I've seen it happen to able-bodied people once in awhile. Someone approaches and starts a conversation, and after a moment or two of confusion, there's a realization that the approaching person has mistaken my friend or family member for someone else – someone of the same race, similar height and weight, similar age, similar facial characteristics.
“I’m not who you think I am; you’ve got me mixed up with someone else.”
Humbly backing away, the bewildered individual is embarrassed and apologetic, “How silly of me! I’m so sorry.”
It might be surprising to hear that I have never been confused with a person of my same build, same age, same facial characteristics, same race. But, I, a brown-eyed, light-brown-haired white male, have been confused with males significantly larger than me, smaller than me, older than me, younger than me, and surprisingly, even of different ethnicities! A blond child, I was often mistaken in my own school by teachers, staff, and students for a dark complexioned student of Laotian descent who was much smaller than me, or, with an older blue eyed student who was 40-50 pounds heavier than me. Over the years, I have been mistaken as well for a black male and a male of Egyptian descent by people who know one or both of us. And, when I travel, strangers often mistake me for someone they know; it’s a regular part of visiting a new place.
My silliest incident of mistaken identity occurred when I was an audience member at a theatrical production. The show’s lead actor, onstage for most of the 2 ½ hour production, had just completed his final bow. The curtain closed; the lights came up and the crowd slowly started to leave the packed auditorium. A woman maneuvered her way over to me and said, “You have a wonderful voice.” She kept talking, and it took me a few minutes to process that she had confused me with the lead actor, a black-haired teenager of Indian descent with a very small build. Not only would the actor still have been in full costume, he would have had to do a major leap over the audience to get to the back of the theatre in such a short time.
How could this happen, you wonder? Why these repeated bizarre mix-ups??
Because in all these cases, both I and the person I am mistaken for, use a wheelchair.
And, in most cases, after I tell the offender, “You have me mixed up with someone else,” the response is not apologetic. No embarrassment. Just a laugh at the “coincidence” of it all. They seem to think that theirs was an obvious, easy, natural mistake that anyone would make.
You see, when you use a wheelchair, some people don’t look you in the eye, don’t take in your personal physical characteristics, let alone see you as a unique distinct complex individual. They see the equipment, not the person.
And this inability to see is where ableism starts.
I have come to believe that seeing someone for only the equipment, or for just one piece of his or her external appearance, is a root cause of discrimination. Seeing a wheelchair, a white cane, a speech impediment, a gender, a skin color and then making an assumption that we now know the individual gets us into trouble. When we believe that we know someone’s identity and that they and their “group” are one, not only are we wrong, we are arrogant and we open the door to justifying to ourselves our superiority. There begins the slippery descent down into the swamp of dehumanization.
If you have a story about mistaken identity, feel free to share it in the comments.
Be sure to check out the other posts for Blogging Against Disablism Day 2008. Thanks Goldfish for once again organizing this amazing event!