Disability Does Not Mean Dissing: When the Line into Disrespect is Crossed, and What to Do About It

Are you still out there, readers?

I started an intense student teaching gig two weeks ago (high school English) and so have had zip time or energy to write anything but lesson plans. Yet, in addition to being a teacher, I am also a writer, and one of my writing projects is this blog, so I have returned, however briefly. (A warning: please expect blog posts to be sporadic until about spring).

That said, today’s topic: what does “disrespect” mean, and not mean, when it comes to people with disabilities?

I got the idea for this post after a discussion–oh, all right, all right, an argument–with someone over the question of, just because someone is in a position of authority over you, does that give them the right to be snooty, disrespectful, cold (i.e., ignoring you), and so forth? Of course, taken from a Biblical perspective, one might easily say, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” and also cite Paul’s writings about slaves and masters, among other writings. And that person would be absolutely correct. The catch is, on the other side of that Biblical coin lies the responsibility of the authority figure to treat those under him or her with respect. Of course, I didn’t think of this at the time–I was far too bothered by the emotional turn of the argument. But now that I’ve had a chance to cool off, I have thought of this. And I have also thought, I’ve been lucky to, most often, have been shown respect in school and at work. But some people with disabilities aren’t so fortunate, and we need to address that.

Now, understand that when I say “disrespect,” I don’t always mean, easily defined meanness. We would hope that the average person with a disability these days would not be faced with, say, a business owner who says, “I don’t allow crips in here” or an employer who says, “I don’t make ‘modifications.'” Of course, this does happen, and I think we all know by now what to do about that–fight back, peacefully, but determinedly. No, generally, disrespect in Disability Land–I love the double “dis” in that phrase–is more subtle. It’s the “expert” doctor or therapist who gets into a snit when a parent or guardian questions a method. It’s the teacher who either ignores your child or teen’s requests for reasonable modifications, or says something like, “Handle this yourself, Giovanni,” hiding behind a cloak of, “I want to make Giovanni more independent” when what he or she really means is, “I don’t want to/shouldn’t have to do my job.” It’s the employer who talks to the adult with a disability in his workplace as if that person is a two-year-old, regardless of actual cognitive ability. It’s the driver who makes a huge deal out of transporting the person with a disability, and then calls that person “selfish” for wanting or needing help.

So, I know what you’re asking: why are we talking about this? I wouldn’t let anybody treat a person with a disability like that on my watch.

Or would you?

Not on purpose–I can understand that. But the problem is, in many cases, the people I’ve singled out as examples are often experts in their fields, or they’ve at least been with the job long enough to know what is “mainstream.” In other words, they are very much the authority, some more so than others. (Doctors, therapists, I’m looking at you). And what tends to happen around authority figures is that people get intimidated, whether or not they should. The assumption made is, “This person, or these people, can never be questioned, and should never be questioned.” What’s even more disturbing is that loved ones, caregivers, what have you, tend to pass this attitude down to the person with a disability (especially if it’s a child), with a punitive undertone. As in, “Never argue with or question a teacher, therapist, or doctor, or there will be a consequence you will not like.”

Does this mean, then, that we should be teaching people with disabilities to be disrespectful and aggressive? No. But nor should we teach them to, as it has been put, give in and give up. The balance here lies in self-advocacy. As in, if Miss Brown is your teacher, and she wants all the kids in her class to assert independence, that’s fine, and you should do that to the best of your ability. But if she asks you to do something you cannot yet do, or that you need a different way to do, but she doesn’t give you the option of the different way, that’s different. For instance, say Sofia is one of Miss Brown’s students. (Let’s put Sofia in about the first grade). Miss Brown asserts that all students should be able to print the letters A-M accurately, upper and lowercase, by the end of the first school quarter. Sofia, though, cannot do this; her writing is not legibile. The modification would be for her to keyboard, but Miss Brown insists on writing. If she clings stubbornly to that, and refuses modification, that’s disrespect to Sofia. A parent or guardian, and quite possibly the principal, needs to address this. And Sofia can learn self-advocacy if a trusted adult teaches her to–respectfully!–say, “I understand, Miss Brown, and I want to do this, but I really need to do it B way, not A.”

Or, say we have Gilbert, a teen with a disability–let’s say mild to moderate mental disabilities–in the “transition” phase of high school. His teachers and vocational counselor have said, during more than one meeting–IEP, vocational, whatever–that Gilbert would best serve society by working as a janitor and living in a men’s group home. Let’s say Gilbert has no problem with the second half of this scenario–maybe he likes the guys at the group home, and maybe it’s one of the good ones where they actually do real activities, but foster individuality, too. But say Gilbert doesn’t want to be a janitor. Should he keep his mouth shut because otherwise, he likes “the plan?” Or, worse, should he try to speak up, then put up with the disrespectful attitude of, “You think this, but you don’t understand”? No, and no. He needs to have the opportunity to find work he is truly interested in, and the opportunity to say, respectfully and assertively, “I want to do this work instead.” And parents, guardians, whoever, should support him in this.

Yes, “experts” can be valuable, in their proper roles. But too often, especially where expert opinions are concerned, people with disabilities end up constantly “dissed.” And I think it’s rude and inexcusable. Maybe our “experts” need some behavior goals.

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