Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A Person Who Doesn't Fit

The next disability blog carnival is 'disability identity'. I thought I could easily write something about this, but actually, it's so pervasive an issue for me that I find it hard to decide on a single post about it. But I'll try.

Who you are and what a person is are interrelated concepts. Most people surmise about others based on themselves, and they describe themselves in comparison with others. One personality questionnaire I took (which oversimplified and was innaccurate in places) described every aspect in which I stood out from the majority significantly as an important part of my personality, because it would be an aspect that others would notice and identify with me. Those are also some of the more salient parts of my own identity (eg introversion and disorganization).
Is it much of a surprise that many disabled people feel identified to a certain extent by their disability? If you are defined as an individual by how you differ from others, and you are prominently different from others in a certain aspect, clearly that aspect will become an important part of your self-definition. Some people fight this, and try not to define themselves by disability, but whenever you are a disabled person among normal people, it is part of your definition.
When talking about disability identity, many people discuss the identity of someone labeled with something. But what if you are not? What if you just notice differences between you and others, that make you stand out from every group you're in, and you have no name for it?
And if you have a label, you might notice more how your differences fit that label, instead of the other differences. I tend to think more about being socially awkward, because that's part of the definition of autism, instead of noticing when I react to social signals others overlook (unless it fits my idea of autism, such as reading autistic people or animals). I had an idea for a study in which I test ADHD kids on their ability to understand silent videos depicting various social interactions. One group of children would be told that ADHD people are said to have good social intuition, and I want to test that, the other group would be told I'm looking for learning disabilities in social interaction, because those are likely to be common in ADHD. In reality, I'd be testing whether the hypothesis they were told affected their performance.
Another thing about labels. Amanda Baggs recently posted a bunch of poems, one of which is called Arbitrary Taxonomy (she asked people to give her a title and she'd write the poem). Here is the poem:

"Authority walked in with his clipboard
We were already here
We knew who we were
But he came in with his clipboard
And his white lab coat
And his official glasses
Told kin we weren’t related
Told strangers we were kin

At first strangers stayed strangers
And kin stayed kin
He shook his head like we’d lost our minds
We told him what he’d told us before
The kin as strangers
The strangers as kin
And with no trace of irony
He praised us for our insight"

Labels identify you as part of a group. But people are diverse, and the labels classify people as if we all fit into subtypes. The potential groupings are many, the labels pick certain ones and elevate them as more important than others. It really is arbitrary, but it can powerfully affect your view of people.

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