“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.