04 May, 2010

I felt kind of confused by one of the Blog Against Disablism Day posts that was at FWD/Forward. The post, Do You Need Assistance?, was advice, identified as being for non-disabled people, about how to offer help to a person with a disability.

I think the reason I'm confused is that I know that a lot of the FWD/Forward contributors, including I believe the contributor who made this post, are "invisibly disabled." They did a good post a while ago pointing out that "invisible disabilities" are not really objectively invisible, they just can't be seen by people who assume that everyone is non-disabled unless there is a really obvious and stereotypical indication that that's not the case. So maybe I shouldn't be using the term invisible disabilities, but it's hard to come up with a better one. But what I mean is that there are some PWDs who aren't perceived as being disabled and so aren't going to be reacted to by non-disabled people with the attitude of "oh, a person with a disability, I wonder if I should help them."

The poster, s.e. smith, included a description of a time when ou was in the grocery store and asked a wheelchair user if he needed help getting his stuff on the conveyer belt.

I didn’t shout at him or talk very slowly as though I was afraid he wouldn’t understand me. I looked at his face, not his chair, while we were talking...In addition to watching your literal language, it helps to watch your body language and tone; are you using a sing songy voice? Are you talking any differently from the way you would talk to anyone else?

This is definitely a very small part of what is otherwise a great post, but it's something that Zoe (zheyna) reacted to, and she pointed out in comments that as an ASD person she doesn't necessarily look anyone in the face. (I have a very singsongy voice, so that's what stood out to me.) I'm leery of trying to summarize the conversation because I feel like I might mischaracterize what people were trying to say--you should read the comments. But while I really like FWD/Forward, and am not trying to start a fight with them, I felt that the responses of s.e. smith and lauredhel, to Zoe and then me, seemed to be saying something like, "Well, this post was aimed at people without disabilities." (With the implication being, it doesn't matter if these tips can't work for you because of your disability.)

I really don't understand this because I think that Zoe and I are in exactly the same situation as any nondisabled person who sees a wheelchair user in the grocery store and doesn't know if the person would like help. I don't know a lot of wheelchair users in real life and I think I can use this kind of advice just as much as someone who isn't disabled. Also I don't know if the average random wheelchair user on the street would even consider me to be disabled--even if I explained why I consider myself disabled. And if I didn't explain, almost definitely not.

I tried to say this in the comments but then I was told that FWD/Forward does consider people like me to be disabled and that many of the contributors are not, as lauredhel put it, the stereotypical "Wheelchair/Blind/Deaf." I felt that this didn't really answer what I was saying though. I consider myself disabled but in that situation, where I am offering help to someone, I'm not going to be read as "another disabled person" by the wheelchair user. At worst I'm going to be read as an asshole because of my singsongy voice.

It bothered me that s.e. smith said:

I don’t think of ‘interacting with people with disabilities’ as 101 for disabled folks! People with disabilities can and do help each other out (and are not necessarily read as disabled when doing so), but, for the most part, this post was designed as guidance for people who are not familiar interacting with disability. Folks who identify as disabled clearly are familiar with interacting with disability and they already treat people with disabilities like fellow human beings, which was the most critical point made in this post.

I don't think that I treat wheelchair users, etc., as not human, but I also don't think that the fact that I have an extremely different disability gives me any sort of leg up in being better at interacting with wheelchair users in a respectful way.

Sorry if I'm being a jerk by posting this, respect to all involved, etc.--I've been trying to write this post for several days and I'm actually just going to give up and do it now. It is not meant to be personally critical of s.e. smith, lauredhel, or FWD/Forward in general, but I really don't agree with what was being said.


  1. Have you seen Body and Soul?


  2. I don't think you're being a jerk by saying this at all. I do think it might not be a bad idea to email s.e. to discuss your concerns, because I know ou doesn't want to leave people with the impression I think you've gotten. But I don't want to speak for s.e.

    - Anna

  3. Hi Anna! I miss your blog. I hate emails but I might do it.

  4. I felt similar things about that post and the comments.

    I was going to post a comment about not looking people in the face but then I clicked through and saw that zhenya had posted something similar to what I was thinking and I was afraid of repeating something that didn't need or shouldn't be repeated.

  5. I'm reading this a few months late, but I wanted to say, YES, I understand and agree with what you're saying.

    I'm deaf, I have attention deficit disorder, and some other conditions besides. But when I was younger, I was still nervous the first time I talked with a deafblind woman. In some ways, yes, being deaf did help me figure out a few obvious things like, "this person who happens to ride a wheelchair is still a person and can still be independent etc." But there were still all sorts of things that I did need to have pointed out to me, or that I did need to be educated about, before I "got it." And I think I was perhaps relatively enlightened compared to some deaf people. I've met some deaf people who just assume that people with intellectual disabilities, for example, are entirely unable to learn or are entirely helpless and dependent on others--and of course these things are not true. Deaf people with cerebral palsy may often experience rejection from other deaf people because other deaf people don't know how to understand their signs and don't have enough patience to try -- similar to how hearing people with cerebral palsy may also experience rejection from people without cerebral palsy who don't have the patience to try understanding their speech.

    People with disabilities may have an edge in learning to relate to people who have different disabilities from their own. But we are NOT automatically any more enlightened than anyone else about disabilities outside of our own experience. Not everyone is able to connect their own experiences with the experiences of others--sometimes they may need help noticing these similarities.