Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Social Life Of The Disabled

Large smiley-face emoji holding a sign with Hi! in bold black letters
I'm a little late in commenting on the Just Say Hi! campaign that got a lot of disabled peoples' blood boiling a couple of weeks ago. I've been thinking about it a lot, though. I have an idea about what the Cerebral Palsy Foundation is trying to do with this effort, ham-fisted and condescending though it may be, and at least one of the reasons why it rubbed so many disabled people the wrong way.

All of the negative social feedback we experience as disabled people can be boiled down to three main categories, or, if you prefer, flavors of interpersonal ableism:

1. Hostility

Undisguised disgust, explosive impatience, derogatory language, bullying.

2. Invisibility

Turning away, avoiding interaction, talking about you as if you aren't there, awkwardness.

3. Intrusion

Forced cheerfulness, condescension, strangers over-sharing and asking personal questions.

Each of us experiences a mix of these things, at different intensities and frequencies. But I think every disabled person experiences one of these more than the others. The kind of social ableism they encounter the most naturally influences their view of ableism itself.

The main problem with "Just Say Hi!" is that it only addresses “Invisibility.” It’s sole aim is to encourage non-disabled people to approach disabled people they see in everyday life and engage with them, starting with just saying “Hi!”. The implication is that the main problem disabled people face in social interactions is being ignored. Also, that the reason they are ignored is that non-disabled people are nervous about talking to disabled people.

There's nothing wrong with that, as far as it goes. It’s definitely a problem for disabled people, and for some disabled people, being ignored and having no friends is a huge and very painful problem. But choosing to address just "Invisibility" implies that it's the only social barrier we face.

Unfortunately the solution, encouraging non-disabled people to approach random people with disabilities and "Say Hi!”, actually ends up making the “Intrusiveness” problem worse. Most of the disabled people who criticized the project on social media said that the last thing they want is for strangers to come up to them and try to be instant friends, or ask them personal, intrusive questions. That’s the way I feel. When I go into my local Starbucks to write and drink my favorite tea, I enjoy exchanging pleasantries with the baristas. I like it when I run into people I know and we have a little chat. I do not want other customers I don’t know to look at me sitting there alone with my visible disabilities and decide to talk to me as their good deed for the day. On the rare occasions they do so, it’s excruciating. Among other things, it makes me responsible for being nice back to them, so I don’t come off as a prickly asshole. So a strategy meant to make me feel at ease has the opposite effect. Instead of feeling relaxed and socially included, I feel put-upon, on the spot.

There’s another factor here as well. It feels like this initiative is influenced by parents of kids with CP. A lot of the positive comments were from parents who wrote about how painful it is for them to see their kids ostracized, with no friends, no socialization. Like I said, this is absolutely a real problem, especially for kids and youth with disabilities. Some disabled adults feel this way, too, but my sense is that it’s much less of a problem for adults than it is for children and youth. So this seems like a campaign designed with disabled kids in mind, and little recognition that disabled adults might have different priorities and preferences.

By the way? How about encouraging disabled people to say “Hi!” if they want to interact with people and make friends? I know from experience … both good and bad … that the quality of my social life is at least as much on me as it is on others. I don’t mean to blame the victim, but as the saying goes, there are two sides to a conversation.


A couple of additional thoughts ... First, I'm not sure there is any sort of social media / awareness campaign that can adequately address the "Hostility" problem, so I don't really blame the Foundation for not dealing with it. It should be dealt with, but with a much deeper, multi-pronged approach. Second, I thought about whether it's important that the Foundation is for people with Cerebral Palsy. On balance, I would say this doesn't really make much of a difference. The issue I think they're trying to cope with is how people with very visible, perhaps audible disabilities are treated, and CP tends to be very noticeable. But so do many if not most other disabilities. So there's that.