Friday, September 30, 2011


I was in a building often utilized by people with intellectual disabilities. I had just finished a meeting and had parked my wheelchair just outside the washroom to 'shed a tear for the widows and orphans' as my father used to say. The accessible washroom was a bit awkwardly located and, thus, my wheelchair took up a fair bit of space. I had just got back into the chair, and was just turned to head towards the exit, when someone came in and, stepping by me, said, "I hope you didn't make a mess in there!"

The tone of voice was one I recognized instantly, it was the one used exclusively for people with intellectual disabilities and naughty puppies. I looked up in shock at being addressed in such a patronizing and dehumanizing manner. The person saw me, brightened with a smile and said, "Oh, my gosh, you're Dave Hingsburger! I didn't recognize you at first!" Then she chatted brightly about how much she enjoyed my lectures, how nice it was to finally meet me, how she had used my written materials over the years." I just kept staring at her, still a bit bruised by that tone of voice.

I think she realized, from the look on my face, that I wasn't really taken by the "fan" chatter and said, "Oh, gosh, sorry about before, I just thought that you were ..." she let the sentence trail off. But the world left unspoken, hung in the air, "the R word".  Then, as if her behaviour was fully explained, she smiled again, said how nice it was to have met me and then she was off. I said "farewell" coldly and left.

There was no great confrontation.

I have supported, loudly and often, the effort to end the use of the "R word" in speech. I hate that word. I hate how it's used. I hate what it represents. I hate that the people who don't get it, don't get it.

Now, I want to broaden the campaign to end the use of the "R word" in behaviour as well. Being called a name, hurts. Being treated as if you deserve to be called a name, is even worse.

I found it very difficult to shake off the hurt and the humiliation in being spoken to in that tone of voice, by a stranger, about an intimate behaviour. Being talked to publicly about the supposed mess I would have made in a bathroom by someone who had no idea about my proficiency in a bathroom in a public hallway within hearing of many others was a kind of brutalization that really stung. Having my Social Quotient tied to and determined by an assumed Intellectual Quotient made no sense to me at all. The connection, in fact, infuriates me. I should be valued simply because I have value - not for any other reason.

There shouldn't be a test which determines the rate of social respect that I get:

Perfectly Polite

Mildly Indifferent

Moderately Rude

Profoundly Insulting

I think that the shock of going from 'lambasted with attitude' to 'lauded with praise' is still with me. I know the woman who spoke to me thusly reads this blog and I know that this will upset her. I didn't write this blog last night when I wanted to, I waited to sleep on it. But I found it difficult to sleep. It was as if I was a 'princess' (shut up) and this incident was the 'pea'. It niggled at me and niggled at me throughout the night. So, finally, I've gotten up to say what I want to say.

To the woman, who I know is upset by reading this:

Your tone hurt me.

The idea that that tone comes easily, to all of us who have power over others, hurts me more.

The confession that I've used that tone, too often to too many, pains me most.

To all of the rest of us:

End the "R word" in speech, in behaviour and in determining value.


Andrea S. said...


I think you're right to call her out on her behavior. You don't deserve the tone of voice she used -- and NOT just because you're Dave, NOT just because you're not actually one of "those" people, but because you're a human being and NO human being deserves to be spoken to in that way, intellectual disability or not. The fact that she initially mistook who you were does nothing to excuse her behavior because she shouldn't have treated ANY one with such disrespect.

If she is reading this, I would like to suggest that she watch the following two videos:

Being an Unperson, produced by the excellent blogger Amanda Baggs. This is what this woman did to Dave. And given that she clearly didn't see anything wrong with what she did (except for having mistakenly done it to the "wrong" person), this is what the same woman is probably also doing to a lot of people with intellectual disabilities as well. Who don't deserve it any more than Dave did.

The second video I'd like to recommend is this: On Being Considered Retarded (You'll see some text on the page first ... read the text, then you'll see the video below the text). Also by Amanda Baggs.

wendy said...


painting with fire said...

Powerful post.

Nathan Dawthorne said...

You better not have made a mess of that bathroom...

Yup I pissed all over the floor and made a mural with my feces - go clean it up lady.


Colleen said...

Dear Dave:

Here! Here! And I second Anrea's endorsement of the videos.


Tamara said...

Well, I hope the woman is reading, and, frankly, I could care less if she is upset. I think we need to change the speech and attitudes from one R word to another - we need to move to RESPECT. A popular "slogan" or whatever in the Down syndrome community is that people with Down syndrome just want to be "accepted". I call Bullshit. People with Down syndrome - and every other disability - want and need and DESERVE to be treated with RESPECT.

The thing that bothers me most about Shawen's increasing independence is that he is going to get hit more and more with disrespect - not only with name-calling crap - but with "pity" attitudes and "he's so sweet" crap - and with attitudes that this woman obviously displays with people with intellectual disabilities.

I can hardly believe she's been to even ONE of your lectures or has read any of your written material.

While I can understand someone having a bad day - that was totally disrespectful, rude and really hateful - and then to be able to look you in the eye and not acknowledge it?

Sorry, but I keep putting my kid in your place, and it really makes me angry.

Anonymous said...

What boggles my mind is how she could be so well-versed with your lectures, your materials, and your blog and STILL have behaved in the manner that she did.

Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees...


Amanda said...

I just recently wrote a post (What It Means To Be Real) where I talked about... how people were treating me in a way where that word existed in their every physical motion and tone of voice, even if it didn't exist in their speech. (This was in a really terrible rec program I went to a few months ago.)

The scary thing is that I've gotten so used to being addressed that way, and used to being hurt that way, that (as discussed in that post) it took me months to realize I was human enough not to deserve that treatment.

And like others, I don't really care if this person is upset. People are always getting upset when someone actually describes to them the harm they are doing. But if I were to put in a balance, the harm done by them to others, and the "harm" supposedly done by "upsetting them" by straight talk about what they are doing, and... they don't even compare. Not even a little. Sometimes we need to be upset in order to recognize that our own actions are just wrong. I really detest when people make things like this all about their feelings when they've actually hurt someone.

ivanova said...

Personally, I am worried about if this woman who behaved this way is upset. I want her to learn from her mistake, and not just think "Everyone is scolding me." Hopefully she will learn from being called out, and she will go on to treat *everyone she encounters* with respect and dignity. So, just assuming she is going to do that, I want to tell her, "Everyone makes mistakes. You got caught. I know you're going to go on now to be a shining example of how to interact with people with intellectual disabilities, and all people. If you don't know how to do that, ask around. And everyone will be really proud of you if you do that. Don't cry."

Anonymous said...

Speaking as someone who has worked in the human services field for only 5 years, I can't believe this woman greeted you in this manner. Whether or not you were someone with an intellectual disability, no one deserves to be treated in that manner. If it had been someone with an intellectual disability, and if they had "made a mess" who is she to scold them in that way? I try every day to treat the people that I serve the way that I wish to be treated, with dignity & respect. I think this woman needs to rethink what she should have gleaned from your work.

Anonymous said...

"obvious to the oblivious" another great Dave quote seems to fit here. I agree with Ivanova's post. Do better now you know better.

Kasie said...

As Kathy Snow would say, "Please presume competence!"

Louise said...

I'm sorry that you were hurt - but there's something quite special that you were able to hear this and then comment on it.
How DARE she? If she really thought the person she saw might have 'made a mess' surely the only reasonable comment could be 'do you need any help?'........ pretty patronizing in itself, but at least kind.
I want to cry.
She presumably listens to your lectures with earplugs in.

J. said...

This is a sad and angering reminder to me that what is said and what people hear are not always the same thing - sometimes not even close. It sounds like this woman has been impressed by your work but I wonder how she would sum up what she remembers learning from you? I wonder if you would recognize your own ideas in her summary of what she has learned from you? I wonder if she has taken the time to integrate any of it into her own thoughts and behaviour? Too many people have a huge disconnect between what they think they believe and what their behaviour shows they believe.

This sounds like a woman who is quite proud of herself and the work she does - and who doesn't really have a clue what she is doing. She doesn't respect the people she works for and she doesn't even know it. I almost - not really, but almost - prefer an outright bigot to someone who hasn't got a clue how awful their words and actions are and who in fact thinks that they are doing a fabulous job and everyone must admire them for how they do it.

Sorry you had such a bad sleep last night, Dave. I hope tonight is better.

Anna Theurer said...

Beautifully written post! I do hope that this woman reads this post and actually takes all you have written to heart. That she changes her views and her behavior.

CT said...

You made me think of a writer (Kurt Vonnegut Jr, I think) who wrote about a moment of shock he had when reading the Christian Bible -- that when he got to the part about the crucifixion, there was very much a sense of "hooo boy, you picked the wrong guy to nail up this time!"

But, as he noted, it's always the wrong guy. The fact that it is Jesus didn't make the action wrong. The wrongness arises from the action itself. I no longer have the faith of my childhood, but I remember this same reaction, and I try not to lose track of that.

Disrespect, unkindness, thoughtless cruelty callousness ... is always done to the wrong person, because there is no right person for those things. Period. And the measure of how we live our beliefs in these matters is how we act when we are not observed by those with power over us.

Mind you, I think ivanova has an important point made above, too. This can be about learning from errors because -- as a corollary -- we all make them. That's what makes it unconscious predjudice and bias. I know it is when I start thinking along the lines of "I'd never do that" that it is most important for me to watch myself very carefully. Those tend to be the areas where I don't see my own actions because I never think to look.

So I'll think about this one some more, and I'll try to identify the "wrong guy" moments in my own life. I'd like very much to find them, because I have little doubt they are there.

trainspotter said...

Thank you for sharing this.

My 8 year old daughter has autism and has also been labelled "intellectually disabled". A couple months ago I took her into a public rest room and followed her into the stall, as I had routinely done so many times before. She turned around in the door way, looked right at me and said "Bye Mom". Her meaning was very clear and I shut the door leaving her alone, for the first time, to do her business in peace.

I have never viewed my daughter as intellectually disabled dispite what 'the experts' that gave her that label believe. There is absolutely no evidence that those with that label know less than neurotypicals, regardless of what they can/or can't express. But that situation was a good reminder to me to be careful that, in my efforts to help, I don't rob my daughter of the dignity that she deserves.

I also agree with Ivanova and hope that the woman that robbed you of your dignity will not take offense but will take this as a lesson learned. All people deserve dignity regardless of their perceived abilities and we all should repeat this as our mantra in an attempt to prevent our future selves from making such thoughtless errors.