As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
It was a lovely autumn day, with leaves the color of sunflowers, as I wheeled into a small neighborhood mall. In recent years, this mall has rebranded itself as a community hub, right down to the “I’d like to talk” bench where anyone can sit and hopefully make a new friend.
Riding my power chair through the mall, I reached and then entered a small café and was immediately enveloped by its warm, inviting atmosphere.
As I joined my dear friend of many years and her particularly adorable toddler at a table, our waitress appeared. A cheerful woman with kind eyes, she brought our soup and sandwiches with a smile.
All progressed as expected for a lunch date with a much-loved friend as we caught each other up on our busy lives and active families—until the waitress returned.
“How’s it tasting?” she questioned my friend. “Would you like some salt?” She kept her eyes only on my friend, listening carefully to her answer.
Wanting to answer as well, I went to press play on my AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) device, which I use instead of verbal speech. But the waitress had whirled away.
It’s a fairly common experience for a waitress to ignore me and talk only to the non-disabled person I’m dining with. Usually, as with this waitress, this isn’t done with intention or malice. Instead, it often stems from assumed incompetence or discomfort in talking to someone “different”.
Quickly my friend called the waitress back so I could tell her that my lunch was lovely and that I declined salt.
While small, my friend’s act was a powerful act of allyship, coming beside me and proclaiming that my differences do not negate the value of my voice and opinion, even about salt. This allyship meant the world to me.
It’s possible, of course, that ignoring me and only speaking to my non-disabled friend was an oversight by a tired waitress serving many customers on a long day. My guess, however, is that it wasn’t the case, given that this sort of situation happens repeatedly to me.
At restaurants, I’ve gotten used to my husband or friends occasionally being asked what I want to order right in front of me. If I do order, my dining partner will sometimes be asked if I’d like fries with my meal. At a popular retailer, my young child, standing beside me, was asked if I would like a receipt for the purchases I’d just made.
In a way I never fathomed until I began to use an AAC device and gait aides (ranging from a wheelchair to a cane), there is tremendous built-in stigma and subtle but powerful cues against people who are seen as “different,” including because of disability.
Known as unconscious bias, this stigma permeates the deepest core of society. It is a bias based on implicit assumptions about a person’s capacities, power, value and place.
It’s human nature to rapidly assess other people, making rapid-fire predictions and conclusions below the surface of our conscious awareness. Being a Christ follower does not automatically remove unconscious bias. To deny this and state that we have no biases only serves to close our eyes to the pain of those who are the recipient of our unconscious biases.
I’ve found that these biases are cumulative. Living in a world filled with small unconscious biases against you for something you have no control over, such as a disability, permeates all aspects of how you live and see yourself.
It hit home the other week when another friend invited me to a performance at a local theater. Many theatres have designated wheelchair-accessible seating in the back, with a regular chair for a friend without a wheelchair.
Checking the theater’s ticket website, we noticed that the only two wheelchair-accessible seats were for “wheelchair users and their assistants.”
This wording sent a powerful message that a person like me would attend the theater only with an assistant—not a friend, his or her child, long-term lover, or first date.
It made me question why the world doesn’t see me as the ordinary woman I am, who happens to use mobility equipment—a woman who has friends, four kids, and has been married 18 years.
Of course, many people with disabilities require an assistant to help them attend a theater event; there is nothing wrong with needing and accepting help. In fact, for the first several years of my mobility disabilities, I did need an assistant to take or accompany me places—and I still sometimes need assistance. But to assume this is always the case reveals unconscious bias.
It’s brutal to grapple with, especially because unconscious bias against people who live with disabilities is so thoroughly woven into all aspects of life’s fabric. That it’s rarely intentional makes it even more insidious and harmful.
At the beginning of this article, I deliberately emphasized the café’s warm atmosphere and its location in a mall with a community-minded focus where connection flourishes. I tried to create a picture of the waitress’s kind nature to demonstrate how even the kindest people can act in ways that reflect their unconscious biases.
However, just because unconscious biases are present doesn’t mean we can’t take steps to reduce their dictating our actions.
As Christians, we are called numerous times throughout the Bible to love our neighbors. One way to do this is to actively identify and challenge our unconscious biases and then modify how we interact with people on the receiving end of them.
We can do this by prayerfully asking God to reveal our unconscious biases and by taking time to educate ourselves on them. One way to do this is to listen to the voices of people we may be unconsciously biased against, such as people with disabilities.
Another way is to closely examine our interactions with those we may have an unconscious bias against: Do we strive to treat them and all people with equality, justice, equity, mercy and honor?
When we follow in the footsteps of our Savior in putting others before ourselves, we begin to truly love one another.