Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Cut on the Bias

Confirmatory bias.

This is a concept that explains a lot. It means that when you see something or hear something, you simply interpret it to fit into your world view. This is why a conservative and a liberal can watch the same news programme, hear the same story told in the same words and come away having heard two entirely different versions of events.

Many people hold the view that having a disability is living a life of constant tragedy, living a live perpetually in need of help, living a life where everything is made difficult.

Thus: the norm becomes the exceptional.

Today I was on the BC Ferry from Vancouver to Nanaimo heading north for a quick visit with family. We were on an early boat and lined up for breakfast at the on-board cafe. We'd placed our orders, Joe was waiting for the food to be delivered. I scooted on ahead to get us some tea. I picked up a cup, which was admittedly a long reach, and as I was about to set it down it slipped from my grip. The noise it made was disproportionate to the actual calamity.

The cashier, who I had notice watching me carefully as I was readying to make tea, leapt up at the sound of the dropping cup, a cup that did not break because it did not fall far. She rushed over and offered help. There was a desperation in her voice that would have been amusing if it wasn't so annoying. I told her I was fine. She insisted on helping. I refused, firmly. She practically begged to help. It was as if she expected my every move to end in disaster. after all, my life was a disaster, wouldn't everything else be an extension of that?

Now, let's be clear, I did not drop the cup because I was disabled, I dropped the cup because people sometimes drop cups and I am, last time I looked, most decidedly a member of the 'people species'. So, however, she conceptualized disability, jumped in and confirmatory bias took over. She couldn't see just a guy in a line up having a cup slip out of his hand. Instead she saw 'disability' as the root cause of every thing that might go wrong in my life. No wonder that people fear disability when they attribute regular human misfortune, accident and mishap as due to 'disability'. Most of what happens to disabled people happens to regular folks too ... except when regular folks drop cups, they are left to manage capably on their own because dropping a cup is no big deal. When you are normal, all things you do fall into the category of normal experiences. When you are 'deviant' or 'different' then all things, otherwise normal, become somehow tragic and kind of pathetic.

Confirmatory bias, is what it is ... bias.

Freud might have said, sometimes, a dropped cup is just a dropped cup.

But then, Freud was a smoker so what does he know?


Anonymous said...

Dear Dave,

well I think the comparsion with Freud is limping because Freud was suffering from laryngeal cancer and he had something going on with his daughter...

But yes, we can not get out of our skin and sometimes I think that able bodied people can never grasp how my disability changes my perspective of life but on the other hand I can never grasp the idea of an average curriculum vitae.

So I try to live by on what I learned from Joshua Kadison:
"everyone is a secret -
a secret to the universe".
That in itself is something immensly releaving.

Julia (from Germany)
who tends to throw cups sometimes too

Belinda said...

A great truth. The danger is that the bias can stick in your soul if you let it, thereby becoming true.

I'm not disabled, but I fight the label of "Klutzy child" which, even at 61, lands upon me whenever I visit with my much loved first family. I drop something and knowing eyebrows are raised. I have a choice--to laugh--to cry--to determine to withstand the label. I usually choose the latter, but I aim to do more laughing about it as anyone who remembers my childhood with affection--even if it is my clumsiness--has a stake on my heart. :)

I do know and understand the power of labels, bias and stereotypes and the need to shatter them!

Nan said...

When I first wrote about life with my daughter Jessie (for Morningside) it was in resposne to having listened to so many "poor soul" or "amazing soul" stories of people with disabilities. I wanted to write about just how normal it all was, because disability is a normal part of our experience as humans in community. I wanted people to get a taste of Life with Jessie as the normal day to day delight and challenge that it was.

Now though, I sometimes have to rely on my friends to remind me just how normal it is. Because we are in transition and transitioning with a young adult will make any parent slightly mad. So I have friends who have known me, Jessie, and our family all our lives just about, who remind me that almost all her challenges/behaviours are pretty typical for a 20-year old. I sometimes need to hear that too. But we ALL need to tell our stories so people know. How can they know, how can they embrace, if we don't give them a chance to be with us? to grow with us?

Dave Hingsburger said...

Julia, I was making a refence you Freud's famous quote, 'sometimes a cigar is just a cigar' ... meaning somethings things are just what they are, with no other meaning attached, that quote seemed perfect to play with for this post.

Anonymous said...

Hi My name is mary and I do have a disability and I truelly think that this is a great post, I am a person that works and I do very good for myself. However, people look at me as a person that needs all this kind of help. And I really don't need help to do my job. I would love to have a person to just listen to me. And on paper I do It's called a work coach. But really she is not a very good out lite for just being a friend of a disability.

Anonymous said...

It saddens me to see you react to kindness with Anger.

You don't know how she would have reacted to any other person dropping a cup. Perhaps your confirmatory bias took over?

The facts:

You saw her look at you
You assumed she was pitying you
You got angry when she tried to help you when you had a difficulty

She saw another human having a problem.
She tried to help.

Maybe it was your intent, but it seems there was some confirmatory bias on your part too!

Were I in her shoes, I likely would have told you exactly what I thought of your loutish behaviour. You made a lot of inferences that may not have been fair, and worse slapped a hand that was extended in kindness. You squandered an opportunity to educate.

Criticism is an effective scholastic tool, but a good teacher does not teach through criticism of the student, but through dialogue that teaches a student to criticize their own ideas.

I have always had problems with the Kantian view that it is the reasons why we help somebody that determines the relative morality of the action. I genuinely believe that action is enough, and have found that in my life, I start getting things wrong the very second I start to infer the reasons a person acts in a certain manner.

I am not perfect, but my mother told me everyday: "When someone helps, thank them. Even if you did not need it."

Ruti said...

You shouldn't thank someone for invading your space and refusing to back off when you ask them to.

Even if they do it in the name of helping. Even if they mean well.