Updated: Dec 11, 2021
I recently read a story in which Astronaut Chris Hadflied was having very uninformed doctors make very arbitrary decisions about his body that would affect the trajectory of a future he’d invested in quite painstakingly and to great expense. How he was treated was patronizing and dehumanizing and mind-blowingly pointless. But, seeing as astronauts are essentially the peak specimens of human health and wellness, he couldn’t call it ableism. So he identified it as superstition.
He spent days and days collecting hard evidence to contradict the observably uninformed medical opinion, to no avail. “It felt as though we were mounting a case against superstition, which science is useless to dispel. You can present all the random sample studies you want to prove that it’s safe to walk under a ladder, but a superstitious person will still avoid that ladder.”
That struck me. Every twist and set back in the story reminded me of my own experiences being set back based on unqualified assumptions about disability. How alone he felt in fighting the absurdity. How out of control of the process and outcome. And, in the end, the lucky break that set him free. I live on that roller coaster, most disabled people do. It feels exactly the same way to me as he described it felt to him.
Superstition functions to alleviate our anxiety when faced with the unknown. It gives us control of our behaviour when we cannot control our environment. It limits where our mind (and body, in the case of a ladder) can and will go. It supplies us with a sense that we understand the cause and effect of our lives — and even if it’s false, it soothes us. But instead of managing that fear in a way that allows us to learn, superstition repels curiosity and exploration and deems the unknown immutably unknowable, but certainly hostile. And boy are we afraid of our bodies and the bodies of other humans. We are profoundly afraid of disability.
Do you know what Astronauts spend most of their time doing in space? studying how it affects their bodies. Because human bodies decline, they decay, they become disabled and they die. The more we know about that, the better our preservation and care and use of our bodies.
Disabled people exist in society the way we do now as a result of that type of exploration and curiosity. As a result of wondering what the true limits of the human body actually are, we invented procedures and technologies that extend life spans and support bodies that function differently. How that doesn’t lead to disability being a celebrated status (one in which we learn from the unique perspective disabled people have about life) is something I struggled to understand until I connected it with superstition.
So much of the trajectory of my life is unknown because people living as I do is unfamiliar. Much like sending people into space to see what happens. Space travel warrants fear. It’s dangerous. And yet, we do it, we train people to trade that fear for skill and knowledge, and subsequently it has gotten safer from everything we risked and learned. We can’t learn from information we are too afraid to look at. My body is full of information.
So is yours. Look.