21 September, 2012

Iceberg problems

I wrote something like this in a Facebook comment a long time ago and I realized I didn't ever write it up here like I was planning to. I've been thinking about it because it applies to a lot of things other than disability, but I'm sticking to disability in my explanation of it.

So from your (universal disabled person's) point of view, there's the stuff other people notice about you that's different or seems to cause problems. Then there's your actual problems, differences, and/or suffering which is going to be most obvious to you and maybe some people who are close to you.

I don't know if I'm explaining this well but just think of an iceberg, where people notice the tip of the iceberg but most of the reality of what the disabled person experiences is underwater. Here is an example about Clayton, hi there Clayton if you ever read this blog. (Aside from this most of the examples are going to be about autism.)

When people meet Clayton they notice that he walks and moves differently. Sometimes they wonder if his physical disability includes an intellectual disability. They find out that it doesn't, and then they think of his disability as consisting of how he walks. Sometimes they even come to feel that the way he walks isn't that different after all and then they "don't even notice his disability anymore" or "don't think of him as disabled."

They don't see fatigue and physical pain that Clayton suffers due to having CP, and he said that some people actually try to argue with him when he explains that his disability is more than the way he walks. This can happen with people he's been friends with for a long time.

It's obvious that people do this when they don't have experience with disability, but the weird thing is that they also do it when they do. It's a major trope in arguments between disabled adults and parents of disabled children that the parents will tell the disabled adults they're not really disabled or they're not really suffering. I don't think this is something that happens because anyone is an asshole. People just get really upset when they think someone is claiming an experience they don't really have and they see it as an insult to people who really do have the experience.

As far as I can tell, this is how it works: people see the underwater part of their family member's disability, and maybe they don't even see how things look to someone who doesn't see that. They don't see how maybe if a stranger meets their family member in the right context, for a short enough time, they don't notice how the family member moves or that they have trouble talking. They know when their family member is about to flip out from stress, so they don't realize that to most people, the person is going to appear calm until they're actually screaming.

If they notice that their family member is really good-looking or sweet or charismatic, they just see that as a coexisting thing or (depending on their attitude toward disability) maybe something that makes the whole situation even sadder. They don't realize that some people are actually going to be much more unlikely to notice signs of the person's disability, or admit the severity of the disability, because they find the person pleasant to be around.

Or, if they notice all of this, they think it's really awful and unfair that people don't understand that their family member is disabled and they wish people could see beyond the surface.

But at the same time, when these people look at disabled people who aren't their family member, especially people who they are inclined to see as other or as their opponents, they don't imagine there is anything beyond the most superficial and loudly stated markers of disability, and they even argue with those. They don't try to learn about what might be happening underwater to make this person identify so strongly as disabled. They don't just give the person the benefit of the doubt and assume there is probably a lot of stuff going on they don't know about.

(Probably my favorite thing was seeing someone argue that her kid is more severely disabled than other people who are perceived to be equally disabled to him, because she knows that he works really hard to appear the way he does.)

Obviously if the point of this post was to criticize parents who attack disabled people this way, I'm beating a really dead horse and my current one post a month output could be channeled in a more creative direction. Everyone knows it is boring and makes disabled people feel really bad.

However I haven't seen a lot of people acknowledge that disabled people do the same thing to other disabled people who they don't agree with. I can think of a few A/autistic bloggers and writers, who don't always have the same opinions about disability as each other, but who obviously feel that they have different opinions from most Autistic people who talk about disability and most Autistic-run organizations. Whether they talk in vague terms or about specific people, these writers usually seem to feel that everyone they associate with "anti-cure" or "neurodiversity" or "anti-ableism" is a homogenous army and none of us are as genuinely disabled as they are.

This is pretty interesting and I've had some conversations with these people where they try to argue that yes okay, maybe everyone can't immediately tell they are disabled from reading their blog, but they still have the right to call out other people and question their right to an opinion because they couldn't immediately tell they were disabled from reading their blog.

Of course this isn't limited solely to people who tend to chew out individuals and organizations that I like. I am a pretty big perpetrator of it myself. I tend to perceive every disabled person I meet as more skilled and/or better off than me in some way related to disability.

1. They are better at doing stuff than me.

2. They have more normal emotions than me.

3. They have a better work ethic than I do (which I guess is a way of just saying they have better executive function and don't ever want to cut their face off from being scared to the point that it is hard to do anything).

4. If it seems like they really are worse at all this stuff than me I just figure that they're probably dealing with it a lot better than I am so they're morally superior to me.

5. Or maybe they're not pushing themselves as hard as I'm pushing myself, that must be nice.

6. They have a disability that other people are going to recognize as being real, like they are in a wheelchair. Therefore they have it better than me because they don't have to feel bad about themselves and everyone understands what they're going through.

This doesn't make me very good at being compassionate towards other people or making friends with them, but you might be interested to know that occasionally people slip through and we become friends, and all of these things are usually NOT true. Most disabled people I've become friends with suck really hard at everything, push themselves really hard, and have a lot of problems that aren't immediately apparent.

Not to be overly broad but even people without disabilities can have underwater stuff. Depending on what someone's problems are (like if they have to do with belonging to a marginalized group) they might have more or less underwater suffering and work and experience going on. But we all have insides and we do ourselves a disservice when we don't work to recognize that.

(Note: I obviously don't think it is objective or even defensible to say that there are really "invisible" parts of a disability that no one can possibly notice without having them or being extremely close to someone who has them. We don't see a lot of signs of disability because we're taught to assume that no one is disabled. But even though I think it sucks, that is how most people function now.)