Borders of the Mind

This past weekend I attended the 40th anniversary celebration of the dedication of Friendship Park. (If you aren’t familiar with it, go here.) The original concept was to create a space where people from the Mexican and U.S. sides of the border could come together to create community. It became a place where families would picnic, grandparents could meet their grandchildren, and the power of an artificial barrier to separate could be diminished by basic human interaction. For years, the barrier was minimal, but in our era of terrorism fears and militarization, there are now a minimum of 2 fences and five feet between loved ones. In fact, you cannot even get within conversational distance without waiting to be 1 of twenty five people allowed into a “cage” for thirty minutes.

The celebration was about re-affirming the original intent to minimize the divisiveness of concrete, steel, and distance. As salsa dancing took place on both sides of the border simultaneously, there was tangible effort made to pretend no barriers existed. Politicians and other speakers talked of a future where people could again actually clasp hands and grandparents touch their grandchildren. The day was about reaching across borders bridging not just the physical barriers but those of culture, class, and national affiliation.

As I stood by myself, I had a lot of time to consider the idea of borders, boundaries, and the lines we draw. It was easy to jump from the bars of a cage to the intangible forces that divide people. After all, the day was about removing walls to encourage changes in thinking. So why, then, was I alone?

I went with my friend who was the mastermind of the event and thus reasonably a bit too busy to baby-sit a grown woman. Luckily I did get to hang out with his mother, who pretty much embodied the exception to every pattern of behavior I observed throughout the day. Given she raised a son who gets it, I should have expected nothing less.

In hindsight, I realized I made an unthinking assumption that an event about removing barriers would be populated by people who didn’t exclusively try to banish obstructions related to national borders. I thought disability wouldn’t be a big deal. I was wrong.

My inkling of the day ahead came early when people introduced to me could not figure out how to shake my hand, even after I went and actually grabbed my cane propping it next to me as a very clear signal of my disability. While people listened to what I had to say, they did not return my efforts at conversation. Manners were evident. Friendship and genuine interest were not.

When we got to the event sight, border patrol decided that the blind person’s I.D. didn’t need to be scrutinized and my presence attached to a person’s elbow made them exempt from the check as well. At the onset of salsa dancing, the directions required functional eyeballs to follow. The Japanese man who traveled thousands of miles for the event was unable to conversationally bridge the gap of disability to speak with me though I was standing next to and clearly with his conversational partner. The man coaxing his daughter to sit atop the wall on which I also perched les than five feet distance ignored my presence even when I laughed aloud at some of the cute things his child said. Exactly one man, a border angel, seemed genuinely aware of me as a person who warranted more than the exercising of good manners.

I therefore had a great deal of time to consider the societally perpetuated boundaries we possess in our minds. The physical difference disability represents is unfortunately not conceptualized as a form of human variation given arbitrary meaning. Whether out of fear, ignorance, or callousness, disability is a line people feel unable to cross. They will work to remove the physical barriers created by nations and educate to remove the mental blocks those barriers have societalized, but they will not reach out to connect with a person “too different” from themselves. Race, class, culture, and national origin are one thing. Eyes that don’t work are another. Apparently some lines are to be crossed and others are to be obeyed as if several feet of concrete and rebar stand in the way. When it comes to border politics, fear, ignorance, and heartlessness are the enemy. When it comes to disability, they aren’t.

Having been able to conceptualize border fences in terms of disability, I actually now have a far more profound understanding of the situation especially on an emotional level. I know exactly how it feels to have a socially-constructed thing profoundly impact and limit my life. I guess I just wish people who see the human cost levied by concrete and steel could also perceive a flight of stairs as equally restrictive and without rhyme or reason.

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About Jen

After acquiring a degree from Vassar College in psychology, I moved to Western Mass where I ran a peer mentoring network for disabled college students as well as activism and organizing around disability issues. I also conducted research on disabled women’s body image. An Upstate New York native, I eventually followed my heliotropic nature to the sun of Southern California. I divide my time between writing (disability fiction and essays) along with moderating San Diego Bisexual Forum which is one of the oldest groups of its kind in the country. In my off hours I can often be found in my neighborhood live music venue enjoying our local talent.

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