Today we’re going to be talking about one of those “positive” stereotypes that can make life with a disability more challenging in some ways than the negative ones do. I mean, at least with a negative stereotype you can say, “People are such rude idiots.” But with positive stereotypes, there’s a part of you that wants to say, “Thanks,” while at the same time you’re thinking, “Uh, this is awkward.”
You know some of the ones I mean–PWDs are perpetually happy, are saints, are grateful for any crumb thrown to them, are brave for walking down the block. Well today, we’re going to look at the inverse of that last one. As in, instead of being considered brave for waking up, caring for yourself, and buying groceries, how does it feel to be expected to act superhuman?
Like many other stereotypes, the one that says PWDs are all superhuman might have had *some* basis in *some* twisted truth or other at one point. For example, it’s true that in the 1860s when Helen Keller was growing up, children born blind and deaf weren’t expected to do or be anything that typical children were or did. So naturally, when Helen went off to college and published great essays, she probably seemed like a hero. The same is true for people like:
-Louis Braille. Blind people weren’t expected to read or educate themselves, so when Louis invented Braille as a way for blind people to do this, he was probably seen as a kind of Superman
-Loretta Claiborne. Because she began her childhood with severe walking difficulty, she would not have been expected to compete in marathons.
-Temple Grandin. Considering the attitudes about autism that characterized her childhood years, do I need to explain this one?
-Ray Charles. Would he have been expected to play the piano while legally blind? I think not.
-Zach Anner. If you don’t remember this guy, he’s the one who got his own show on the Oprah Winfrey Network back in 2011. I’m not saying all his adventures weren’t great to watch, but I also think the focus was more, “I can’t believe someone in a wheelchair can do that,” instead of, “Wow, this dude is really cool.”
I could go on, but I’d never finish the post. The point is, yes, these people can be held up as examples for PWDs to emulate. Yes, they have accomplished great things and should be praised and rewarded. The problem comes in when we expect all PWDs to perpetually write bestsellers, climb Mt. Everest without oxygen, provide clean water to _____ (fill in your favorite developing nation here), and win Olympic gold. I see this as a major problem for three reasons:
1. It reveals and perpetuates fear. A lot of people cling to this myth of superhuman people with disabilities because they are, on some level, afraid to get to know them as real people. When they find out a PWD doesn’t spend his or her days winning Olympic gold, they often act disappointed. As in, “Well, you have this disability–haven’t you done anything to compensate for it?” Some temporarily able-bodied people actually believe that having a disability automatically endows you with some kind of sixth sense, genius intelligence, and/or superpower. The stereotype often gets fed thanks to the spotlight placed on savants and the books and movies that portray psychics in wheelchairs, genius gamblers with autism, and the like.
I’ve asked it before and I’ll ask it again: what is so scary about a PWD? Okay, I get it. Some of us use equipment that looks intimidating. Some of us can’t communicate traditionally and that can be off-putting. Some of us need help with basic grooming, and that scares people because they don’t want to think of anyone, including themselves, in that position. But if we never move past those fears, what will we miss out on learning? What relationships and experiences will we forfeit?
2. It invites undue pressure. This is the one that I run into a lot because my CP is mild and I’m smart. Actually, gifted, if you want to go by school labels, though I am by no means trying to brag. As Monk would say, “It’s a gift and a curse.” A gift because it makes navigating the world outside disability easier, but a curse because people constantly expect me to be, well, superhuman.
I remember being in about the fourth grade. I got A’s in everything, except math, where I regularly received failing grades. I didn’t know why, and my parents assumed it was because I didn’t like math and was therefore being lazy. A lot of my teachers blamed me for problems that, it turned out, were rooted in CP. I remember my own father saying incredulously, “You’re supposed to be a fourth-grade genius!”
See what I mean? Yes, PWDs can do wonderful things and most of us want to. But we are not the world’s trained seals. If the TAB population puts too much pressure on us to perform, that is what we will become.
3. It dehumanizes the PWD. In other words, some people have so bought into this stereotype that if a PWD ever gets upset or angry, or shows that he or she needs help–just like anybody else–suddenly the PWD has caused some great offense. As in, “I thought you were better/more normal than that.” Even if the attitude is the reverse–one that says, “You’re so amazing”–well, that leaves us wondering how to react. Do we say “thank you,” or do we say, “I appreciate that, but you kinda sorta made me feel weird by saying it?” And then, when that person acts shocked on the occasions that we aren’t so amazing–are we supposed to apologize?
Now if you ask me, yes. I would rather be thought of as a superhuman than as a drain on society or a drooling lump. But trying to make me into a heroine makes me feel sort of weird, and as if I’m being arrogant if I acknowledge my own accomplishments. I’d venture to say the same is true for other persons with disabilities. In fact, hands up–does this myth ever make you feel bad that you *haven’t* climbed Mt. Everest without oxygen? Yes, I’ll bet it has. It makes me feel bad I haven’t done that, and I don’t even wanna climb Mt. Everest. Heck, I have a hard enough time with regular hills, okay?
So in short: we’ve gotten rid of many negative stereotypes, exposing them for the crap they are. I’d encourage the TAB population to start doing this with the “superhuman” myth. We’re not Supermen and Wonder Women. We’re just people. Some of us are gifted, some of us are not. But we can all add many positive aspects to your world if you take the pressure off and just let us be.