17 April, 2010

The harder fallacy 2: the uncomfortable fallacy

So I was talking to my friend who wants to apply for Teach for America, which if you didn't know is one of those things that absolutely everyone in college thinks about and wants to do all the time (even I find myself wanting to do it--frequently I have to remind myself that I've rarely been at all interested in being a teacher, I just want to say I'm doing Teach for America). Because everyone wants to do Teach for America, it's really hard to get picked, and I suggested that my friend should apply to teach special ed because they really need people to do that.

But I knew she would say no. People always say no when you suggest that kind of thing. "The girl I know who applied to teach special ed has a lot of experience with that," said my friend, "and I don't."

I know I push a little hard but I said, "They're just kids."

"I'm not really good at that stuff," said my friend.

"But I've seen you with people with disabilities and you were fine."

"I was trying really hard. I was really uncomfortable."


I'm hesitant to start my post with this conversation, because it makes it sound like I go around trying to force people to be special ed teachers all the time. I don't care if any particular person isn't going to be a special ed teacher, but I just have these exchanges with people that I think are sort of strange. I don't really get it because a lot of the time it's easier to get a job if you're willing to work with people with disabilities, but people have this attitude of, "I could never do that," or, "I'm not kind of person who can do that." Do you know what I mean?

Do what exactly? What kind of person?

The time I was referring to, my friend was encouraged by three of her friends to come and spend time with people with ID who the rest of us knew pretty well. I thought she acted normal and seemed to get along well with the people with ID. Given she doesn't really have experience with ID people at all as far as I know, it seems like that's a good outcome for her first try--kind of uncomfortable, tries really hard, does fine. That's what my first experience with ID people was like.

Also, as you might remember, I used to get really nervous about this kid in my building who is blind because I was like "how do you treat a person who's blind? What if I do something wrong?" Then we actually had some interactions, and now he's just another person. Until I was nine, I went to a school with almost no people of color, so whenever I did encounter people of color, I was always afraid of doing something racist. Then I changed to a school where there were a lot more people of color, and soon they were just other kids who I liked or didn't like.

I think I just sounded like I was doing some "I don't see color, I don't see disability" bullshit, which is not at all what I intended to say. After this change in you takes place, it's not like you don't know that people are different--it's just that you're familiar with the difference, so it's not scary. Depending on what it is, it might still be important. For example if someone is nonverbal and you're verbal, that's obviously going to make your interactions different from the interactions between two verbal people. But once you're familiar with people being nonverbal, communicating with a nonverbal person is at worst a challenge. It's not like "OH MY GOSH HE'S NONVERBAL."

A while ago I made a post called The harder fallacy which was about the idea that it's okay to talk about disabled kids in an insulting way because "it's harder to raise a kid who is disabled." This post could be called the harder fallacy #2, or maybe the uncomfortable fallacy. Basically, I think it's normal--or at least normal in our fucked-up society--to feel uncomfortable when you meet people from a group you haven't had much exposure to. But I think this reflects on you and not on the group. But I think that some people develop this idea (probably as a result of the harder fallacy or something similar) that there actually is something especially difficult and complicated about spending time with people who have certain kinds of disabilities. They think that people who don't find it difficult are somehow special or have special powers or are incredibly kind. I think this is insulting.

Again, I'm not trying to say that my friend should be a special ed teacher. Just getting not-uncomfortable with a certain minority group doesn't mean that you have to want to be around people from that group all the time. But I think it does lead you to feel neutral about people from that group instead of building them up as some sort of special skill that you have to have a gift for or a ton of practice with.

It's weird because if I suggest something disability-related to someone who's having trouble finding a job, I feel kind of shifty, like I'm forcing my beliefs or preferences on them. Whereas if I was like, "Hey, you should try to get a job at the stationery store," and the person was like, "Oh, I don't know, I don't think I'm the kind of person who can work at a stationery store," and then I was like, "What do you mean, you've worked at stores before," and the person was just like, "But oh man, stationery, it's just a big challenge," I'd be like, "...well if you feel that way maybe you should spend some more time with stationery."


  1. "...well if you feel that way maybe you should spend some more time with stationery."

    I am totally stealing this line.

    One of the unfortunate tricks of the uncomfortable fallacy is that even if you are aware of it, it can be difficult to fix.

    Example: I am uncomfortable around black people. I grew up in a heavily white area and my jobs as an adult have not included any blacks. I know that if I just spent time with some individuals who are black then I could get over this silly discomfort.

    Problem: I'm autistic. I don't like to meet strangers or go out. I really don't want to sign up for volunteer work or otherwise force myself into the world, especially right now when I am having problems with bipolar disorder anyway.

    The best solution I have come up with so far is asking my husband's friends to help me find a friendly black person to get to know. But man, that's a hard conversation to start. It just sounds so incredibly racist -- because frankly, it is.

  2. Well, being uncomfortable isn't the fallacy--the fallacy is thinking that you're uncomfortable because there's something inherently difficult about the people you're uncomfortable with. I think that if you understand why you're actually uncomfortable--lack of experience--then it's less of a problem because you don't let it negatively affect you or other people (hopefully).

    I mean, I don't think you should try to "find a black person" because a friendship with a person who you became friends with to better yourself might not be a very good friendship. And if you don't meet new people, and all the people you know are white, it seems like your discomfort isn't actually affecting any black people as long as you don't let your discomfort turn into an actual belief about what black people are objectively like (as it does for a lot of people with intellectually disabled people). If that situation changes and you are around a black person, then the problem provides its own solution, I think.

    It is depressing to think about. But getting to know people you were uncomfortable around for stupid reasons, and not feeling uncomfortable anymore, is the nicest feeling there is.

  3. A friend of mine took a special ed assignment from TFA because it was the only way to go to the same city as her girlfriend (who was also in TFA). She used a lot of this language originally -- she wasn't sure she was the "type of person" who could teach special ed -- and I think it was leavened with the worry that she was not trained.

    This is a problem with TFA: they create a sense of "white man's burden"* in their employees, and send them into difficult educational locations without a whole lot of training.** TFA students are often already lacking in at least one are of privilege -- among them class, race, and fiscal privilege -- and so the young people who enter the TFA program are frightened of adding another layer to that.

    This is all to say that I sort of understand why someone approaching TFA would fall back on this language. That isn't to say that they should, but rather that I think it's a situation where these discourses, these tropes of ableism, become more visible.

    (My friend, for the record, really loved teaching special ed, so your conclusion stands. She's very no-nonsense with an underlying sweetness to her, and I think her students were lucky to have her -- even without a whole lot of experience -- in their classroom.)

    * - Or "middle-class privileged individual's burden," but that doesn't have the Kipling sort of ring.
    ** - By "training," I mean "experience," since the best way I've found to train a teacher except by throwing them into a classroom and then forcing them to discuss their experience.

  4. yeah TFA just seems like an attempt to make an inspirational movie happen in real life. I mean, I really like the idea of getting a teaching certificate without having to get a degree, but I don't know if I get the idea that new college graduates are especially equipped to Make a Difference.

    I actually do think idealism is really important when working with kids who are nonverbal because people who aren't idealistic sometimes assume that nonverbal people don't understand what's going on. Which is really detrimental. But overall--I don't know. I was reading the TFA wikipedia page and a lot of the things that were listed as criticisms made a lot of sense.

    (And just because I can't resist being a little drawn to it despite my common sense--how easy is it to get in if you apply for special ed? And can you specify what kind of special ed you want to do?)

  5. Hmm. I think I may have wandered a bit off topic there. ;)

    What I meant was that even if you aware that your discomfort comes from you ('I am uncomfortable around non-verbal people') instead of from the other person ('non-verbal people make me uncomfortable because they are difficult to understand'), getting the experience to alleviate your own discomfort can sometimes be difficult.

    In that case, you need to be even more vigilant that you don't fall into the uncomfortable fallacy.

  6. oh no, I know--I guess I just think that in certain cases, like with ID people, there's a ton of social support for the uncomfortable fallacy. Whereas it's not really socially acceptable to say right out "black people make me uncomfortable" (well it's actually way more acceptable than it should be but not as much as is it about ID people). You know?

    I think the fact that you're concerned about it and aware of it and know that it's about you makes a big difference.

  7. *nod* I definitely see what you mean about social support for the uncomfortable fallacy.