Until about 20 years ago, if someone had asked me what element of disability prejudice bothered me the most, I would have said, "When people assume I'm mentally retarded."* For several reasons, that isn't even on my grievance list today.
I suppose one reason is that it has been a long time since I felt like someone actually thought I had a "cognitive impairment". I'm older, I hope more mature, knowledgeable, and at ease in my own skin, and therefore maybe less likely to come across as "different" ways that might be explained by an "intellectual disability". Maybe people still do mistake me for someone with "something wrong in my head", and I've just become oblivious to it. Maybe I was overly sensitive to the possibility when I was younger. People might even be less ignorant than they used to be. Maybe all of our messaging to the effect that, "Just because my legs are impaired, doesn't mean my mind is" has gotten through to a critical mass of people, and it's just not a common prejudice anymore. I'm not sure.
The other reason why I think differently about this now is that soon after starting to work in the disability field, at an Independent Living Center, I had a slow-motion epiphany about the relationship between people with "physical" disabilities and those with "mental" or "cognitive" disabilities. It went something like this:
1. It's understandable to be frustrated when someone assumes you have a disability you do not. I have enough trouble with my actual disabilities, without also having to contend with the prejudices of someone else's kind of impairment. Also, I happen to value and take some pride in my intelligence, such as it is. So, it's okay to be upset when someone mistakes me for "retarded".
When this made me upset, and especially when I hotly denied the designation, I was buying into the stigma against people who actually do have "learning difficulties". What if I had been "developmentally disabled"? Would that mean that people's condescension was correct in some way? The problem isn't the label, it's what people do with it. Believe me, nobody ever treated me better or more respectfully because they temporarily thought I might be "developmentally delayed".
Not only was this "buying into" the stigma, it was supporting and validating it. Which was never my intention, even back then. Good intentions only get you so far, though. At some point you have to become aware of the effects of your actions and feelings, not just your intent, and act according to your actual beliefs.
By that time, I had come to believe that in most important ways, people with physical impairments and people with cognitive impairments are more alike than they are different. At the very least, people with "physical" disabilitieis and people with "mental" disabilities share many common experiences. For instance:
- We are underestimated. We often underestimate ourselves.
- We have to work harder and more deliberately to assert our personhood, our agency, our membership in a society that can't seem to help marginalizing us, even when they're being "nice" to us.
- We have to do things differently than other people, due real and specific impairments we can't wish away or pretend aren't there.
- We often see people react to our very presence with surprise, discomfort, morbid curiosity, or an impulse to flee. Even if it's just for a second, we notice it, and there's probably nothing we can do about it.
- Statistically, we exist in a world of poverty, massively high unemployment, poor education, and low percentages in almost any measure of a happy life you can think of.
There are exceptions to all of these trends, and each one of us has bright spots that for others of us are dark. But, I don't think there is a single one of us … physically or cognitively impaired … who doesn't experience at least one of these things on a regular basis.
So, yeah, it does bother me personally when people say "retarded" (it bothers me a little even to type it here), and I don't worry anymore whether or not people think I'm that kind of disabled. It's not because I've tried hard to be "politically correct" or more enlightened. It's more than an intellectual change. It's because I simply see the whole issue differently now than I used to.
* I am using a variety of terms and phrases to describe disabilities involving brain function, because the confusing mess of terminology for this kind of disability reflects how conflicted we are about it ... more so than with other disabilities.