Discrimination – IKEA edition

In the Scandinavian countries IKEA has a pretty sweet system for families who are shopping at their warehouses. They have a big playroom with staff where people can leave their children after the parents have filled out some paperwork and provided a mobile number so they can be called if there are problems with their offspring.

I am telling this to introduce a story I got from my Norwegian sister in-law, a story that outraged me when I read it.

A Swedish family arrives to their local IKEA with four of their five children, one of whom is Texas, a four year old boy with Down’s syndrome. They go to the playroom and fill out papers for three of the children and not for Texas. In the past they have had experiences where Texas has been denied access to the playroom because of his Down’s syndrome and his older sister because she has CP.

Assuming they have forgotten the paperwork for the fourth child the young man who oversees the children just hands them another slip and tells them that they forgot one. The mother points out that he has Down’s and the youngster replies “That’s not a problem,” and continues to let the children into the playroom. After the visit to IKEA the mother goes home and puts up a grateful post on IKEA’s Swedish Facebook page, ending up getting close to 100.000 likes within 2 days.

It seems like such an innocuous and sweet ‘human interest’ story (some might even call it inspirational – if they dare) and it makes it way to the mainstream media in several countries; so why am I so enraged by it?

I am enraged because it IS a story; because it is being repeated in newspapers in several countries; because 100.000 people think is even noteworthy, not to mention great or extraordinary. Because they fail to realize that it should never be a tear jerking event that a child gets to play with his siblings and the other kids.

What’s so sweet about treating a little boy like… a little boy? Why do nearly 100.000 people think it’s worth ‘liking’ the fact that a human being is treated like… a human being?

The simple answer to those questions is that those 100.000 people and many more with them do not see disabled people as people. They might say they do but their actions speak differently. And that is what disabled people have to endure every single day… every single day! The degradation, the humiliation, the indignity, the pity, the stares, the underhand comments, yes, we just live with it because we know intrinsically that we will never be seen as real people – at least not in our generation. And that is why some of us work hard to have future generations feel less of an impact of this subtle (or even not so subtle) discrimination that we meet on a daily basis.

If there should ever have been a story it should have been when Texas and his sister were denied their human rights. That should have earned IKEA at least 100.000 ‘thumbs down’ on Facebook. There should have been an outcry when these children were told they were sub-human by IKEA staff and refused entry to the playroom because they were not seen as children but as freaks who we can mistreat however we see fit.

Now that sort of story would have been newsworthy whereas the story of how Texas was let into the playroom seems so utterly natural that it should never have hit any kind of news outlet.

I mean, he’s not going to contaminate the other children with some kind of mongoloid cooties. He is a 4 year old boy with some developmental issues and so what? Are the other children going to not play with him because he looks different? Well, only if they have been taught not to by ignorant adults not to do so. Is he going to be seen by them as fundamentally different because of his developmental issues? I doubt it, children play with other children regardless of their age or their maturity – they take him for what he is, a four year old boy.

The only thing that will prevent him from being able to go into the playroom and play with the other kids is a lack of intelligence – and not on his part but on the part if the imbecile adults who treat him as something fundamentally different from his fellow human beings.

To make this even remotely newsworthy tells me that we as disabled are far, far from ever being accepted into the societies we live in. We are natural outcasts and the only reason we are no longer institutionalized and hidden away is that our societies have made laws against segregation. But when it comes to the way we are treated by the individual human being there is still a long way to go.

We are something to be feared. Not as individuals but on a symbolic level. We are the symbol of a tragedy and therefore we are highly feared. Who wants to deal with suddenly being blinded, deaf or losing one’s ability to walk, act or think properly – of course nobody does. I don’t want to lose some of my faculties. But that doesn’t mean that a life as a disabled person naturally is sub-human. There is a strong tendency amongst all living beings that they learn to survive with the most hostile conditions. As far as I see it it’s a biological trait that is intrinsic to being a living organism.

In that light the actual disability becomes ‘just another challenge’ for the individual. What makes it most difficult is the way it is thought about, both by the individual and by everyone else. The abstract idea of ‘disability’ is scary and anxiety invoking to most of us and that anxiety leads to a strange kind of bigotry. After all the things we fear are also the things we end up hating the most, consciously or subconsciously.

However, a vast majority of disabled people know that it is not the impairment that is the big challenge for us, it is the bigotry that comes from small minds who in many instances say they just want to do good for us while treating us as children or sub-humans. And a large number of us find it far more disabling to be that person who is not able to see their fellow human beings as fellow human beings than it is to live with a physical or mental challenge.

So to the 100.000 Swedish IKEA customers out there, shame on you for thinking IKEA did a little boy a favor by treating him as a human being.

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