It was supposed to be a social occasion, just having a meal together.
But my able bodied acquaintance decided that the main topic of conversation should be the shooting at Virginia Tech and whether there should be more laws about how to deal with students with mental illnesses. Laws that exclude such students, laws that take away the privacy rights of such students, laws that cut away at the hard fought for provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and laws that increase the stigma such students already have faced.
After listening to my companion’s argument, I took another sip of coffee. I swallowed. I thought about how I just wanted to eat my breakfast. But as a person with a disability I know that many others are thinking and saying these same things.
So I brought up the danger of knee jerk reactions to fixing problems, the tendency to point the finger at the entire group of students with mental illnesses for the behavior of one and the folks who chained themselves to court houses and other places to get those of us with disabilities the rights we have that still are not being enforced.
“As a group, we have legal rights but not social or cultural ones in many cases,” I said quietly.
I was cut off. She was too angry to listen to me. “I knew you would say something like that, something vague,” she said triumphantly, sitting back.
“And,” I continued, “this is why many of us are forced to resort to the court system to handle situations which adds to a backlash against our rights. Then the stereotype of the angry and bitter and unreasonable disabled litigant crops up. Suddenly everyone else becomes the ‘victim’. Even though we are the ones who cannot get access to buildings, churches, schools and other institutions, the finger is pointed at us when we try to enforce our rights.”
“I’m not talking about your rights,” she said. “I’m talking about everybody else’s rights.”
Ahh, the us versus them argument. I refused to take the bait. I did have more coffee. “So you think we need to cut away the rights of students with mental illnesses because of the behavior of one student,” I repeated. She nodded. “So let’s follow through with this. If one college football player rapes another student, should we test all college football players to see if they are sexual predators?”
“No, of course not. That would be a violation of their rights. We’d be punishing them for who they are, not what they’ve done.”
“Maybe test all college athletes or students who weigh over a certain amount? Maybe we should do it on the basis of other attributes?”
She shook her head vehemently. “Absolutely not.”
“Then I don’t follow your reasoning. What you’re saying is that only students diagnosed with mental illnesses shoot other students, right?”
“No, I didn’t say that.”
“And you’re not saying other students should have their rights taken away?”
“Then how is that different than the college football player argument?” I asked.
“We all know that college football players aren’t crazy.”
“But some football players have commmitted crimes,” I point out. “There have been several trials for rape by Naval academy cadets this year and three of those students were football players. But I heard no outcry about treating college football players differently.”
“Well it’s not right to pick on student athletes as a group. Look at how they picked on those Duke lacrosse players,” she said hotly. “They were innocent and people made assumptions.”
“And those assumptions hurt those players,” I said quietly. “Our country was all indignant at the assumptions that were made against the Duke students just a few days before this shooting. We were all talking about the need not to rush to judgment, weren’t we?”
Neither of us said anything for a few minutes. “There is that side of things too,” she agreed.
I’m reminded of the mob scene in Frankenstein, where the villagers run out of their houses to get the monster. Torches alit, they go through the streets, looking for him, determined to make themselves “safe”. Except in this instance the “monster” has been defined as students with mental illnesses.
Before we form a lynch mob, folks, let’s calm down and consider how the prejudices that society still holds against those with mental illnesses are affecting our judgment. And let’s take a look at the role stigma plays in how we treat this issue before we judge people on who we think they are rather than by what they have done.
Copyright 2007 Ruth Harrigan