Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Disability Blindness

This is a post I've been planning to make for a long time, but only got around to it now.
I have a book called Lifting the White Veil, which is about racism and focuses on what it means to be white, and how whiteness is often 'invisible'.
One chapter discusses colorblindness, and the problems with that view. Now, most people don't seriously think you should ignore disability like colorblindness ignores race, but there's this idea that you should see the 'person first', pretend you don't notice the disability except in very circumscribed situations, and completely ignore some of the more important aspects of disability (particularly the interaction between disability and identity).
Here are some of the criticism of colorblindness made by that author, and my own comments about how they do, or don't, parallel the 'politically correct' view of disability.

Colorblindness denies that race makes a difference in people's lives.
This isn't that true of disability, but considering that he's not talking about different cultures but instead the effect of racism, an important parallel can be made. I've certainly seen a 'blindness' to disability discrimination. This article studies alexithymia and depression in autistics, and despite quoting one person who directly linked prejudice to her own depression, completely ignored the possibility that being treated as inferior and wrong and expected to act in ways totally different from who you really are might explain why autistics are so often depressed. The closest they came was to state that:

"Whereas the slow compensatory acquisition of an explicit theory-of-mind has made the awareness of inner states possible, at least to some extent, it has also led to an increased awareness of the failure to “fit in.” This indicates a cost of compensatory learning that has not
always been realized. Increased depression could therefore be seen as a secondary reaction to a theory-of-mind deficit, dependent on specific experiences in the recent past."

which isn't very close at all. In general, any kind of problem a disabled person has must be a) a part of their disability or b) a natural psychological reaction to awareness of their disability, not c) internal or external discrimination. Only in a few cases do mainstream people seem to recognize disability discrimination, and generally only (as with racism) in its older forms. Even when discrimination metaphorically bites them on the nose, they don't recognize it or name it for what it is.

Colorblindness enforces a taboo against talking about race.
Definately a problem for disability as well. I have to dance around finding out what syndrome the children I volunteer with have, even though it's relevant (for example, knowing one girl has Rett Syndrome, I'm on the lookout for signs of motor apraxia in her - there are plenty - and can use that framework to help understand and assist her). It's viewed as rude to even mention disability. I don't feel it so much with mentioning my own disability - if there is a taboo against saying you're disabled, I haven't noticed it - but certainly with mentioning other people's disabilities, especially in front of them. This is likely a big problem with many of the children I work with, because it makes it harder for them to get information about their own disability in a direct way so they can process it effectively.

Colorblindness believes color consciousness must be racist.
Being aware of disability may not be assumed to be discriminatory, but certainly treating disability like it actually might have relevance for a person's identity often is. And if you break 'the rules' about mentioning disability (eg a child asking about disability) that is treated badly, and though children may get away with it, an adult who doesn't seem disabled probably will be considered rude. In general, however, most people are often less aware of disability discrimination in any form than they are of racism.

Colorblindness sees other racial groups but is blind to mainstream whiteness.
I've certainly seen this with disability as well. I recently noticed that when people think of what it means to be, for example, a 7 year old, or a 12 year old, what they think of is a normal kid that age. If a kid doesn't fit that, then there is often some cognitive dissonance between knowledge of their age and awareness of what they're like, as if they are 'really' some other age. But if you see several kids with the same condition at various ages, you see that there is often commonality between kids of the same age as opposed to other ages. For example, I can sort of see a 'type' among late preschool/early school-age Down Syndrome kids - they are often about a certain height, with a certain build, talk in single words/short sentences with very unclear pronunciation and are playful, mischievious, sociable and caring. Not all DS kids of that age group fit this type, and those who do aren't all the same any more than normal kids around that age are, but just because they're disabled doesn't mean their age is irrelevant to what they are like. I also see this in many other circumstances. Some people have said things like 'humans are social beings' or 'we are all sexual beings', statements which exclude many autistics. It's assumed that 'generic human' is the normal people, disabled people are 'special'.

Colorblindness believes we will all assimilate into the mainstream.
Disability blindness assumes all disabled people want to be normal.

Colorblindness says we are only individuals.
He clarifies to say:
"Actually what colorblindness says is that 'we are all individuals,' which is true, but colorblindness acts as if 'we are only individuals,' which is false. We are all individuals. We are all the same (which colorblindness admits as well). In between being completely unique as individuals and completely identical as human beings, we are all members of social groupings, be it men, women, white, black, red, yellow, brown, mixed, gay, straight, middle class, upper class, lower class. Our social group status does not define us exclusively. Nor does our common humanity. Nor does our individualism. Each of these contributes to our experience and our nature. To single out one and hold it above all others is arbitrary and misguided."
I can't say it much better than he does. I'm a human being and have some things in common with every other human being. I also have some things in common with every other autistic person, besides what I have in common with all humans. Then there are some things, and the particular mix of things, which I don't have in common with anyone. I'm unique, I'm autistic (among other groupings, such as white, female, etc), and I'm a human being.

Colorblindness believes intent, not effects, are important.
Jerry Lewis has often said 'no one is against the disabled'. Many parents of disabled children act as if loving your child excuses any way your behavior harms that child. Caregivers of disabled people protest 'but I'm a good person!' when challenged on their misuse of power. Piles of people act as if the fact that you want to do good automatically means you're not discriminatory, when that's only one part of what you must do. In fact, in addition to having good intentions, you must also a) recognize your own faults, b) understand how society distorts people's view of disability and c) be willing to listen to disabled people, even (especially) when what they say is hard for you to accept. I've probably left stuff out, but if you have those, you're well on your way. Just having good intentions is nowhere near enough.
Besides, from the perspective of the target of all this, whether someone meant to hurt you matters much less than whether they did hurt you.

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Blogger stevethehydra said...

You and I think along very similar lines in terms of diversity, i think...

Very good post - said a lot of stuff i wanted to say. Mind if i link to it?

7:12 AM  
Blogger Ettina said...

Fine, go ahead.
Generally you don't need to ask to link to stuff. Copying stuff, on the other hand, requires permission.

9:16 AM  
Blogger stevethehydra said...

Ok. No need to copy if it stays in place to be linked to. :)

Having said that, i probably now won't make the post i intended to link to it in for a couple of weeks, because of the 2 big things going on in the UK right now (a new accessible housing campaign, and the Katie Thorpe case)...

1:19 PM  

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