Revenge of the Clones: The Danger of “Disabled Only” Social Interactions

Hello, readers,

In our last post, we talked about the double standard behind the word “special.” As part of that, I touched on the phenomenon of “disabled only” social activities. As our society moves closer to full inclusion, it is my hope that these will become part of the past. But unfortunately, some group homes, institutions, schools, or other public places that serve people with disabilities, still depend on them to ensure their “clients” receive what they call socialization. And that, I believe, is a problem.

Why? Well, as with many of the “time-honored traditions of helping the handicapped,” as Mary Johnson worded it, there are several issues with this. Let’s look at just a few:

  1. “Disabled only” outings encourage segregated groupings. Now, I know the rest of the world’s answer to this–well, what about women’s and men’s Bible studies? What about school clubs that center on just one ethnicity or one talent? What about black or Latino churches? Aren’t those forms of segregation, too? In some cases, they can be. Someone once said, for example, that Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour in America, and I don’t think that’s right. But in most of these instances, a few key differences exist. For example: Bible studies, singles activities, etc. are sometimes split into guy-girl groups because guys and girls have different issues they want to discuss in these groups that might not be appropriate for mixed company. Ladies–do you really want to discuss cycles, childbirth, and that one certain “exam” in front of men? And guys, I’m not sure what the counterparts of those discussions are for you, but surely you don’t want women hearing about them. Similarly, school clubs aren’t “segregated”–at least, they shouldn’t be, as in “X race, X creed, X disability, stay OUT.” No–school sports and clubs are geared toward the students who want to be in them. And as for black and Latino churches, among others–I don’t think that’s the ideal. But those groups have their own worship traditions and may have chosen to go to church where they do because the group at large has decided to keep those traditions in ways they’re comfortable with.

Now, compare that to “disabled only” groups. Often, these occur in special education or group homes, or other places where there is very little guarantee that people chose to be. (Yes, some people with disabilities do choose separate classrooms, or to live in group homes, but many do not). In “disabled only” gatherings, “disability issues” may be discussed, and there is often a sense of camaraderie there. But often, the supervisors of these gatherings act as if disability is the main focus of the group. In other words, this group is not about particular talents, or even innate traits that are upheld as good, like gender or race or ethnicity. No–the focus is on what the people in the group can’t do, what needs to be “fixed” in them (as if that’s possible, as we’ve discussed before). Also, people who attend these other “special” groupings have the option to circulate and socialize outside of them. I go to women’s Bible studies, but that doesn’t mean I can’t interact with guys or go to co-ed studies. A black or Latino or Asian person doesn’t have to go to a church or other group specifically for his or her race. I was a Quiz Bowl member in high school, but I also hung out with the choir kids (and sang with them). The biggest jock on the football team could also hang out with the theater kids or the art club. But once you’re in a “disabled only” group–in school or the community–that becomes known as your only social group, either explicitly or implicitly. You become one of “them,” not an individual person. And people act surprised to see you out of the group. I think about the guys with cognitive disabilities from my church I’ve mentioned before–does anyone think of them as individuals, or are they always “the group home guys?” Which leads me to:

2. The “I’m a Pepper, Too” Syndrome. No, I didn’t make up the name. That comes from Mittlemark and Newman, authors of the informative How Not to Write a Novel. For them, “I’m a Pepper, Too” refers to the mistake authors make when all their characters become versions of the same person, with all the same interests, problems, or even physical features. Now, we know all people with disabilities are not the same. But this kind of clumping and “social interaction” only with each other, can give misplaced credence to that myth.

The other side of this syndrome is that it’s sometimes encouraged. It’s what happens, for example, when a parent sets up a child with a disability on a playdate with a child who has one, also, or sends him to a summer camp exclusively for kids with disabilities. Now, that might be the kid’s choice, and I understand why. Again, there is in fact a level of kinship that occurs when you find a person who’s dealt with Disability World like you have, even if your disabilities are different. The problem occurs when one person or the other in these friendships begins acting like disability is the only thing that keeps said friendship together–and sometimes, it is, which means it may not be a real friendship. Example: I once took a theater class with a girl who had psychological disabilities. She, of course, could see my physical disability. And–this still gets me–this girl, after being friendly for awhile, said to my face, “The only reason I hang out with you is you have problems.” OUCH! And I now wonder–how many other people with disabilities has this happened to? If you have a disability–have you ever met someone who gets enthusiastic once they realize you have one, too, as in, “Oh, look, I’ve got  a knee brace!” and suddenly that’s all they want to talk about? Or, they think they know exactly how your CP feels because they have dyslexia, or how your ADD feels because they use a wheelchair? How annoying and disheartening is that? And speaking of annoying…

3. Are We Having Fun Yet? Let’s get back to the “outing” part of these social excursions for “disabled people only.” Of course, as I have said, sometimes these can be fun. For example, if I were Deaf, and went to a sign-language performance at the local theater with Deaf friends, that would be fun for me. But that’s because those people would be my friends, we’d be doing something that interested me (theater) and I chose to be there. Now, contrast that with what often happens in a “supervised” disabled-only excursion: “All the people here have ___ (fill in whatever disability you like), and can’t do much, so every Tuesday, we’re gonna go bowling.” Excuse me? Did anyone ask this group if they wanted to go bowling–or even do it together? No, didn’t think so. But that’s often what happens, and it’s ridiculous. If you add in the assumptions tied to these outings–i.e., “Everybody here has cognitive disabilities and can’t understand much, so we’re all gonna go see an animated movie even though they’re adults,”–it’s downright hurtful. And what’s more, these outings are often BORING to those who are supposed to be having fun on them! I grew up watching Rugrats, so I’ll quote Chuckie Finster on this one: “Somebody doesn’t understand the word ‘fun!'”

4. We’re not in Kansas Anymore–I’ll keep this one short and simple. People who engineer disabled-only outings usually have good intentions (though those often don’t turn out so great; see January’s archives). They want to make sure people with disabilities have the opportunity to get out and do fun things (see #3). They also want to ensure opportunities for people with disabilities to be social. But on that point, let me ask: if the only practice you ever got at being social was with people “like you”–what other people deemed “your own kind”–what would happen if you were suddenly asked or required to interact outside that group? I’ll leave this question as is; I think you guys can figure out the answers on your own.

As I have said, disabilities-only activities aren’t always bad. But too often, they’re centered on the disability itself (not on the participants as people) and are more harmful than helpful. So the next time you think about this construct, ask yourself, what is this “outing” really encouraging people with disabilities to go out and “do?” If you’re not satisfied with the answer–

You got it. Go do something about it.

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