Friday, January 15, 2010

Uncanny Valley Girls

In robotics research, they've found that there's a general tendency for people to prefer robots who look more human. However, at a certain point, this tendency suddenly reverses - people find robots who look almost but not quite human to be creepy and somewhat repelling. This phenomenon has been dubbed the 'uncanny valley'. As many video game players can attest, the uncanny valley can also apply to digitally animated characters.
On the website TVTropes, they have a page where people provide personal experiences of the uncanny valley. I read this page through, and was disturbed to find the following quotes:

"This troper has a cousin with severe genetic defects. On the surface, she looks like an ordinary girl of her age. But spend even a minute in her presence, and the defects become apparent. Not only is she unable to stand upright without support and has seizures, but she is mentally retarded to the point that this troper isn't sure if she's truly sentient. She's like an animal in a human body - and yet she is kin.

  • This troper has a great-aunt who's mentally retarded to the point that she has the mind of a four-year-old... despite being in her late 50's. Every time his family goes to visit her, he can't help but be really, really creeped out.
  • Two Words: Tear Jerker.
  • That's why I can't substitute teach in EC, (what used to be called "Special Ed") classes. My empathetic side feels sorry for them, but every other instinct is calling for retreat. The exaggerated cheerfulness of the other teachers in there doesn't help. They pretty much have to do that to register on the kids."

"This troper has inherited her mother's very pale skin and tall, painfully thin build (aided by a metabolism running at the general speed of a Concorde), along with strabismus (more commonly known as 'squint') in the left eye. This makes it seem as if she isn't looking directly at the person with whom she is speaking (when in fact actually she is) and coupled with the rest of her inadequacies, it makes for a probably overall unsettling image. She has gotten used to the odd looks and sometimes rude remarks and generally tries to dispel them with good humor, an application of subtle self-tanning lotion and a pair of dark-tinted glasses when out in public."

"This troper Has always had issues with pictures of birth defects. Not so much disfigurements from an accident or something, just anything congenital or genetic. There's just something about humans being born looking inhuman that makes me feel like nature isn't to be trusted, and the world is a really squicky place on a primordial level. I saw a commercial for some Discovery Channel show about The Elephant Man when I was around eight, and... Well, needless to say, I didn't watch Discovery for a while after, and that commercial was literal Nightmare Fuel for me off and on for years after. Which probably means this is more like Nightmare Valley for me."

"Not sure where to put this, so I'll just put it here. Many/most Aspies (definition from the other wiki - by the way, no matter what it says, yes we have a sense of humour), This Troper included, both ignore the Uncanny Valley and fall victim to it. ... We fall victim to it in our interactions with those strange creatures known as 'neurotypicals' (you call yourselves 'normal' ;P), where many people pick up on something subtly 'wrong' about us and treat us according to their beliefs on 'different', varying from 'intriguing' or 'finally, someone interesting', through 'humour him, edge away slowly', all the way to 'DIFFERENT EQUALS BAD, DESTROY!'. I'll let you decide for yourselves what this does to someone over a lifetime."

"This Troper have met the Uncanny Valley in a bus. She (it?) looks like a young woman, but thinner than every single thin woman. She must be suffering severe anorexia, to the point were you can see her bones. Yeah, literally, all she got was some flesh left on her bones. Combined with a pale, cadaveric skin, and a black robe in wich she seems to float... Looking at her was like looking to a human skeleton. She was creepy enough, but then she starts to move, like a disincarnate puppet; her arms reaching slowly to the door, straight as two pieces of wood, shivering lightly. And then, she gasps. Ooooooh boy, that was Nightmare Fuel !"

These quotes, as well as some others, indicate that certain real, living people, due to various disabilities, fall into uncanny valley for some people. Does this mean they don't see us as really, truly human? Is this related to disability discrimination? Is it possible for these people to get over this reaction and learn to accept us anyway?

[Note: for those who have trouble with puns - 'Valley girls' are people from a certain region who have a distinctive way of talking ('like, gag me with a spoon'). I'm making a pun on valley girls and the uncanny valley to talk about people in the uncanny valley.]

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Pity and Competitiveness

There's a story floating around as one of those annoying chain letters. I don't know if it's a true story, or if it was made up. Either way, what I have to say still applies.
The story is from the perspective of the father of 'Shay', a developmentally disabled boy. Shay was playing baseball with some other kids, and out of pity, the opposing team all decided to throw the game in order to let Shay win. The actual story drags it out a lot more, but that's basically what happened.
There's a lot of things I could say about that story. But the topic of this entry is how the opposing team all assumed that Shay, if he realized he was by far the worst player on his team, would feel unhappy about that.
Now, if Shay was an undiagnosed disabled child, chances are high that they'd be right. I know that I felt bad about being so much poorer at sports than my classmates (although that was mostly because they teased me). Of course, if I realized the opposing team was deliberately making it easier for me, I'd be offended, but setting things up so I could get some degree of success in the game would be a good idea.
But from my volunteering experience, I'd say that most developmentally disabled people don't react this way. It wouldn't occur to them to think of themselves as better or worse at sports than another person, or if it did, they wouldn't put the same sort of value judgements on it. Not that these kids don't realize that they're different from others, or aren't able to make comparisons between peoples' abilities. It just doesn't seem to matter to them. Everyone tries to do their best, and no one cares whether X's best falls well short of Y's best.
I think it's a cultural thing. A lot of people don't realize this, but someone who is diagnosed with a disability in childhood grows up in a somewhat different culture than someone who is considered normal in childhood. Imagine a child getting therapy once a week with a bunch of other children with a mixed bunch of disabilities. In the therapy programs I've seen, it would be unheard of to give out a reward or praise to the kid who does whatever task the best. Sure, they give out rewards, but individually, not as a competitive group activity. Whereas I've seen plenty of regular schools do that.
In addition, since most parents want their kids to have high self-esteem, parents of disabled kids usually adjust their praise to focus more on effort than on outcome, or else praise kids based on how what they just achieved compares to their usual performance. In cases where the child's disability affects certain areas but not others, they often tell their children that their strengths are in the really important skills (such as Torey Haydn telling a dyslexic, highly empathetic student that 'you can't read words, but you can read hearts, and that's what's really important').
Lastly, many disabled kids hang out in groups of friends with wider ranges of ability than there are in most nondisabled friendship groups, because disabled kids often have disabled friends and disabilities are very variable. This means that among their friends, they learn to deal with diversity in ability a lot more than nondisabled kids do.
In the volunteering program I worked in, there was one girl - only one kid - who was self-conscious about her disability. I often saw her refuse to do physical activities because other people were watching. She was new to the program, and was very mildly disabled, and although I don't know her story, I wouldn't be surprised if she'd only been recently diagnosed. The rest of the kids (those who interacted with the other kids) never acted self-conscious. For example, I worked with a girl whose legs seemed to be different lengths, which meant she couldn't run very fast. Once, her and another girl decided to have a race, and the other girl easily left her far behind. She didn't get frustrated, instead she simply laughed because she liked running.

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.