The Mild Eugenic Undertones of Asking 'What's Wrong With You?'
This time, it's a baby boomer asking in 7/11. He's pointing to my leg braces.
"Sorry, I hope you don't mind me asking but… what are those?"
I'm getting coffee at 7/11. A favoured meeting place for abled people to congregate and do what they do best: inconvenience me (there's an inconvenience store joke here but, for your sake, I'm not going to make it). There's a man standing behind me as I wait for the machine to churn out a large cup's worth of coffee. He's a baby boomer wearing a lanyard. I don't like to stereotype, but my past experiences with this particular demographic mean I'm reluctant to give this guy the benefit of the doubt.
He is, of course, referring to my leg braces. I'm wearing a TurboMed FS3000 on each leg, black orthoses that wrap around my shoes and have support beams going up to the back of each knee. In theory, I could wear them underneath pants that were baggy enough. As a gay millennial though, the only thing more terrifying to me than daily microaggressions at 7/11 is having to wear bootcut jeans.
"They're leg braces," I reply. The last drops of coffee sputter out and I fumble to get a lid onto the paper cup. It's a frosty winter morning, so any fine motor coordination has left my body and is somewhere in Estonia by now. With the manual dexterity of a polio-era crab, I'm trapped in his presence, clawing at my coffee lid for the vital seconds he needs to ask the inevitable follow up question.
"What's wrong with you?"
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Crikey, where to begin? Clearly I'm addicted to cheap coffee—why else would I brave this 7/11 every other day? Also, I don't call my mum enough. I have a weird obsession with Nigella Lawson. I can't tell the difference between a boy with a personality and a boy wearing a cool jacket. I end up ghosting both types of boy because I can't schedule time for intimacy into my Google Calendar. I take 40-minute showers, much to the chagrin of my roommates and Mother Gaia alike.
But I don't say any of this. Instead I say: "It's a... muscular dystrophy… situation."
I say this because his real question was, "Why do you wear leg braces?" It's just we don't live in a world where that means anything other than wrong.
I struggle with this particularly train of thought. Because the thing that's "wrong" with me is also a load-bearing structure for most things that are right with me. Like being funny because I had to be, being a good judge of character, being empathic about people's struggles, having hot content to pitch to VICE. These things didn't pop out of nowhere.
Without this "error" in me, there is no me.
The alternate-reality version of me, the me without a disability, is probably some asshole jock the name Alistair doesn't fully suit. A fraternity-adjacent sweat gland on legs who enjoys listening to the original version of Black Eyed Peas' "Let's Get It Started," and has the punch strength to realign someone's nose.
And yet, it's the Alistair with muscular dystrophy that's not meant to exist in this world. I'm the one that's wrong.
There is a mild eugenic undertone to the question "What's wrong with you?" Not that this baby boomer and his lanyard are consciously aware of that. I'm sure if I asked them, point blank, "Eugenics. Thoughts?" they'd probably say "The thing Hitler liked? No thanks."
But having a firm idea of what a "correct" person is and a strong desire for a future without non-conformers—whether through cures or selective breeding—is kind of, by definition, eugenics. And people have literally told me to my face that it's a shame my mum didn't get tested when she was pregnant with me. That's right, they told me that.
The subtext is clear: my mum must regret having me. I mean, she does, but that's more down to my awful personality—it's not anything to do with my disability. If anything, she lucked out in terms of my physical lameness. Have you met an able-bodied child recently? They're nightmares. Who has the time?
Of course, we don't live in a society where people would actually ask my mum's opinion on the matter. Instead, the assumption is just that she's some long-suffering martyr and I'm her burden boy.
I've also been grilled on my own insistence that I might not necessarily want to be cured, if I could be. There's a tendency to view the field of medicine as a way to correct or prevent abnormality so people can be productive cogs in a capitalist hellscape. As I'm assumed to be a burden unto my parents, so are all disabled people a burden unto their countries. The fact that Australia's Migration Act is the only piece of legislation exempt from the Disability Discrimination Act is telling. Disabled people are routinely denied citizenship because they are viewed as drains.
In Australia, the few migrant stories championed are ones of productivity, hard work, and cheap labour. It doesn't even really matter if, like me, you find a way to support yourself within your abilities—if you're claiming specialist services on Medicare every other week and could feasibly age into the disability support pension, you're not good for this country. As someone born here, I feel extremely fortunate that the government has a begrudging obligation to keep me alive. I'm also acutely aware that unless the whole world gets really cool really quickly, Australia is the only country that'll have me for more than a holiday.
Shouldn't I want a cure then? I'd be able to live wherever I wanted, handle coffee lids with ease, avoid this boomer and his sentient lanyard. No. I'll stay as is.
Perhaps the body positivity movement and various Dove commercials worked too effectively on me: I like my body. I think I'm an okay human the way I am. If you'd asked me eight years ago I probably would have said Yes! to a cure for TTN-related muscular dystrophy. Then again, I probably would have said yes to a cure for being gay, too. But I have come into my own as someone who accepts who they are.
And then this self, love accrued over years and years, comes under fire with a simple question like, "What's wrong with you?" This baby boomer and his lanyard, as innocently as he asks this question, reminds me that the world would rather I not be.
In a vacuum this has little impact, but it's one of many cuts throughout the day that take their toll. A comedy venue I love—one I go to multiple times a week—just extended their lease in a building that I find painful to enter, stairs that are agonising to me now and something I don't see being any easier next year. The other week I changed my Tinder profile to a picture of me that includes my leg braces and my rate of matches halved instantly.
It's in these "What's wrong with you?" moments that I find myself sliding back into self hate. If you ask disabled people "What's wrong with you?" enough times they'll start to agree with the question's premise—taken as a given by the asker—that there is something wrong with them.
Maybe that's the function of the question, the function of inaccessible venues and ableist Tinder boys—to convince me eugenics is good. That I should be like everyone else. That I'm one-too-many standard deviations away from normal and that's bad. Take the cure, Alistair...
Having completed zoned out in the middle of this 7/11 to mentally write this think piece, the man probably assumes my 15-second long middle-distance stare is a symptom. Some kind of mini-coma. Checking I'm still alive, he puts his hand on my shoulder and says, "I'm sorry."
He's not apologising for asking a shitty question. He's saying "I'm sorry" in the way you say it to someone whose dog just died. And I burst into tears right in front of him. Not because he really got to me—pricks like him are dime-a-dozen in the various 7/11s I frequent.
See as I struggle to hold my cup, I desperately rummage through my pockets. Through tears, I manage to stammer out, "My wallet, where's my wallet?" It takes the baby boomer half a second to offer to pay for my coffee. It's only a dollar but just like how, "What's wrong with you?" makes me reflect on what I hate about my disability, guilting abled people into buying me free shit reminds me that, actually, I fucking love it.
Alistair Baldwin is a writer, comedian and commentator, based in Melbourne but loyal only to Perth. His work has been published in SBS Comedy, SBS Sexuality, Art + Australia, Archer & more. He is an AFTRS/Film Victoria Talent Camp participant and host of Lemon Comedy, a monthly night dedicated to championing diversity in stand up. For tweet-length content, follow him on Twitter.