Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Dealing with Different Abilities

I'm not sure if I mentioned yet that I've made a friend in one of my university classes. I sought her out to talk to because she's disabled (she uses a wheelchair). She also has a number of disabled friends, one of whom I've become friends with somewhat as well.
Anyway, she invited me to her birthday party. We went to a restaurant, four of us - me, my two friends and a third friend of hers. This third friend is more severely disabled and she can't feed herself, so our mutual friend fed her.
I was struck by how different it is when a disabled person gets that sort of assistance from a friend instead of a caregiver. There was none of the 'staff' body language, that sort of signals 'I'm helping you, you need help and I'm the person who gives help'. They weren't going into the 'helper'/'helped' roles, they were both in the 'good friends' role instead. Even though one of them was helping the other, it was clear that they considered each other equals.
Which shouldn't be that strange. After all, friends help each other all the time without any kind of power imbalance occurring. But people tend to treat 'special' help, such as what a disabled person needs, differently from ordinary help. Which gets me to a more general thought: the root of disability discrimination is treating disability like it's a big deal. It should be seen as just some traits that certain individuals have, just like being blond or bad at math or musical or athletic or whatever. Just part of the variation between people.
One interesting thing I've noticed, in my obsession with supernatural fiction, is that many fictional characters deal with supernatural abilities and liabilities this way. One example is in the TV show Angel (about a good-guy vampire), at one point Angel comments that his friend Lorne's driving is really bad, and Lorne teases Angel about not being able to drive during the day because he needs to cover himself in a blanket to protect from the sun. Even though Angel seems to have a more negative view of vampirism than how many disabled people view their disabilities, it's still a safe topic for friendly conversation.
Another example is in the Whateley Academy stories. The story focuses on a special school for kids with superpowers, kind of like X-men. And while they treat the kids in Hawthorne cottage, who have seriously impairing kinds of superpowers (eg a shapeshifter who turns into jelly if she doesn't concentrate on holding any form), like disabled people, the rest of the kids all have different abilities and don't make a big deal about it. For example, Team Kimba, who are the focus of most of the stories, initially had only two kids who couldn't fly. Once, they were hurrying to a battle and realized they'd need to carry one of the non-fliers because otherwise he'd get there too late. The only awkwardness about that was related to having a very pretty girl in physical contact with a heterosexual male teenager, not about the difference in their abilities.
It's interesting how people seem to be able to manage writing this dynamic with abnormalities in fiction, but they don't seem to realize that this applies to real life. In most cases, when they have a real life difference present, the characters react very differently - for example, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy was freaked out by Willow coming out as gay, while Willow and Xander hadn't reacted that way to Buffy telling them she was a vampire slayer. In a few cases, they deal with fictional abnormalities according to how real life abnormalities are stereotyped, such as with the students in Hawthorne. But I've yet to see a fictional portrayal of a disabled person who doesn't treat their disability as a big deal, even though it happens in real life.

5 Comments:

Blogger Adelaide Dupont said...

Which gets me to a more general thought: the root of disability discrimination is treating disability like it's a big deal.

Yes!

10:34 PM  
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12:28 AM  
Blogger Sarah said...

I love this post. I used to think saying "differently abled" was over the top and stupid. Plain stupid. Over the past 10 years as I've struggled realistically with my disability instead of covering it up with alcohol and drugs I totally understand wanting the world to see me as having different abilities and not as "disabled." You see, I cannot stay up past 8 most nights as I am exhausted from a day of work. But I can go to work every day, compartmentalizing my suicidal and psychotic thoughts and focusing instead on teaching children in a public school. I can't be with groups of people socially for any length of time as the stimulation of conversation and movement of bodies causes me great physical pain. I can, however, interact with one person and be extremely intuitive and insightful, communicating on a verbal and non-verbal level that exceeds most people's abilities. It hurts that I have to hide my disability from the public, I would have an easier time if I could just be open and the world would accept me for me. I would still be me - working full time, having friends, being funny and caring and moody...but I wouldn't have to hide my secret and spend so much of my precious energy on putting forth a public face and I wouldn't have to feel the guilt of lying about it either. Anyone who wants to read more about my different abilities can check out my blog about Dissociative Identity Disorder...
http://sarahsmithetal.blogspot.com/

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