30 November, 2009

can a visible disability be an invisible disability?

I'm just noodling to avoid writing my paper but one thing: a post about my fake friend David, who has cerebral palsy. Actually he is a real person but I am just pretending his name is David because I feel like I'm spewing his personal information all over the Internet. Except, anyone who even goes to my school will probably know who I'm talking about, so maybe this is a lost cause and I just have to hope no one from my school reads this. SORRY DAVID (can you forgive me since I named you after your favorite person?).

Cerebral palsy is not considered an invisible disability. However when people meet David they don't necessarily immediately understand why he moves differently. Our friend Liz thought he was drunk. I somehow expected David to be "off" socially or mentally (which I know is really fucked up, but in the interest of total honesty; on the plus side, it's probably why we're friends, because I was less shy around him than I was around other people). A few weeks into our first year of college, I remember telling someone how much I liked David. "Is that the awkward guy?" the person asked.

"Well, he's disabled. He limps," I said.

"Yeah, him, he moves kind of awkwardly."

I thought this was a strange way to describe someone who limps. "Awkward" is the way I would describe someone who seems really shy or says socially inappropriate things, not someone who is physically disabled. (I don't remember verbatim what was said, so it may not be clear, but it definitely was clear at the time that the person was using "awkward" as a physical descriptor.) Later I mentioned this to my dad, and my dad said the person was being tactful. I think this is weird too, because "awkward" seems like a worse thing to say. It seems to imply something negative, while saying that someone limps is just a fact. And "awkward" sounds like it's about David's personality.

I don't think it is tactful or polite to describe someone's body using a word that sounds like it is describing their mind. People tend to treat David as otherworldly, and although this is partly because of his personality (he can be very enthusiastic and guileless about things), I suspect it's also because he moves differently. I would guess it's different when he uses a cane and I would guess it would be different if he used a wheelchair. But because there's usually not this giant object broadcasting "physical disability," I feel like people read his CP as body language.

One example of what I'm talking about is the fact that I assumed he had some sort of social or intellectual issue. Obviously I soon found out this was stupid, and will never react to a physically disabled person that way again, but I still can't pin down why I reacted like that in the first place. Another example is that people tend to assume he's asexual and even act sort of disturbed when they find out he's not. I've sometimes gotten the impression from girls he's been interested in that they think it's somehow unseemly for him to be interested in them. But I don't think that anyone is sincerely thinking, "DISABLED PEOPLE SHOULDN'T HAVE RELATIONSHIPS," they're just thinking "...but it's David." Which, okay--but why is it David?

The only 100% for sure example of people equating David's physicality with his brain is the time a professor contacted the disability office because she thought that David talked too much in class. This is straightforwardly ridiculous and offensive. But I can't help but wonder if this whole implication that David is special/asexual/"awkward" comes in part from his disability. And I don't think people think about it. I think they would think, consciously, that it's awful to think about someone with a disability that way. But because David looks different without looking stereotypically disabled like he would if he was in a wheelchair, I think it is likely that people react to him with unconscious ableism.

I think this is an example of a supposedly visible disability actually being an invisible disability. And I think what this means is that the disability is just taken as part of the person's personality or essence, and not consciously recognized as a disability. I'm hard pressed to say this is always a bad thing; I certainly wouldn't like someone to behave as if my disability is something separate from me. But I think most people with physical disabilities do want to be separated, and I know that David does. Sorry I'm rambling and not really making a point. I just think it's interesting. If I was any good at being in school, I would want to write a thesis on the way the average person reads other people as disabled and how they conceptualize that.

1 comment:

  1. I know it's weird to comment on old posts, but this one rules. Especially in light of the stuff I'm going through right now.