Thursday, October 17, 2013

Followup: From An Old Familiar Place

I thought of a couple of things late last night, after I reblogged and commented on that account of how a young woman with Cerebral Palsy was treated by an ER nurse.

The story made me instantly angry in a way that very few things do. I shared it because of that, and because I think it's important to remember that sometimes, things really are as bad as we say they are … that while being a chronic misanthrope isn't healthy, it isn't always entirely wrong.

What I only thought of later is that this was a somewhat rare case when a person's fundamental ableism was in the raw, explicitly stated. In a way, that's a good thing. Usually, we don't actually hear people say we're not a "real person". Instead it's a tone of voice, a look, a reticence. In medical situations, it often manifests in a subtle disconnect. They ask us questions and we answer, and their responses and followups suggest that our answers were not accepted at face value. From there, it progresses to where every conversation with a doctor or nurse has a subtext … like they think something about us that they're not saying out loud. And of course, we feel paranoid for thinking that. It can be a real mess.

One other thought. What the nurse said seems very extreme, something probably very, very few people believe. It's one thing to be uncomfortable around people with disabilities, or have no patience for our "special needs", but it's quite another to assert that we are not "real" human beings in some fundamental way. But we can't forget that not so very long ago, the idea that people with certain types and degrees of disability didn't deserve the same basic rights as other humans was a mostly accepted and acceptable point of view. And it turned out to be a horribly short walk from abstract philosophical theorizing about genetic "contamination" and "humane" ways of "reliving suffering" to the Nazi T4 program, carried out mainly by medical professionals in what was at the time one of the Western World's most highly educated and "cultured" countries.

It's quite possible that nurse has problems and crises in her life that led to her outburst. But the nature of her outburst was pretty specific, and came from a familiar pool of ideology. The horror isn't that she said those words on a particular day to a particular person, it's that the ideas behind those words still have currency for who knows how many people.