Why Our Perspective and Presence as People with Disabilities Matters

Iris Young (1990) delineates five components of oppression and one is:

Establishment of the dominant group’s experience and culture as the norm, which renders invisible the oppressed groups’ perspective

Has someone ever tried to silence you as a person with a disability when you offer your perspective on a situation? Has someone told you that your perspective doesn’t “fit into” the reality of a situation or is just plain wrong?

Unfortunately, because of the oppressive history that people with disabilities have, many times when we speak up, others find what we say to be so outside the “norm” that they dismiss it. This can lead to labeling us as malcontents or, even worse, having our reality denied to our faces.

“That can’t be right,” a person might say to you. “That can’t have happened to you. ____ (fill in the blank) doesn’t treat people like that!”
“You’re just upset and overreacting. You’re not seeing this from everyone else’s point of view.”

The truth is, people with disabilities are not seeing things from everyone else’s point of view. We have our own perspective. It varies from individual to individual depending on other factors such as our gender, race, education and poverty level. Our experiences may be outside of the norm but that doesn’t mean that we as people are. We watch the same TV shows, read the same papers, live in the same society as others and adopt many of the same attitudes and rules. But we also carry with us the experience of living with a disability, one that brings a perspective of its own.

So what does this have to do with inclusion? Everything. We need to be realistic about the gap that exists between what able bodied people know and do not know about the experience of living with a disability. It seems paradoxical to urge people to look at differences in experiences, but inclusion is not about people with disabilities just fitting into the “norm”. It’s about allowing those of us with disabilities to fully be ourselves and enrich the community at large by making ourselves a visible presence.

Let me use an example here. My neighbor on the left has a son who is an amputee. Because she has a child with a disability, she has some experiences with some of the issues I face as a person with a disability. My neighbor on the right has no one in their family who has a disability. Although they are very nice people, having me live next door has been more of an adjustment for them. They aren’t familiar with what living with a disability is like and, at times, misunderstand things. One night I overheard them talking to my neighbor on the left, asking her why I could not take my own garbage cans in “on time”. I could hear the “a-ha!” in their voices once they understood more about my disability and realized I depended on outside help to do that. Since then they no longer get angry at me when the cans are out an extra day. It was a matter of seeing things from a certain perspective, one which was unknown to them. This is a small example of how people can mistakenly attribute the wrong motive to outward behavior because they do not understand our perspective – or how we live with a disability.

Just think of how many more behaviors this happens with- especially in a large group of people!

Unless we are willing to recognize that the perspective of people with disabilities has to become visible, we cannot reach inclusion. It is good to remind ourselves that we have much in common with the rest of society, but it is necessary to acknowledge that we have different needs, experiences and spiritual journeys in order to have a fully inclusive community.

Copyright 2007 Ruth Harrigan


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2 responses to “Why Our Perspective and Presence as People with Disabilities Matters

  1. Hello Ruth,
    Have you (or other readers) also experienced the opposite of this, ie. when you have a visible disability, people automatically assume you experience everything the way you do because you have a disability. One example is when I was on the train to my college city a few months ago. No-one had ever taught me how to open train doors (that used to open automatiically, but you now have to push a button to open the door) and I was standing in front of the door alone. I tried several times to open the door, but failed. Now I have this tendency to get majorly overwhelmed when I don’t understand something and I might throw a tantrum then. Just for the labels record, I am on the autistic spectrum and everyone who knows this assumes these tantrums are cause of that, but this incident occurred before I knew I’m on the spectrum and besides, autism is an invisible disability anyway. So I threw a major tantrum while on the train. As the doors finally opened, in a place where I couldn’t get off cause there was no platform, people saw I was still in the train and called a train attendant, saying “there is a blind woman in the train”. Now as you can tell, my behavior was not cause I’m blind, and if I hadn’t been blind, they’d likely called the railway police on me. However, now they were assuming tha tit was perfectly alright for a blind woman to throw a tantrum cause she couldn’t get off the train.

    As far as having one’s experienced invalidated, would it help to show the wolrd that we’re disabled, sort of by carrying a badge that says “I have X”, or would it just lead to excuse-findign situations like the one I just painted? I assume you have a visible disability, and yet people still don’t understand why you do things the way you do. I have a visible disability, yet people still forget that I can’t see sometimes. A while back, I foudn out a Dutch autism society wants to make cards for autistics saying they’re autistic, so they can show them to people in situaitons like the one I just painted. I said it seemed like a good idea, if it worked. However, I think, for people who’ve never known people with disabilities before, it would only send the message that “this person is disabled so there” and not do anything about understanding. After all, it takes a lot of contact with people with these disabilities, to even get close to understanding their experiences. Of course, knowing the world of disability is not required to “handle” us – you don’t need to know about disability culture to open the door for someone in a wheelchair, and possibly the “guidelines” they’ll put ont he “I’m autistic” card will suffice in handling an autistic person’s meltdown on the street -, but true inclusion takes something more than to know how to “handle” people with disabilities.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comments and also sharing your experiences as having one disability that is visible and one that is not. I agree that true inclusion takes more than knowing how to “handle” people with disabilities as you put it- and I doubt giving people with autism a card that says they have it would help in many instances unless people find out more about autism. I know that when people see my wheelchair every day, they still do not know how to act or what to say in situations. I think education is necessary but then people assume that reading a book – or a blog- is enough. It’s a start but to me the reality is that as we dialogue toward inclusion, the problem will begin to solve itself. As more people with disabilities become visible out in society and participating (whereas the assumption has always been we are not doing that), others will learn more about living with a disability and about different disabilities. Perhaps then the world will not only be designed better so that buttons are easier to find for doors but people will understand better. This will take work and time on everyone’s part.

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