“You’re Not Thirsty”–Telling People with Disabilities what to Think

During my first round of graduate school, while studying for my Master’s in English, I went to the school’s counseling service for help with some issues and emotions that had negatively affected my moods and well-being for several years. Because this was a state university, I did not have the choice of seeking out a Christian counselor, which turned out to be a bad thing because the one I did have successfully convinced me that my feelings stemmed from parental abuse, even though this was not true. However, she did have a few useful things to say.

During one of our first sessions, I spoke with my counselor about how frustrating it was that, on the rare occasions I did get upset enough with someone to yell, argue, or what have you, the other person–a parent, a family member, whoever–brushed off the emotion by blaming it on premenstrual hormones. Even if they were partially to blame, I said, I still felt ignored and patronized. The counselor astutely compared this to coming up to someone, saying I needed a glass of water, and being told, “You’re not thirsty.”

Intentionally or not, I think we can all–myself included–admit to doing this to someone at least once. I wonder now, though, how often do we do it to people with disabilities? Let me illustrate what I mean, using an example from my own journey in Disabilityland.

During most of my school career, I made A’s and B’s except in one subject, math. Math was, to put it nicely, a living nightmare, especially when I got into about fourth grade. Suddenly, everything was about showing your work, lining numbers up in columns, borrowing and renaming, and all those other lovely things most people don’t bother to do anymore. But this was the mid-’90s. End of Grade Tests were still the new assessments on the block, and they required students to know computation by hand, so that’s what we did. However, I could not handwrite, so lining things up in columns or neatly showing “borrowing” was an impossibility. The basic solution I got at first was, “Show it on your computer,” and when I tried to explain that didn’t work either, I was brushed off or called uncooperative. “You’re not thirsty.”

Middle and high school were no better. In fact, they were worse because of algebra and geometry. Geometry, in particular, was a one-way trip to Hades because everything relied on depth perception, which I have none of. A teacher from the special education department came in to scribe my work every day. She constantly asked me to tell her what things looked like before she would draw them, and told me to “read the question again” as if I had never read it at all. The “caseworker” from special education was no help–her solution had always been to place me in a “special” class for “learning disabled students.” Besides that, she also sent scribes into my math classrooms with behavior sheets, so she could monitor if I was being uncooperative. (!!!!!! @#*!)

“You’re not thirsty.”

Thanks to my mom, the school board chairman and a real Mama Bear, the caseworker didn’t get her way (which I suppose shoots a hole in the abuse argument, eh?) Yet… What about the caseworkers who do? The teachers who refuse to listen when students and parents try to explain the reality behind what they need or fight for continued inclusion?

“You can’t find a job on your own, Dylan-with-Down-Syndrome. You need to wait for the VR counselor to find you one. You’re not thirsty.”

“You can’t take care of yourself well enough to live on your own, Monica-with-Multiple-Sclerosis. You need to be in the Special Friends House. You’re not thirsty.”

“You can’t play youth soccer with the other kids, William-in-a-Wheelchair; it’s too dangerous. You’re not thirsty.”

You get my point.

Now, on the flip side of this is the argument that, if the person really isn’t thirsty, it’s cruel to pump him or her with water. I actually had this same conversation with my mother the other day while trying to explain my shifted paradigm. She pointed out that, if a person with a disability truly is happy working in a sheltered workshop, or stacking boxes, or whatever the menial job happens to be, and you take that away, it devastates them. She said if you convince a happy person they are not happy, they end up miserable.

Point taken, Mom. And I’m sure that, somewhere–though I have not met one–is a person with a disability who truly is happy doing what we would consider a simple, boring job. I’d like to assure any readers out there who are wondering, I am not out to “brainwash” people with disabilities. Yet, I caution all of you: be aware of what “the system” often thinks is good enough for children and adults with disabilities. I don’t care if the person with a disability you know has an IQ of 30. Unless there is no possible way under the sun to communicate with that person, ask them what they want, what they think, what their dreams are. If, as my mother wisely pointed out, they are truly happy with the services and job they have, fine. They, like anyone else, should be able to live the life they choose for themselves.

And if not? If the person with autism you thought couldn’t do anything really finds computers fascinating? If the person with leg braces up to her knees wants nothing more than to ice skate? If the person branded with “behavioral problems” (which I consider a crock, as I will explain in a future post) would like nothing more than to live in his or her own apartment?

Then by golly…GET THEM SOME WATER.


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