Yesterday I told a story about some unseen forces directing the collection of data, first in an institutional setting and then in a community setting, in order to statistically prove that freedom is better than captivity for people with disabilities. I made a claim that this experience was unique to those with intellectual disabilities.
That's what I said.
What I didn't say was that the kind of social expulsion that happened to people with disability doesn't happen to others. I didn't say that people with disabilities are the ONLY minority in which there is a need to prove worthiness to exist in the public sphere. I didn't say that what happens to people with disabilities is worse than what happens to anyone else. I didn't say those things.
I also said that people with disabilities had to go to the supreme court in order to have involvement in medical decisions made about their bodies. I used the case of Eve as an example. There are so many examples. The castration of men with Down Syndrome and the marketing of their testicles for medical research. The existences of policies in agencies, today, that forbid marriage, forbid dating, forbid sexual expression and the use of drive reducing medications on thousands of men with disabilities. I believe that the Ashley Treatment is unique to the experience of disability - and a frightening display of the use of medical power on the bodies of women with disabilities.
What I didn't say was that people with disabilities are the ONLY minority to experience the scalpel as a weapon of war. I didn't suggest that other victims of prejudice don't experience inequitable medical care and neglect when it comes to health care and other issues vital to life.
Yet many people took issue with what I was saying. "Yeah, but what about, what about, what about ..." It was as if in asserting that people with intellectual disabilities had and have a unique history I was attacking the existence of and experiences of others who face similar, though different, aspects of prejudice and violence.
I notice the same kind of thing when I talk about my experiences as a gay man. I am mostly, but not always, met with a reasonable degree of understanding, and occasionally even, shared rage. I rarely have people say, 'you can't talk your unique experiences as a gay man because others have it too and you are leaving them out.' But when I speak about my experiences as a disabled person, I am often challenged about these experiences. Some claim that they are neither are real nor valid. That they don't equate to the prejudice experienced by others in real, legitimate, minority groups. I think this is evidenced by the fact that prejudicial treatment of other minorities has made it into language. Sexism, racism, homophobia are words and concepts that have come into common usage. Virtually no one, outside the disability community, in my experience uses the terms 'ableism' or 'disphobia.' I've never heard either word used on a news broadcast or in commentary on crimes against people with disabilities.
I realize that alot of this is about access to public space with the same rights and freedoms of others. I get that. I know that, for example, when I go out, space will be given to me grudgingly and often with hostility. I am not perceived to have the same right to space as anyone else. But I also believe that there needs to be a 'right to space' within the discussions of the complexity of prejudice and the unique ways, we all experience lives in our bodies and in our neighbourhoods and in the broader community.
People with intellectual disabilities, like every other minority, have unique experiences that result in important stories to tell. It is in the telling of those stories - and in the listener having the ability to hear those stories for what they are - and that includes understanding that they are not a challenge to the existence of other stories from other people. What these stories do is give an understanding of the length and breadth of prejudice, they give insight into the commonality of the experience of 'outcast' even when the experience isn't shared.
A man with an intellectual disability and a mental illness was shot by the police on his way to a convenience store. Some of the facts about this case mirror what happened to Trayvon Martin. It would have been outrageous and insensitive to begin shouting 'But that happens to other people to, what happened to Trayvon is not so special, there are lots of people who experience violence as a result of who they are and how they carry themselves.' What happened to Trayvon is unique to the experience of racism - the combined factors, far, far, to complex to understand, would disintegrate, without an understanding of the role that racism played in his shooting. In fact, any protests that 'he wasn't unique' ... 'it happens to others too' ... would result in taking the intense scrutiny off what actually happened. And scrutiny is exactly what's needed.
I believe that black women and white women experience different sets of prejudices. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe all I've read is wrong. I believe the concept of 'intersectionality' is one that gets us to look at how being gay and being disabled (for example) intersect and the experience of the layering of ableism and homophobia. They are experienced as different things, when experienced together it can be overwhelming.
To suggest it's all the same is to suggest that the solution is a ten minute class on diversity that consists of a power point presentation saying 'be nice.' The class would take ten minutes, because, of course, the presenter would have to fiddle with the projector for nine minutes. Classes on diversity get participants to look at the kinds of ways that prejudice shows itself - the kinds of attitudes that people carry - the depth of prejudice - even in the words we use.
I believe we have a responsibility to tell our stories, our unique experiences.
I do not believe that telling those stories diminishes the importance of other stories.
I believe that recognizing that prejudice is prejudice is prejudice is a healthy way to view the unity of the civil rights movement.
I do not believe that that recognition requires a silencing of stories, I think it requires an explosion of them.
In the end I want access to public space, but I also want access to space at the table of disenfranchisement. Not only that, I want access to time to speak.
The other day I was telling a woman about an experience of lack of access, she said, and I'm quoting, "That's nothing, let me tell you what happened to me ..."
I don't want our history lost because we are afraid to tell it, afraid to delineate the unique journey of the disabled community because when we do we'll get shut down and lectured about how, 'wait a minute' your history isn't worthy in the telling'.