First of all, let me say I hope everyone had a wonderful Veterans’ Day. To those who have served, living or dead, or who are serving now, or who know they will serve: thank you. Thank you so much. And to those veterans who served and returned with disabilities: a particular thank you to you. This post is about stereotypes and thoughtless comments, and though no PWD needs, wants, or deserves to hear them, I’m guessing they might hurt a little more for you guys. So also, thanks for putting up with that junk as graciously as you do or have.
I got the idea for this post from a reader (thank you, my Galactic Explorer friend). 🙂 I actually got the title from Legends of the Hidden Temple, a Nickelodeon game show I grew up watching and recently discovered on YouTube. Each of the three seasons’ episodes featured a “legend” of a specific object belonging to a person in history. Now, as the show’s former host Kirk Fogg (yes, that’s his real name, and it rocks) admitted, the show played “fast and loose” with the definition of “legend.” Most notably, the historical person was always real, but his or her object, its history, and the way the object came to be part of the show’s Temple set? Not so much. For example, even though Harriet Tubman probably used a walking stick in her life, I doubt one ever became as legendary as she is. And even though Billy the Kid was one of America’s most notorious outlaws, I doubt he owned a pair of yellow snakeskin boots. Though if he did, that’s quite a fashion statement.
What is my point? The point is that, as fun as that game show was and is to watch, its “legends” have no basis in truth–just like the stereotypes of PWDs have no basis in truth (because even if one or two PWDs fit certain stereotypes, not everyone will). The often insensitive comments made to these people also often have no truthful basis. And yet, they run rampant, and are considered truth. Why? Well, maybe it’s because PWDs are so mysterious to the temporarily able-bodied. They’re seen so seldom in real life that it’s easier to believe a “legend.” (This is sad, but true. I was in my local coffee shop just two days ago, on a cold day perfect for a hot beverage–and realized, I was the only PWD in the room. Moreover, most people might not have known I had a disability, or what it was, unless they asked).
So, what are some of my least favorite “legends?” Well, some of them have already been covered online, thanks to forward-thinking people who know a stereotype when they hear one, such as “People with disabilities are either always bitter or always happy.” (See August 2012 archives for a whole post on that one). But here are some that haven’t been covered yet:
1. The Legend of the Helpless: People with disabilities can’t take care of themselves, no matter how much therapy or “life skills” work they do.
2. The Legend of the Shiftless: People with disabilities cannot get real jobs, nor do they need or deserve them. If they do manage to get a real job, they must be watched over constantly by a job coach or vocational counselor. Even then, they will likely be fired.
3. The Legend of the Mindless: People with disabilities, especially those who have visible, severe versions, do not see, hear, or care what you do or say. They have no likes or dislikes–just keep them entertained.
4. The Legend of the Spineless: People with disabilities frighten very easily, and generally have childlike personalities.
5. The Legend of the Guileless: People with disabilities are saints, capable of dispensing great wisdom on a dime. Moreover, they wouldn’t hurt a fly. You could punch a PWD in the kisser, and she’d grin at you.
6. The Legend of the Legless: All people with disabilities use wheelchairs (simple, not as hurtful as some might be, but it gets on my last nerve)
7. The Legend of the Friendless: People with disabilities are generally friendless, often because they are rude and nasty to other, “normal” people.
8. The Legend of the Formless: People with disabilities do not/cannot/should not go out in public because they can’t “handle” being around “normal” people.
Did you notice the “less” theme there? You might well have, because throughout these legends runs a thread. People with disabilities are generally expected to be “less” in many ways. I see no need to talk about self-fulfilling prophecy when it comes to this. That’s not a legend–it’s truth–and we need to work together to stop it from happening to every PWD out there.
But suppose you say, “Chick, I don’t believe these legends and I don’t know anybody who does.” Okay, fair enough. But do you know people who, out of caring, or perhaps sheer lack of knowledge, have made these comments?
1. Can’t you exercise/work hard/practice X, and get better? I’ve talked about this one before, and I’ve heard it a lot. The frequency with which I have heard it, is why it’s #1 on the list.
2. Have you tried X agency, X part-time job, X plan? I hear this one a lot, too. I understand the people who say it are trying to help. But–hear this from me, and hear this from other people with disabilities: we do not want your handouts. We appreciate agencies like vocational rehabilitation centers, but they don’t need to run our lives. Part-time jobs are okay to a point, but at some point, we want to have the same security, if not permanence, at our jobs that you do. As for plans: make sure it’s my plan, not yours.
3. Your disability was/is God’s will. This one, I’m careful with as a devout Christian. I do believe God has a will, and I should obey it. And if it was His will for me to have cerebral palsy, I’ll go along with that (a little late to be declaring that, as I’ve lived with CP for 27 years, but whatever). Here’s the thing, though: don’t tell me this. That implies I don’t know God or what He wants. (And I don’t, not perfectly, anyway. But it implies I also don’t care. And I care). This statement also implies that to be anything but satisfied with my life as a PWD is to dishonor God, even if that life is full of handouts and second-class treatment. Forgive me, but the God I know isn’t a fan of either one.
4. It could be worse. Heard it–oh, so much. And I understand. I see this statement every day in the mirror. But please don’t say it to me. Don’t make me feel like an ungrateful brat because I reached for more. And don’t put me in the position of looking at the next PWD, strapped to a wheelchair, communicating via assistive technology, or whatever, and feeling more fortunate. People with disabilities are not the less fortunate–unless the temporarily able-bodied treat them as such.
5. Can you do ____? Are you okay? I appreciate your concern, but if I can’t do it, or I’m not okay, I’ll say something.
6. Why can’t you do that if you can do this? Heard it from my “mentor” teacher: Why can’t you hook up your own computer if you can allegedly teach? Heard it from math teachers: if you can read, why can’t you interpret this geometric figure? You must be lying. No, I am not, was not, and do not lie about my disability. And to answer you: why can’t you fly a plane if you can kick a soccer ball, smarty pants? Seriously: every disability is different. What I can do, maybe the next guy or girl can’t, and what I struggle with, the next person probably finds a breeze. So don’t ask me to explain every facet of can and can’t. Just don’t.
7. Do you understand? Unless you’re explaining a legitimately new concept, such as how to make a chocolate Bavarian cream, Do. Not. Ask. Me. This. It implies I’m dumb. It also implies PWDs are dumb. Just don’t do it, unless it’s an appropriate situation. For example: don’t ask me this if you’re (unnecessarily) explaining where my groceries are supposed to go. Don’t ask me this if you think I broke some unwritten rule you conveniently didn’t tell me about. Readers with disabilities out there, ever had that happen? Yeah, I’m sure you have.
8. You don’t look/act disabled. Funny. You don’t look stupid, but you just acted it.
Legends are fun, folks–but only in fiction. People with disabilities are real–so let’s treat them as real.