Guest Blog: Bad (Tattooed) Cripple
Still on vacation so the wonderful William J. Peace of the Bad Cripple blog is taking over to discuss his "stigmatized identity" for being tattooed and for using a wheelchair. Read more in his "The Artful Stigma" article for Disability Studies Quarterly.
My presence upsets my neighbors and strangers. Since I have moved into my house in the suburbs north of Manhattan not a single neighbor has invited me to their home. When I go to the local supermarket mothers grab their children in fear and tell their kids "Watch out for that man". I have what academics call a stigmatized identity. What have I done that is so socially unacceptable? I use a wheelchair.
To me, my wheelchair is a powerful technological device or more simply an alternative means of locomotion. However, for most Americans, I am the ultimate symbol of infirmity, my very existence a tragedy. In short, my wheelchair is a portable social isolation device. My social transgression does not end with wheelchair use. I have knowingly and purposely modified my body--yes, I have a large scale Japanese style quarter panel tattoo. When I wear a t-shirt my tattoo--my large tattoo--is clearly visible. Thanks to television tattoos are more socially acceptable but let me assure you that memo was lost in the mail where I live. My neighborhood is not known for its diversity. Difference I have learned is for other areas.
This social phenomenon fascinates me. Which is more socially unacceptable--having a large tattoo or using a wheelchair? Much depends upon the social context. At Board of Education meetings my presence is met with groans. People know I will fiercely advocate for disability rights--an unwanted and expensive position. In contrast, at Boy Scout meetings my wheelchair use is not a factor--especially among the boys. My tattoo is a radically different story. I have been told on more than one occasion I am setting a bad example--tattoos are a violation of the scout spirit or law.
As a result of my disability and tattoos I am considered a rebel. This is amusing and depressing. It reflects a very narrow view of the world. But one can find power and a place in society even if we are not wanted. Thus I have concluded every disabled and tattooed person has obligation to rebel against ignorance, prejudice and any attempt to socially isolate people who are different. Taking pride in one's tattoos and being, "Disabled and Proud," as a popular activist poster proclaims, is the only road to social equality. Tattoos and disability blur the dividing line between those within and outside mainstream society, a continuum that engulfs all humanity in a lifelong descent into entropy. It is not simply that others are afraid, impressed, repulsed, or bigoted but rather are social entities reflecting what they have been taught and chosen to believe.
William J. Peace earned his PhD with distinction from Columbia University in 1992. He is author of "Leslie A. White: Evolution and Revolution in Anthropology." His research interests include the history of anthropology, disability studies and body art and modification. He is a disability rights advocate and maintains a blog entitled Bad Cripple. He is at work on a memoir under the same title.