Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Switching Victims

The reaction to yesterdays post took me a little by surprise. While some 'got' exactly what I meant, others danced around my contention that the old woman had done an act of social violence. The idea that she was 'nice' and I was being a 'jerk' was prominant (particularly in the emails to my home address - I do wish people would leave comments in the comment section) in a few. The idea that she was elderly and 'meant well' were in another substantial bunch. In all, I think that I was being asked to kind of 'get over it'. Or at least I was being asked to 'put it in context'.


So, I was troubled.

When the answer isn't within, go to someone you trust from without. I called my friend Ian. I haven't spoken to him for a very long while so it was nice to chat. Our friendship is used to long pauses and then intense moments of discussion and closeness. It works for us. Let me tell you how I know Ian. He used to work a bar that I used to drink at. He is a big man, a black man, a smart man. Once we got past the bar chat stuff we got to speaking about real stuff. We talked about racism, about homophobia, about the deepness of cultural prejudice.

One day I got an idea, I asked Ian if I could talk to him about the prevailing philosophies of service to people with disabilities. He asked if there was a way he could 'read up' on it first so that he'd have some idea what I was talking about. I gave him the book 'Normalization' and set a date for a real talk about it all. When we got back together he threw the book on the table and said, "Now there's a book that only a white man could have written." What we talked about then would take far too much time to write here ... but one of the bits of advice he gave me was to 'switch minorities' .... if I wanted to understand if something was inherently disphobic I had to just switch minorities. Put someone of a different minority into place of the person with the disability and see if you would do the same thing or think the same way.

This has been helpful advice. And it's advice he gave to me again yesterday. He got me to imagine the scene differently. It helped me, so let me do it for you (Thanks Again Ian).

Let's look at the post yesterday. If it had been written by a black man about an incident at the grocery store. He had been standing waiting for his wife to pick him up. An elderly woman approaches him and in a little kiddy tone of voice said "Have you been left here all alone?" and tries to pat him on the arm. He reacts negatively to her tone of voice and her assumption that he isn't an adult but a mere boy that needs someone to care for him.

Would people tell him that it may have been racism, but it was kindly racism? Would people suggest that he, as a black man, needs to get over it a bit? Would people suggest that her age allows her to be a bit racist because that's what the world was like? Would people even think that 'a little bit racist' was possible?

Maybe they would, you tell me, but I don't think so.

Part of the trouble is, in trying to express things from the point of view of disability is that negative attitudes towards disability are often shrouded in 'kindness' and 'pity' and 'compassion' and there is still an attitude that disabled people should be grateful for the crumbs which fall from the table.

For me, it's taken two years of being victim of 'the voice' to really start to have it bother me. I can't imagine what it's like to be a victim of racism for an entire life. Because two years of this is wearning on the soul.

So why is prejudice against disability expected to be borne, with a cheery countenance by the disabled while prejudice against others - sexism, racism and homophobia - are met with social disapproval?

Maybe because we ... us ... disabled people ... our opinions are yet to matter. Other people, who know better, think they can define our experiences for us. Tell us that we got it wrong that ...



Katrin said...

This makes sense for comparison. I have been subject to the 'nice' voice and hated it the same as you wrote the other day. And when I sometimes express that annoyance to others, I too get the "well they were just trying to be nice" when NO I don't care if they were "just trying to be nice" as they were NOT nice, they need to learn what nice really is in that case and I'm not going to excuse their inappropriate behavior. Thank you to Ian as well.

Anonymous said...

The piece I keep referring people to (been doing it for years, and so far I haven't come up with anything better) when this comes up is Kunc & Van der Klift's "In Spite of My Disability," which is online at http://www.normemma.com/arinspit.htm

Scroll down to Emma's comment that begins "When I tell people this story, or one of hundreds like it ...."

Susan said...

I get it. After yesterday's post I was wrestling a bit.. "What does he mean exactly? Am I missing something important?" I couldn't quite grasp the cigar.

But today I get it. Thanks for persevering.

rickismom said...

Yesterday on my blog I talked about this post and about the dangers of the patronizing tone:

"This tone, and the underlying attidude beneath it, has led many youth with intellectual handicap down a dangerous road.

The road where I am worth less, and need to be pampered.

The road where I can act as I please, even if I am being anti-social, as no one will tell me to act normal.

The road where I do not need to try, as nothing is expected of me anyway.

The road where I am led to not try to learn to watch out for myself, as others will do it for me. (But when the others aren’t around we can run into BIG trouble.)

The road where teachers are not held accountable when they fail to teach, as long as they are “loving”.
And that is why I think that in his post, the point, although forcibly made, was one that needed to be heard."

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Peachy Keen said...

I get it. I am blind and it happens to me quite frequently. My AB husband and I have gone around and around about it. He thinks that they are just trying to be nice and I should be grateful. Yeah well... I don't think that is going to happen any time in the near future. I do try to be polite to these "well meaning" people, but inside I am seething. How do you handle this sort of situation quickly with dignity and grace?
I think the incidence of this treatment is higher among the disabled minority because we allow it and sadly many of us welcome it. Think about "help" and what a controversy it is. Or my all time favorite comment, "You don't look blind” That really frosts my cookies, but many, many blind people take that as a compliment. Sad.

Kei said...

I read yesterday's blog, but didn't have an opportunity to respond (kids were home from school), but after reading today's, I just had to.
You said it all in the first paragraph yesterday....
"Her tone was..." You were there. You heard what her tone was, what her intonation was. No matter what her intentions were, her choice of words and her tone belied them.

I am surprised that you were told to get over it. You were there... your blog readers weren't.

Anonymous said...

I really love your analogy of substituting race for disability, and then thinking about the words that woman used. I often do that when thinking about the abuse my husband used to hurl at me; I'd subsitute those words coming from anyone else-my boss, for instance. That allowed me to see them for what they were--poison.

Sorry you got grief about this. Just shows how far we have to come to understand.

Anonymous said...

After reading today's post, I "get it". I have excused the expressions "mongoloid" and "when they lived in institutions" from the elderly population. I was doing the same for the woman in yesterday's post. I was wrong.

I also read the Cal Montgomery's reference to "In Spite of My Disability", and the writings help me to understand as well.

Thank you to you, and Ian, and to Cal Montgomery. Every voice, every step, to guide us in the rightful direction.

Anonymous said...

This isn't an 'either or' situation, and arguing over which interpretation is right doesn't help...

She was 'being nice' and she was committing 'social violence' both at the same time.

Those of us who have worked in providing services should be no stranger to that idea. After all, we sometimes run services that both help and harm in one convenient package.

In return, we (& perhaps you) should be angry at her - and understanding of her, both at the same time.

And we should remember that she herself may have suffered and be currently suffering the same devaluation and disempowerment - as an elderly person, and as a woman. I don't in any way mean to imply that this makes what she said acceptable, just that it's an incomplete picture to see her as only the oppressor, and not also someone who is (might be) oppressed.

Anonymous said...

...oh yes, and when in this kind of discussion we all need to remember that we're also oppressing other people. Perhaps we're part of a more dominant group in our own society, and we're certainly part of a more dominant country (most of the readers of this blog anyway). And this isn't just a small matter, but a life and death one when we start looking at world poverty and disadvantage.

Of course none of us want this, but neither are we prepared to give up the advantages we have. And we ourselves are probably guilty of some of those same good-and-bad-at-the-same-time actions. If I give money to a charity which works in a country where people are starving to death because of the world imbalance of power and money - I am being nice. But if I lived in that poor country and I was seeing my children starve I'm not sure I'd see the (comparatively) rich person donating a few pounds my way as a sufficiently 'good' thing to make up for it being simultaneously somehow patronising and tokenistic.

Don't get me wrong here. What I'm trying to say isn't that anyone is right or wrong in this discussion - just to remind everyone that the world is more complicated than 'she was/wasn't being 'nice'.

lina said...

hmm, you always surprise me with the blogs that get lots of reaction versus the ones that get less....still haven't figured out how that works.
Anyway, Ian's advice is brilliant - thanks again, I can't tell you how much yesterday and today have taught me.

FridaWrites said...

Dave, I admit that I responded only to the second part of what you said, about your internal reaction to her and then concerns about those thoughts. But that was because I agreed that she was being disablist and condescending. I forget that people on the net can't see my head nodding in agreement and that we all sometimes need more affirmation.

I often find myself in the same situation, with my husband telling me to take people at their intentions. However, I can't disregard the disablism. Otherwise the disablism never disappears. It was the same way with sexism. People had to know that the kindest of intentions could still do great harm.

I may have to develop strategies to deal with disablism since people can get defensive and then not see what you're trying to tell them. But I admit I don't feel like being nice when someone else isn't.

I'm enjoying reading your thoughts very much.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately the "tone" is used all to often.
I am the mother of a 2 1/2 y. o. son with DS. I would get elderly ladies coming up to me during our weekly shopping telling me "he is the cutest little mongoloid I have ever seen." Or one lady in her mid 30's told me he was the cutest "retard" she has ever seen and how sorry she was for my plight as a mother. UGH!
I would never say, "you are the prettiest cancer patient I have ever seen.." People don't get it.
No one deserves to have the "tone" spoken to them. Thanks to you Dave for bringing to light the issues and making us ponder how we can make a difference, a positive difference in our community, to those around us and those we meet.
God Bless! Keep up the GREAT work!!!

Unknown said...

Even if I feel sorry and a bit guilty about not having felt how deeply humiliating and condescending the tone sounds, (especially when events like this happen again and again), I am glad I have written my reaction immediately after reading your blog yesterday.
You've taught me something I'll never be able to forget.

Myrrien said...

sorry to go off your topic slightly Dave but I thought I would pass on some good (?) news. Someone is listening Dave, the BBC on it's ten o'clock news has just done a report on disability hate crime after one of Brent Martin's murderers has been found guilty.

They highlighted a number of the incidents that have taken place in only the last two years - I think when they interviewed someone from "disability now" it was 51 they mentioned. There was no kidding around the subject either, they were talking about crime, hate. I didn't know whether to cry or cheer.

They are starting to listen!!!

Myrrien said...

I found the link on the BBC site


Just to warn people though they do go into a bit more detail than was on the news and it makes for very difficult reading.

Anonymous said...

i don't know what this has to do with anything, but i think one main reason that non-disabled people talk to disabled people in this idiotic way (or more frequently, don't talk to them at all) is that they have an intense, irrational fear that some type of social akwardness happening. "what if i talk and this person doesn't understand me?" "what if i talk and this person doesn't respond? i'll look like an idiot." "what if i talk but can't understand the person's answer?" mentally, the non-disabled person knows these things could happen if they spoke to someone without a disability, but something prompts them to ignore this. something about disability makes people dispose of all common sense.

the only thing i can compare this to is when people find out i'm gay and throw everything they have ever learned about social common sense out the window. i've had people i barely know suddenly blurt out graphic examples of bizarre or creepy sexual things they have done (presumably because they equate homosexuality with immorality or "deviance" or whatever).

what is this mechanism that takes people so far out of themselves that they forget things that they absolutely know?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for being so clear even tho' it reminds me of times when I have supported the "nice" people.I'm not proud of that but I can commit to speaking differently.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dave

I think you are absolutely right to feel as you do and to write what you did. (Whose blog is it anyway??)

I confess though to often being in the position of wanting to acknowledge the person and say something, but struggling with what to say...

My instinct probably would have been to ask whether you needed a hand - but would this have been as bad?? Or would it have been best for you if she hadn't said anything at all - an indication that she hadn't even noticed anything "different".

I have been reading your blog for a while - after coming to you via Jacqui's Terrible Palsy. I for one really appreciate you taking/making the time to post as often as you do.

The issues that you and many other folks struggle with are still a ways off for my little Molly (only 2.5 yrs), but I really appreciate the insight into what may become her reality as an adult.

My wish is for a reality where all people "fit in" and can blend into the background if they want to, facilitated by a built environment which accomodates everyone's needs. Ahhh, we can always dream...

Thank you again.

Susan, Mum to Molly
in Sydney, Australia

Anonymous said...

I learnt once a similar rule of thumb: Substitute "minority" with "Jew" and if you end up sounding like something from the Third Reich, it's probably very, very wrong.

It works. I use it often, it's a mental kick to the bottom to realise that what you just thought was some innocent (but stereotyping) comment was actually really, really nasty.

Another trick is simply to substitute your own minority instead and see if you would be offended - I guess everybody, even middleaged, "normal" white men can find a minority they belong to.

Shannon said...

My son is turning 5 on Monday and I have been wrestling with the "kindness of others” for at least 4 1/2 of those years. I am constantly trying to help shape his environment so that at least the people who touch our lives know the difference between kind and really not. I have to say that I am very glad to find your blog. Lets all hope that if we keep trying to open eyes that some day more people will see. My little guy is absolutely amazing. My little guy has CP.

Anonymous said...

All I have to say is this:

Good for you, Dave!! Even when the day is long and the road is bumpy, keep on keepin' on. Those of us out here who need a slap on the hand and a little education just might learn it from someone like you.

Your words truly inspire me to be both a better mom and a better person. Truly.

Peggy, mom to Cason, 3 years old