In this week’s update on “things I read online that should’ve jolted me but, sadly, did not,” some New York woman on the dating scene wrote to the Times advice column asking if she was a “terrible person” for wanting to dump a guy because of his Crohn’s disease. It elicited a response from NYU philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah, who, in summary, advised that “you don’t owe it anyone to accept that burden.” You can find the full article here.
It is very depressing for us disabled and/or chronically ill people to watch our value be reduced to a question answerable by the non-disabled in a few paragraphs. It is sad that these types of conversations (happening around us, not with us) are the most common representations we get in media. It’s horrifying that people don’t see the larger issues at play when these questions are asked and answered so contritely, because it reminds us of how out of touch most are with our community. Even during times of such incredible social justice movements, the disabled still remain on the outskirts.
To this anonymous woman: If you’re asking that question, end the relationship. If you’re writing into a newspaper column to ask strangers to appease your guilt of how much of a burden you anticipate his ‘doctors appointments’ and ‘special diet’ to be, please dump him. Not because of his condition, but because he deserves better. People with medical needs don’t deserve partners that are going to hold our diagnoses against us because they are ‘burdensome.’ It is not our job to waste time on relationships with people who don’t truly want us but stick around because they worry about being “unethical.” Please respect him by letting him find someone else that is better suited to love him. Guilting this woman into staying in a relationship with a man she already anticipates resenting is a disaster in the making. This is how the disabled and chronically ill end up being physically, verbally, and psychologically abused: being trapped in relationships with non-disabled people who consciously (or unconsciously) end up resenting us and our bodies.
I’m unfortunately not surprised people are asking this question. I have used a wheelchair my entire life. I learned much younger than I should have that people consider my needs and my body to be burdensome. That it takes a ‘special person’ to care about us, because we’re just too much to handle or love. The only way we can live through it is by learning to read people well, learning which smiling faces are trying to cover up the fact that their mind is piling with questions like such. We learn to identify who genuinely respects us versus those just tolerating us, so we don’t waste time on people that are closed off to loving us but just feeling obligated to try so they don’t feel like a “bad person.”
I’m sure many were expecting me to lead in with “No, it is not okay to dump someone for their medical needs!” And the truth of the matter is that we don’t live in a society that would even begin to allow me to make that argument. If we lived in a country where non-disabled Americans weren’t so terrified of and personally offended by illness, maybe it would be different. But I can’t make that argument without requiring the non-disabled to change their very closed-minded and unsophisticated view of the disabled experience.
Before even beginning to attempt a response to this woman, we must understand why she and many others ask this in the first place. A significant factor in why many consider us to be so burdensome is because of their own fear of becoming like us. It is because American values are rooted to an unhealthy degree in independence, productivity, and youth to such an extent that people are genuinely anti-disability or any ‘deviant’ body, and completely apprehensive of the natural progression of aging. So when people ask questions like this anonymous woman did, it is saying so much more about them than us. That is something they have to work through on their own before they even consider dating someone with a medical condition. Everyone is not made for each other. Not everyone can handle the disabled experience, and it has nothing to do with the disabled person’s value.
With that being said, I was not surprised someone asked this question because, as sad as it is, the majority having this mindset is not news to me. Although, I was disheartened to see that our lives are continually reduced to a headline, to a question answerable in three paragraphs by an able-bodied man with seldom any backlash. To most people, our lives and value are just a “healthy ethical debate.” This speaks to the harsh reality I often have trouble facing: the disabled are not yet accepted into the cannon of multiculturalism. We are still a group of second-class citizens that most brush off as burdensome. Even the most educated. Even the people that devote their lives to thinking critically about oppression, discrimination, ethics, and the minority experience in America.
In the professor’s addendum to the article, he did rightfully acknowledge that people with illnesses don’t want to be romantic charities, that the question suggests we are conceptualized as burdens, and that we will all become disabled eventually. But there is still so much left out of this conversation. He could’ve asked her what about chronic illness freaks her out. He could’ve commented on how an American culture that is overly preoccupied with productivity and independence breeds this sort of thinking and fear of disability. He could’ve advised that she should leave him not because of “his medical condition,” but because she is not prepared to love him and he deserves better. He could’ve highlighted that all relationships come with caretaking to varying degrees. He could’ve asked her why she thinks that he would be putting all of this ‘burden’ on her. Or, point out how horrifying it is that we as a society find no issue publishing something that calls an entire group of people ‘burdensome,’ which highlights how far behind the disability rights movement really is. He could’ve taken this moment to point out that if we had a medical system that put people first instead of profit, illness would be less scary to others because we would have better outcomes and access to care. He could’ve advised that it is condescending to stay with someone just to make you feel like a more ethical person. He could’ve noted that the non-disabled perpetuating the idea that we are ‘burdensome’ creates a culture where we get trapped in the cycle of abuse, poverty, being denied our basic human rights, being forced into institutions, and essentially, shut out of society.
Most outside of our community don’t have nuanced enough discussions of disability in the public sphere yet. Hopefully we are soon able to acknowledge as a society that the disabled is still considered a minority group disposable enough to be talked about in such a manner with hardly any backlash. We could’ve connected these mindsets to the institutionalized oppression our people face. We could’ve unpacked how this view of us contributes to the systems at work that keep disabled people devalued, sidelined, genuinely scary to many people, and discriminated against. But alas, another day passes by with hardly anyone questioning the able-bodied agenda. What a privilege it must be to feel so far removed from an experience that it is just an ethical debate in the Times on a someone’s ‘dating value.’