Thursday, February 13, 2014

Rookie Mistakes

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Or … advice for people just starting to have disability conversations.

This is similar to, but not the same as, disability etiquette or "Advice for the Non-Disabled". Those kinds of things address everyday social interaction and practical accommodation. This list is specifically for people who want to discuss disability issues, culture, and philosophy. It goes without saying but I'll say it anyway ... it is for people of good will, who want to have real conversations and want to avoid hurting people as much as possible. It isn't for people who consciously or unconsciously want to score points or impress people with how smart, compassionate, or "with it" they are. Also, it’s not just for non-disabled people. Plenty of people with disabilities are just dipping their toes in the water of disability as a topic of study or discussion. Real-life experience counts for a lot, but it alone doesn’t immunize against foot-in-mouth disease.

Finally, I call the items on the list "Rookie Mistakes" because they are things that people often say and do when they are new to disability-related discussions, and they are largely mistakes ... that is, unintentionally hurtful or annoying.

Enough preamble ... here's we go:

"People First” Language

Say “people with disabilities” or “person with a disability” in most formal, business or academic settings. However, be aware that quite a few people with disabilities don’t like “people first” language, and prefer to call themselves “disabled” or a “disabled person”. There are reasons for this, having to do with whether you see disability as part of who you are or as a separate characteristic, but it’s not really important to sort that out right away. Just stay away from “handicapped”, and above all, don’t use terms like “differently abled”, “handi-capable”, or any other phrasings that sound like they are trying very hard to make disabled people feel better about themselves. A few of us like this, but most of us find such terms to be kind of ridiculous and patronizing.

Practice Humility

Don't place your academic knowledge of disability ... learned in a class or seminar ... over a disabled person's lived experience. You can talk about your different view, or tell them what you have been taught. You don't have to agree with the other person. Just be respectful of the fact that you took a class, while the disabled person lives it every day. Beware of this especially if you start feeling angry that the disabled person you are talking to is "wrong" or "stupid". If you start feeling that way, it's time to step back and ask yourself who is the real expert.

Don’t Minimize Disability

In general, people with disabilities aren't comforted by thoughts and sayings that minimize the importance of disabilities. "I don't even think of you as disabled" and "We all have SOME kind of disability" are generally not helpful or kind things to say. They are the kind of things that can seem to be very insightful and empowering, but for the most part, will not be taken that way. Disabilities are real and have significant daily consequences. A better way to make us feel better or more understood is to acknowledge our difficulties once in awhile. Don’r pretend that they make no difference.

“Not Your Inspiration”

Don’t call disabled people “inspirational”. Just don’t. It doesn’t matter why you feel that way or what your good intentions are, it is something we have heard so often, and so often inappropriately, that it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard to us. I know fellow disabled people who are cheerful and optimistic every day, week in and week out, and even they want to vomit when someone says they or another disabled person is “inspirational”. You can probably express the positive feelings by simply picking a different word. Here are some suggestions that are less annoying, and in some cases more specific and accurate with particular people and situations:

Role Model

Different Kinds Of Experience

There are all kinds of ways to “experience” disability. All of them have value and provide some insight. However, they are not all the same. Parenting a disabled child is not the same as being a disabled child. Working in a disability-related job is not the same as living with a disability. Walking with crutches for several weeks because of a broken leg can make you more aware of accessibility, but it isn’t the same as having to cope with barriers every day of your life. Participating in a “wheelchair for a day” event may actually mislead you into thinking that using a wheelchair is worse than it actually is, since you’re only doing it for a few hours, while most wheelchair users get good at it over a long time. The point here is to be careful about how you empathize with a disabled person, and don’t claim a different kind of connection than you actually have.

Under The Bus

Remember the old “Seinfeld” bit? “I’m not gay! … Not that there’s anything wrong with that!” There’s a similar kind of thing that happens in the disability community, where one group of disabled people try to explain themselves and escape stigma by back-handedly disparaging people with other kinds of disabilities and worsening their stigma. Probably the most common example is physically disabled people very strongly asserting that they are not mentally impaired. They do this because so often people do assume, say, that a wheelchair user is also cognitively disabled, or that someone who has impaired speech is not intelligent. The problem is that in denying that we are like THOSE PEOPLE, we imply that there’s something awful about THOSE PEOPLE. Non-disabled people have their own version of this, where they imply that rights and freedoms are fine and appropriate for one group of disabled people, but NOT for others. For instance, some educators might agree that segregated classes are terrible for a “smart” kid in a wheelchair, but that kids with Down Syndrome, Autism, or Attention Deficit Disorder really need to be in separate, “special” classes. Every person has unique needs, and one size does not fit all, but beware of those who defend hurtful, dehumanizing practices for certain types of people and not for others.

One final point I’d like to make about these “Rookie Mistakes”, is that because they are mistakes typically made by disability “newbies”, I believe we should go a bit easy on them. We can point out to them where they’ve gone wrong, but try not to unleash hell on them because they aren’t yet tuned into our somewhat specialized traditions and taboos.

What do you all think? I’m especially interested in hearing from “veteran” disability activists and thinkers. Are there other “Rookie Mistakes” that are forgivable but need correction?

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