A Stereotype by any Other Name: The Dangers of “Good” Labels

Hello, readers, and happy August. I like August, because I live in a very humid part of the country, and the arrival of this month means we’re just about a month and a half away from the welcome coolness, crispness, and routines of autumn and winter. Sweaters, pumpkin bread, hot cider and chocolate…ahhhh.

For most of the country, August is also the cue to start getting ready for back-to-school. And back-to-school means, back to learning. An opportunity to learn new things and apply that knowledge so we can become smarter, more discerning, more compassionate, and better-informed people. The thing is, it’s not just for kids; back to school can be for adults, too. At least, it should be. So welcome back to the School of New Disability Thought. Buckle up, because today’s lesson may sound a little weird, even counterproductive. But it’s true, and we need to be aware of that.

We’ve spent a lot of time on this blog talking about the “bad” labels that people with disabilities endure due to ignorance. Retard/retarded. Parasites. Unhealthy. Not “normal.” Special. You know them, and if you’re anything like me, they make your spines stiffen, your blood warm up–or even boil–and your hair stand on end. But what about the “good” labels? You know–the stereotypes that perpetuate the following myths:

  • People with disabilities are always happy.
  • People with disabilities never complain.
  • People with disabilities are always “sweet” and “brave,” even if also “pathetic.”
  • People with disabilities are capable of imparting small, but profound nuggets of wisdom, particularly if their disability is intellectual/if they struggle with the tasks of everyday life.
  • People with disabilities are especially godly, saint-like, and innocent.

Is it me, or are these a little more sickening than the negative stereotypes? Yeah, I figured it wasn’t just me.

“But Chick,” some people might say, “why are you upset about this? At least these are positive generalizations, right? Doesn’t it help people without disabilities see people with them as equals, if they’re seen as happy and sweet, rather than angry and whining?”

Yes, I would almost rather see positive generalizations than negative ones. And yes, I would rather see the kids in the schoolyard patting little Andrew on the back, or saying his wheelchair is cool, because they see him as this happy, brave kid, not ostracizing him because he’s “different.” But the key word here is “almost.” Generalizations are just that–general. They can’t be applied to a specific person or group because we’re all different–ALL, not just those of us with disabilities. And because all people are unique, generalizations, even the “good” ones, put us into boxes. Think about it:

If you say a person with a disability is always happy and never complains, you may think you’re praising that person. But what you’re really doing is sending a message: “This is how you HAVE to be for people to like you.” And what happens when that person does complain, or argue, or get upset? The pervading attitude is, “We expected better from you.”

If you call a person with a disability “brave,” you may think you’re doing them a service. And to you, maybe they do look “brave.” Maybe you wonder how you would cope in their positions, and admire them for doing what you don’t think you could. And that’s understandable–but in that case, you really ought to get to know a person with a disability better. Take it from someone who knows. We’re not “brave” just because we get up in the morning. We’re not “brave” because we walk down the block, talk to people, or go out and do things people without disabilities do every day, like ordering our own food or shopping. It may look that way to you, but when you say that, you are again putting an expectation on us to be “brave” about everything, even things that scare us. And when we do act scared? The attitude becomes, “We expected better from you.”

And do me a favor, okay? Do NOT even get me going on the saint stereotype. Even as a Christ-follower, gotta tell ya, I’m no saint (except according to Jesus, who calls all His children saints). And yes, sometimes I do say witty or wise things, but I don’t think of them that way, and it doesn’t happen constantly. In fact, sometimes, just like everyone else, I try to be witty and nobody laughs. Or I say something I think makes a lot of sense, and guess what? No one seems to care. So why do we put these sorts of expectations on the people with disabilities in our lives? I’ll give you one guess why.

I think it might be because we’re the ones who are scared. That is, some of us out there have never known–truly known–a person with a disability, and we’re scared of what we’d find out if we ever did. Would we find a bitter, angry, childish, or pathetic person? Or would we find someone who’s brave, happy, and America’s Sweetheart, so to speak? I think we’d prefer option two. So maybe, just maybe, that’s why we created positive stereotypes–to allay our own fears. And–this is even worse–to blame the person with a disability when those stereotypes don’t hold up. As in, “You didn’t fit my expectations of a happy, sweet, accepting person. You are a BAD CRIPPLE!”

In no way am I suggesting all people without disabilities have this attitude. Most of us don’t. But at some point in history, our ancestors, our families, or even we ourselves, DID. And that’s where the stereotypes came from. Maybe the people who coined them thought they were being helpful. They probably bought into the twisted truth (which = lie), that a positive stereotype is better than approaching people with disabilities on the street and yelling, “Cripple! Retard!” I don’t know what’s worse–that the negative stereotypes still live in a world where they should’ve died decades ago, or that the positive ones thrive in a world so politically correct, so determined to embrace a relativist, humanistic worldview, that it prefers to sugarcoat disability as a “brave struggle” rather than what it is–something that people live with, but that sometimes sucks–and yet, is still an ingenious way to live.

So as you close your notebook on this lesson, remember two things. No one is ever ALWAYS anything. People with disabilities are NEITHER (not either), always happy, nor always bitter. And, to put it in Seuss-speak (ah, the wisdom of Dr. Theodore Giesel), “A label’s a label, no matter how good.” Ditch the labels you put on people with disabilities, and try using their names instead. Behind each name is a person–a person you just might enjoy getting to know for who he or she truly is.

*Special thanks to access.uvic.ca for letting me use your Top Ten Negative Stereotypes (because as we know, in Disability World, a positive stereotype actually inverts into a negative).

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