s disabled in real life as well) exploring their own self and sexuality? It seems like directors of movies perceive us as someone who’s either cast aside as a side character or someone who’s overly positive and asexual .
Where dating is concerned: My journey dating non-disabled men has been amusing to say the least. Some would perceive me with wonder – how can a woman be disabled and beautiful at the same time? Some would feel good about themselves for dating a disabled woman, some would look at me as child-like, and a “damsel-in-distress’’ that needs protection and security. It isn’t uncommon for disabled womxn to be perceived as weak and for non-disabled people to see them as their self-proclaimed caregivers.
When a man comes into a disabled woman’s life, he is heralded and placed on a pedestal: “You’re such a good man! You’re accepting her for who she is and overlooking her ‘’flaws! Shabaash! (Well done). Meanwhile, mothers often encourage their non-disabled sons not from dating a disabled woman because “she’ll be a burden’’.
Superstitious beliefs : When we think about disability in a South Asian context, various intersections such as disability and caste, gender, socio-economic status, culture come into focus. In Indian society, disability is often seen as a “curse’’ that can only be cured by “prayers and offerings’’. Their disability is often believed to be the bad “karma” that has carried on with them from their past life where they supposedly committed a sin. This further invalidates the existence of disabled folks and pushes them to the margins.
Further, mentally and physically disabled people are also demonised – again a ploy to ensure that they do not fit into the so-called mainstream narratives controlled by ableist cultures.
To Take Up Space is as simple as the right to exist. To Take Up Space in public spaces means the right to freely walk, stroll, protest, have public discussions, mean the right to freely walk, stroll, protest, have public discussions, occupy safe spaces and the right to simply be – to simply exist. Unfortunately, disabled people simply cannot roam in public places without being stared at, verbally harassed, and asked intrusive questions. For the disabled people’s community, the central theme to these questions is mostly – “But how do you exist?’’.
So next time someone tries to take up space that rightly belongs to you, claim it back. We need not necessarily have a loud voice to achieve this, but we certainly have a loud heart that is ready to riot.
Everyone who is a fighter, waking up everyday to navigate through the indifferent and ableist spaces, always remember existing in an ableist world is a rebellion. Disability is a celebration and I’m rooting for you, always.
Featured Image Source: Sushrita Bhattacharjee/Feminism In India