A little while ago, I remember reading about the concept of near enemies and far enemies in Buddhism in terms of emotions. The far enemies of emotions were of course, their opposites, love’s far enemy was hatred, compassion’s was cruelty, joy’s was jealousy, equanimity’s was paranoia. But far more dangerous than these far enemies were the near enemies, those emotions which were often cleverly disguised as the virtuous ones, but were gateways to the darker enemies. Love’s near enemy is possessive/selfish attachment, compassion’s is pity, joy’s is hypocrisy/affectation, equanimity’s is indifference.
I like that concept a lot, and I have been using the example of compassion’s near enemy of pity a lot in my writing and speaking on disability rights. But I think that there’s another one that can be extracted from this mentality that can also serve as a good reminder of what it means to be a good ally, not just to disabled people, but in most situations: Courtesy as the near enemy (or rather, lazy person’s) respect.
Courtesy is a poor substitute for respect. But a lot of neurotypical able-bodied people think that courtesy is sufficient for disabled people, and often cite how equal rights and equal access deny disabled people the chance to receive courtesy from nondisabled people. Which is mind-boggling in my book. A frequent example given is how often, on the bus, you won’t see able-bodied people give up their seats for a pregnant woman or older person* or someone wielding a cane or walker.
These people don’t often observe that now, in Victoria at least, all buses are equipped to “kneel”, allowing people with limited mobility onto the bus easier, and there is a wheel ramp for scooters and wheelchairs to come on board easily, with the front section being specially tailored with lifted seats so that a wheelchair, scooter, walker, or stroller can fit in there comfortably. Those modifications were not the result of someone wanting to be courteous to the disabled, it was a result of fighting for equal access and participation, under the idea that disabled people are worthy of respect as Canadian citizens. Read your charter (or ADA, if you’re an American)
It can be easy to think that courtesy and respect are mutually exclusive, or that courtesy is all that is needed. Courtesy is easy because it is brief and brings instant gratification. You feel that warm, invisible hand pat your back when you get up on the bus for the cane wielder, you can expect smiles of approval and maybe even appreciation on the faces of those around you when you open the door for someone with a scooter. There is no instant gratification to respect though. It’s a long, ongoing process, and if you immerse yourself in it as an ally, you will slip up on occasion, you will make mistakes, you’ll have moments of frustration. But in these moments your understanding grows, and a gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wisdom continues.
Consider your thoughts carefully in your interactions with disabled folks, and whether they spring from a notion of wanting to display courtesy, or offer respect. The difference is quite remarkable once you think about how it influences each aspect of your behaviour, thoughts, and actions.
* Equating being elderly or pregnant with being disabled is another issue altogether that deserves its own post. I have seen the example of the pregnant woman (or even just women in general) specifically come up during antifeminist rhetoric, suggesting that our lives have been changed for the worse by not having men automatically give up their seats on public transit for women. Again, more on that later.