Who’s disabled now?

Inspired by an essay in the Danish newspaper, Politiken, written by Sarah Glerup about her struggles with the level of understanding and insight from the people she tries to hire as aides, I thought I would write a little about the way a good many people view disabled. And I might warn you, it is not for the faint of heart. Sarah has muscular dystrophy and therefore she needs help with virtually everything. She has a degree in media science, works as a political communicator and is blessed with a remarkable talent for drawing; some of which can be seen on her blog:

Sarah starts her piece by quoting from an interview with a potential aide who claims to be well fitted for the job for the following reason: “I have a cousin with Down’s Syndrome so I already know a lot about the job.” Reading such nonsense I am not even quite sure where to start pulling this sentence apart. It assumes a level of generalization and dangerous assumptions that it makes me cringe. My head starts to spin contemplating the fact that there are people out there in the world who would make those words escape from their narrow minded consciousness, travel all the way through their vocal chords and finally pass their lips. Into the world where they will be picked up by none other than some keen observer apparently light years farther apart from the aforementioned cousin than the speaker herself – at least when it comes to level of intelligence and/or common sense.

I can’t help thinking how the moniker ‘disability’ is so incredibly inappropriate in a situation like that. The way I understand and interpret the concept of disability, the interviewee has far more to worry about than the interviewer. She obviously has to spend the rest of her life suffering from a poorly disguised cognitive/intellectual deficit leading her to be completely clueless as to what goes on in the world around her.

You might think that this woman don’t really perceive all disabled in the light of her cousin and that the quoted sentence was a slip of the tongue. Unfortunately the evidence says something else. In explaining how the cousin goes to a special school this escapes her unfortunate lips: “he goes there with other disabled people. I think there are all so cute.”

When I got that far in the essay, I couldn’t help reminiscing my youth. I had a very effective method of getting rid of people when I had had enough of their drivel about my disability (always people whom I had never met before who found it in their right to ‘feel sorry’ for me, always expressed in an indescribably pathetic manner)

My method was the following. I would look them deep in the eyes with a very serious and intense gaze, maybe even put a hand on their forearm to underpin my grave words. And when I had their full attention I would say the following: “You know, I feel very blessed, I have a disability for everyone to see. You, on the other hand, only show yours whenever you open your mouth.” And 9 out of 10 times they would get my message, shut up and disappear with their tails between their legs. The 10th person would need an even ruder brush off, which only goes to show people with cognitive deficits are not always that cute.

Unfortunately generalizations based on the ‘differentness’ of being disabled are all too common. If we are not cute all together, then we are to be pitied – and strangely enough it is my observation that those who harbor feelings of pity for me are the ones who themselves are in the greatest need of sympathy. And if we are not to be pitied, because some people think they recognize something super-human in our very existence, we are to be revered as the epitome of inspiration, usually based on the fact that we are alive (and God forbid, smiling) and able to live a life that resembles some kind of normal. If we are not inspirational and our disability prevents us from partaking in work or social life on par with others and we may end up in the hospital for a while, then we are leeches and freeloaders who are sucking the taxpayers dry by our mere existence. And if we are not leeches we might just be going about our business and suddenly a parent in front of us are pulling their screaming child in a direction where the child can stop staring at us and we are reminded that it would be best for all if we stayed home and never came out so people would forget about our existence, after all it is best if we are neither seen or heard of – ever – by these people.

In other words, the generalizations that we meet pretty much runs he gambit of human emotion and there is a plethora of specious reasons to feel one way or the other for ‘people with disabilities’. I have only mentioned some of the most obvious ones here. But at the end of the day they are all based on the most superficial and insipid sort of prejudice. The basest way of looking at another human being; finding one distinct feature that a group of people share and then making assumptions based on that particular feature while forgetting the human being wearing it. This prejudice is at the root of all bigotry, whether it be racism, sexism, misogyny, ableism, chauvinism, religious difference or any other practice of preconceived notions.

People with any sort of disability are as different from each other as any other group of people based on any arbitrary measure, like height, shoe size or hair color – just to mention a few that might not have a (well-known) -ism attached to them. What we have in common is that we are recognized by our societies to have a bodily or cognitive function that falls far enough from the statistical median to be recognized as something that requires special attention, be it medical, social or otherwise.

So what can we do to overcome this prejudice? If I knew, I am pretty sure I’d find some way to cash in on it. Unfortunately I haven’t got the answer and that is one of the (many) reasons why I am broke.

What I do know is that, yes, I see myself as disabled, but I think that’s the norm. I was born with my disability so quite naturally it’s all I know. What I see around me is all these weird ambulatory folks walking or running around in their odd bipedal fashion and think to myself, “don’t they know the wheel was invented so long ago it’s forgotten in the fog of history? Why haven’t they caught onto the fact that it’s so much easier using a wheelchair, it’s faster, it’s more fun and you can sit there pretty comfortably while roaming around.”

Ok, maybe I don’t really think so but if I was trying to reverse the ableist view that would probably be one of my first thoughts. I completely identify with having SCI because I have never known anything else. So to me it will always be the norm – even when I know it isn’t if I ask most other people.

Finally I want to apologize to people with cognitive disabilities. I have been pretty harsh on those I would not hesitate to call dumb and I have surmised they have a cognitive deficit which I truly believe they do, they are unintelligent! But in our society it’s not enough to be dim witted, dull, obtuse, slow on the uptake, mindless, moronic or idiotic to be deemed disabled and that might be why they consider themselves ‘normal’ but I think their cognitive disability is far more scary than those who are now deemed to have one. And this might be my own prejudice rearing its ugly mug here.

So call me a bigot, I might very well deserve it.