Wednesday, April 27, 2011

I oughta be in pictures

I had the oddest conversation. A friend was telling me about being at a conference attending a session regarding 'language, perception and prejudice.' The session was well attended and was well paced and well planned. One of the activities they did was show pictures of people taken from the web. Some were famous rock stars, some were anonymous beautiful people, some were people with both physical and or intellectual disabilities. When the pictures were shown, groups were asked to use words to describe the people in the pictures and to talk about the initial impression they had of each person depicted.

So far, so good, lots of things to learn from an activity like this.

Here's the rub, one of the pictures was of me, on my power chair, heading down the street near my home.

My friend noticed this right away and she wrote words like:


passionate speaker;

expert in abuse issues.

She then waited. Her table was the last invited to share their words. So she listened to others that described me as 'somewhat independant' and 'needing more support' and other ways of 'social-work-izing' me. Many were concerned about the quality of my care due to my weight, some might have been concerned about me being out unassisted. She sat there stunned, wondering if no one really looked at the picture. Many of those in the room either know me personally or know of me professionally. But they just didn't seem to need to look closely at the picture. Look beyond the weight and the disability to see ... well ... me.

When it came to her turn she gave her words and then she announced to the room, 'That picture is of Dave Hingsburger.' There was an outcry of disagreement. 'No, that's not him,' said some. 'Oh, my, gosh, that is him,' said others.

I laughed hearing the story and hearing myself described, not as a human being in human terms but in 'professional language' as seen from 'professional eyes.'

This lesson, learned by others, reminded me that I always had to ensure that I used my eyes to see, not categorize. My words to describe not to diagnose.

I thank my friend for having the courage to tell me this story. I am glad that my picture was used as part of a presentation on assumption and prejudice. But mostly, I was thankful for simply, a really good laugh.


Elizabeth McClung said...

Deconstructed Dave. How facinating. But then, how often do you integrate your disability into your identity as a disability advocate? It is the question I have wondered since the Hall of Fame. That unspoken question I wished you had asked, "Am I here because I represent my disability or in spite of it?"

I guess it is good to laugh, realizing that all the statements are true in a way, the ones of your speaking career and the ones on somewhat indepedant. I think to dismiss a group of colleagues who collectively practice stereotyping and ignoring the diversity of the individual simply because you are 'known' and escape not as a cliche, but as a person at the end is too easy.

The old desire: 'If only doctors could become patients' almost occurred here, but all leave, with an anecdote, without getting that to another class, another generation, they will be tagged and labeled just as they have done. Too late learned, that. And I can't understand why.

coffeetalk said...

I'm glad you are the person you are and were able to laugh. Again, you've given me something to think about today as I work. How can we even come up with words, other than descriptives, to talk about unknown people in a picture? And yet, we do. This exercise reminds me why, in my years as a preschool teacher in a centre for very "socially challenged" children who often had lots of behaviours to go with their less than ideal circumstances, I didn't read a child's file until I met that child. It's so easy to paint a picture of who someone is by the information we receive about them and forget to add into it their personality.
Great reminder.

Dave Hingsburger said...

Elizabeth, I think its important to note that I was hearing this second hand and was writing about the part of the workshop that directly related to the story I was being told. I found it funny, and enlightening that people, even those who knew me couldn't 'see' me when they were looking at a picture and seeing weight and disability instead. I undestand, however, from further conversation that the session, run by two people with intellectual disabilities from a self advocate point of view was to get people to question what they see and why they attribute negative words and 'words that make lesser' to those considered 'other'. But I wasn't there for that. I think to assume that the brief moment of realizing that it was 'dave' in the picture was the sum total of what people took out of the session is a mistake. The point of the session might have been bolstered by the experience of not even being able to see a person they know when they focus on the wheelchair not my face is instructive. To answer your other question, I do not integrate disability into my identity, disability is my identity. My work has changed in radical ways by the experiences I have had. I believe my lectures, consulations and trainings have become deeper and more thoughtful and professionally I have become much more careful. Disability is an experience, that when lived well and willingly without denial - is instructive, don't you think?

Dave Hingsburger said...

coffeetalk ... face before file is a smart smart way to do business. A file isn't a record of truth its a compliation of opinion.

Noisyworld said...

"See the person not the disability" the slogan to an awareness campaign in the UK, wise words for everybody not just people on training courses!

Kristine said...

Yikes... That is a really funny story. But I don't know, I find it disconcerting too. I'm not looking for my friends to go "disability blind;" I'm completely ok with them seeing and acknowledging my disability. But it bothers me to think that even people I know could lose sight of me behind my disability. I realize that my wheelchair doesn't fade into the background of other people's awareness as easily as it does mine, but, wow. Maybe it's even more in-your-face and hard to get past than I'd already realized...