Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.
“Blue”, of The Gimp Parade, has an interesting post on the differing reactions non-disabled people have to the disabled in different contexts, and on the expectations they seem to have for how the disabled are “supposed to”, or are allowed to, look to non-disabled eyes.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what people with disabilities look like and how it influences our interaction with the nondisabled in public. What disabled people are supposed to look like is part of the interaction too. . . .
Anyone who has experienced both limping and using a wheelchair will tell you that public reactions to the two appearances differ. Same with manual chair versus power chair, white cane versus guide dog, invisible impairment versus visible one(s), and, Ballastexistenz claims, with dog versus sans dog for her as a person with autism. Visual differences cue stereotypes, and breathing on one’s own versus towing a ventilator on my scooter also makes a discernible difference. Most notably, even fewer people are willing to make eye contact. . . .
Okay, so I know it’s fear of difference and the old “there-but-for-the-grace-of” thing. And that’s fed by a history of segregation and institutionalization. I’m 37, by the way, and Americans in wheelchairs who are my age are pretty much the first generation allowed to attend public school with everyone else.
The link to segregation and fear of difference is interesting, because there are certainly similar interactions arising between whites and non-whites from such a history – from stereotypes of physicality, sexuality, mental ability, maturity, and on and on, that shape encounters between members of the two groups and often lead the priviliged one into saying or doing something stupid. (A good book on this subject, by the way, is It’s the Little Things, by Lena Williams – it discusses the small habits and slights by which blacks and whites annoy each other. It occurs to me that someone needs to write the corresponding book from a disabled person’s point of view – though, of course, the parallel is inexact.) The bottom line seems to be not merely the expectations we have for people we mentally categorize in a given way (“black”, “disabled”), but that those expectations are normative. People are supposed to behave the way we stereotype them, so, for instance, the fact that someone fails to conform to a limiting or condescending stereotype is not grounds for rejoicing but may even be an affront. (One of Blue’s commenters remarks on people who cannot get their heads around the fact that her son really is permanently disabled, “because he looks so good”. She notes that “it would be easier for them if his disability showed.” [emphasis added])
I was particularly taken aback by her pointing out how recently it has been that “mainstreaming” was accepted as a norm for the education of special-needs students. A corrollary to her observation that she is among the first generation of disabled students educated in public schools is the fact that her age cohort is the first generation of non-disabled students educated with their disabled peers among them. That means that there’s a core social group (the Baby Boomers and older) who were raised with the segregationist mentality toward the disabled, and who now dominate society demographically and politically just as the follow-on generation is trying to come to terms with integration.
I would be interested in knowing more about the kinds of expectations and reactions people have – what exactly is the difference between the way non-disabled people look at someone in a manual wheelchair and someone in a powered chair? What does that difference, whatever it may be, say about people’s stereotypes?
A related issue is fissures in the disabled community over different ways of enhancing independence – such as short vs. long canes for the visually impaired, or cochlear implants for hearing-impaired children – questions that can divide the community and organizations within it. But that issue has a very different dynamic, involving self-definition and intra-community conflicts, from that of interactions between the disabled and clueless outsiders.
What would ease interactions between the disabled and non-disabled? Is the disconnect entirely one-sided? How much is this an “attitudes” problem (“ablism”) and how much a question of practicalities (simple education for the non-disabled; more accessibility and assistive devices for the disabled)? And what is the meaning of the generational disconnect between the “mainstreaming” and segregationist mentalities? Are we going to hear some dipshit Boomer Senator, years from now, saying “In my state we voted for asylums and diapers for cripples and retards, and if the rest of the country had done the same, we wouldn’t be having all these problems we have today!”? Is our spotted post-segregation history on racial discrimination a bellwhether for the course of mainstreaming of the disabled?
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