On distancing from the disabled

“When we see people who are disadvantaged in comparison to us, we distance ourselves, both to protect ourselves from empathetic feelings and also to avoid the guilt of not helping them.” via changingminds.org on Empathy vs. Objectification

We see it in our social spaces, when special areas are set aside for the disabled. Our history as disabled people consists of being educated separately, institutionalized or hidden away and “housed” separately and excluded socially. Exclusion itself and the need to work toward inclusion is a result of the distancing that has taken place.

So what is this distancing about? Some say it’s about an aversion, about the disabled looking different. But as our world grows smaller and media allows us all to educate ourselves about disability – hear about it, look at it, etc., these arguments begin to lose ground. Perhaps years ago, when people didn’t get out much or travel or have online access, that would be a more viable argument. You were less likely to meet a number of disabled people, I suppose. But, again, this has changed a great deal.

Then there’s the quote above which basically states that distancing can be about avoiding the guilt of not helping those we see as disadvantaged. Well, thanks to all the myths over the years (the poster child, the telethon melodrama), many do see the disabled as disadvantaged. You may even be wondering as I write this – aren’t they? Isn’t being around the disabled always about helping them, giving to them and then we all go home?

No and that’s exactly where it’s all a self fulfilling prophecy. When people limit their interaction and relationships to disabled people in those ways, they never learn that being disabled doesn’t consist of being in these unidimensional roles.

The reality is that disabled people, depending on their disability, do things differently. I’m amazed at the range of reactions I received in email about the videos of the quad cooking a pizza. Some people were horrified and said he would burn himself alive while others said he was inspirational doing this daily task. I like Dirty butter’s comment that a cooking mitt is a good idea next time. Certainly using a quad reacher to lift a hot pizza pan out of the oven has its dangerous moments (although not as dangerous perhaps as using one for other things, I can attest to that!) But it’s an example of how a quad does things differently. The comments I really liked were the ones who ‘got’ that he found a way to make a pizza in the oven.

Seeing disability as a disadvantage does a disservice to all of us. It denigrates the creative, resourceful solutions that people find while living in a world that is not universallly designed. Such a view , unfortunately, grows things like shame, fear and despair in its garden rather than nurturing the human spirit and embracing the individuality of each of us.

Have I ever cringed watching a disabled person do something? Sure I have. I’ve seen blind people ski for the first time and fall down over and over again. But they get up and eventually they ski. I think it’s how we interpret the falling down and the different methods and equipment we use to do things that is key here. I’ve also cringed watching my nephews learn to walk and struggle to read. I’ve even cringed watching boyfriends try to cook, much less quads.

The starts and stops of the learning process at times may be somewhat of an analogy here, I suppose, but that’s not exactly what I’m talking about either. I think to fully understand what I mean one has to be around disabled people, listen to them, eat with them, and have fellowship with them. This can’t happen when distancing continues.

If you don’t see the beauty of a child in a wheelchair visiting a park or being surrounded by his friends in a class, you won’t ever get that there’s no reason to exclude him – and plenty of reasons not to. Nor will you understand his need to do things differently and have the right equipment and access.

And it’s sad because we all miss out. When I meet a person who argues that distancing from the disabled is a normal reaction, I respond by saying that disability is natural and I ask if he/she turns away from nature in all its various forms. I ask if he only looks at blue butterflies or orange birds, if he dislikes thunder but wants the lightning. I question if he’s ever seen beauty in the struggle of a bird to fly or in the last moments of a summer day as evening falls and dusk descends.

“Of course not – I know it all exists!” is the reply.

And so it is with us humans.

Distancing from disabled people denies them their humanity and personhood. It objectifies people – who are not unidimensional. And it hurts – everybody.


Filed under essay

6 responses to “On distancing from the disabled

  1. Growing up without a disability, sometimes I find it difficult to not see myself as disadvantaged. Society, in general, as well as most individuals make the disabled disadvantaged. I can’t even get a decent job (and I hve a more than adequate education) If that isn’t a disadvantage, I don’t know what is.

    I definitly believe I have a right to live as well as the next person. I should be valued. But it doesn’t change the fact I do live a disadvantaged life

  2. Sarah – thanks for your thoughtful comment. You’re right, of course, the employment situation for disabled people is horrendous. And I’m not saying that disabled people aren’t disadvantaged – but that seeing the disability itself as a disadvantage is the problem. The disadvantages that you describe, as you say, arise from societal attitudes, etc. and don’t necessarily flow from the state of being disabled. As long as disability itself is seen as the disadvantage, it’s too easy for employers to write disabled people off in terms of their potential. So it becomes this self fulfilling prophecy where disability is seen as a disadvantage and then job opportunities are limited (this is why unemployment for the disabled still remains so high) and you’re right it IS a disadvantage – but not because you as a disabled person can’t do the job but because you don’t get the same fair shake at getting a decent job due to misperceptions/myths about disability – and about doing things differently.

  3. I totally agree with you. I guess it’s hard to see something as good when society in general looks at disability as a bad thing.

  4. Cheshirecat

    First of all, I have to excuse for my poor English. Being a german woman using a wheelchair, I take lots of profits reading this blog 🙂

    Here in Germany, wheelchair users, and even worse: wheelchair using women, are looked upon only as “poor poor children”, we are patted on the head, in the face etc.

    Concearning jobs (i have an academic education) I`m very often told: oh, we don`t have someone to change your diapers, or: we don`t have someone to feed you, or: we don`t have someone to carry you arond – and therefore, sorry, but we don`t have any job for you. Don`t you go to a “BeschĂĽtzte Werkstätte”, what is a ghetto for so-called “employment” for the “handicapped”, what is only a lie covered with a tender smile (its no work at all. It`s “therapy”, it`s nuisance, and you don`t earn any money).

    You can have an excellent education – but, being visibly “handicapped” and a women, you are nothing but: a cripple to be pitied. Nothing else.

  5. Mary

    On distancing from the disabled. Oh……so beautifully put. Thank you for helping me understand what we “able-bodied people” do. I support a woman who often tells me about the isolation that she feels. I put in my time, feel sad for her situation, but have never known what to do. I still don’t – but understanding is a step forward. Thank you for drawing the picture.

  6. Mary,
    Thank you for your comment. I really appreciate it when I hear from readers who are allies to disabled people and sometimes I get really good ideas for posts from comments like yours. I learn and understand better when readers comment just the way readers sometimes learn from what I post –

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