Where Is the Love: Why are We Teaching PWDs to Hate Themselves?

Hello readers,

I really hesitated to write this post. After last week’s election, there is already so much ugliness and hate in the country, on both sides. Who needs more discussion about hate? I sure don’t. But sometimes it takes identifying the problem and admitting it exists before we can fix it.

Quick disclaimer: This post is not political in any form, nor will I take sides. The only thing I am going to say is, the inclusion of persons with disabilities and the fact that the world teaches them to hate themselves, is not a political issue. Yes, some candidates are better at representing PWDs than others. But changing how disability is viewed in America and around the world is not the President’s responsibility. He or she can sign laws that help, yes. But if individuals do nothing, the face of disability will not change.

Ahem. So, on to the meat of the post.

It may seem “radical” or “extreme” to say the world teaches people with disabilities to hate themselves. Most of you might say something like, “Chick, I know/work with/have a child or loved one with disabilities. I love and respect them and that’s all I’ve ever shown them.” If so, that’s good. You can be proud of taking your own stand. But the truth is, people with disabilities are taught to see themselves as inferior in a variety of ways.

One way is in the words we use. No, I’m not talking about people-first language or words like the R word, although those play into it. I’m not even talking about the clinical terms doctors use. For the purpose of this post, I mean words like:

-Deficiency

-“He doesn’t do X like a ‘normal’ child”

-Deficit

-Below average

-“I am a ____ (fill in disability) parent” (before or instead of, “I am a parent.”)

-“No, Ben, don’t sit that way. Don’t walk that way. Write, don’t rely on the computer.” Sometimes these particular phrases get downright nasty. For example, my first-grade teacher once came up to me in the cafeteria while I was eating a sloppy joe and said, “You are eating like a baby!” Another time, my second grade teacher decided that because it was Christmas, the class would eat lunch in our room while watching a movie (How the Grinch Stole Christmas–the real version, not that Hollywood remake travesty). Because she felt I made a mess spreading my lunch on my desk, she told me to sit away from everyone at a back table.

I also mean the way we approach, or do not approach, persons with disabilities and their lives. I got the idea from this post after hearing a rather disturbing sermon at church. My pastor spoke about racism, inside and outside the context of the election. His point was, go across the street and love your neighbor as Jesus said to, no matter what side they took. Reflect on how those neighbors’ lives might be impacted because of race, national origin, whatever. Essentially, check your privilege at the door.

He even rolled a clip from Remember the Titans. If you’ve seen the movie, it’s the clip that starts seconds before a thug throws a brick through Denzel Washington’s character’s window. Later on, the white football coach essentially tells this character he brought it on himself. Denzel responds with an impassioned speech that drives home the point that this white guy doesn’t know what it’s like to live in his shoes. “Welcome to my life, Yost,” he concludes.

I don’t disagree with my pastor’s overall point, and I don’t disagree with that clip’s message. But all I remember thinking the whole time was, “Okay, so if you’re standing up for blacks, Hispanics, Asians, people of other national origins…where do I fit in?” My pastor also mentioned other prejudices, such as generational prejudice (against the young or elderly) and political prejudice. Guess what was never brought up?

Right. Disability.

Now, am I upset that I personally did not get mentioned in that sermon? No way. In fact, had my pastor singled me out I’d have sent him a strongly worded email Monday morning. Here’s my point: disability is not treated as part of diversity. It is not celebrated like skin color, age difference, national origin, orientation, or religion. Yes, that last one can be a little tricky when you have to promote your own religion as a pastor or teacher, but it can and should be done.

Instead, people with disabilities are seen as inferior or “broken.” They are “special friends” or “inspiration porn,” not real people. Persons without disabilities might even say things to them like,

“Have you considered this may have happened/be happening because of sin in your life?”

“Maybe if you weren’t so selfish/vocal/angry, people would be more inclined to listen to you/give you access/modify stuff.”

“You know, [insert deity of choice here] can heal you if you believe.”

“Maybe if you stopped complaining about what you don’t have, your life would be better.”

And all I can say to that is: really? What the freakity freak? Back off, bucko. Stop telling me to check my privilege because I’m white, straight, female, Christian, whatever–unless you are just as willing to check yours. There’s the door; don’t let it hit you in the butt.

When did we decide this, though? When did we, as a society, make up our minds that persons with disabilities were not “diverse,” were not meant to be celebrated, were “less than” because of what they could not do? Sadly, some of it comes from our own churches or perceptions of God. People often twist Scripture, particularly verses about God’s instructions for sacrifice, to mean that He hates PWDs.

Now, does God hate persons with disabilities? No, I do not believe so. But is the world responding to them in a godly way? No again.

It’s not just the church, either, or even the words we use. Next time you go out, look around you. How many persons with disabilities do you see, and what do they look like? How many PWDs are:

-Teaching your children?

-Recommending a popular retail item to you (instead of simply wrapping/bagging it)?

-Serving your food (not just washing your dishes)?

-Coaching your rec league team, or playing on it?

-Dressed in fashionable clothing, with a well-groomed body? (I was out shopping yesterday and saw a young man with Down Syndrome whose hair was a wreck. Maybe he liked it that way, but what if somebody just said, “Screw it; go out that way?”)

-Oh, this one was and is a biggie: voting in the booth next to yours?

Nine times out of ten, when I go out I am the only person in the environment who needs assistance or has a visible disability, unless you count significantly aged folks using walkers, canes, etc. Does that cause self-hatred? No, not always. But it does drive home the reality that I am not the majority. Most people are not like me and most people wouldn’t want to be.

Now, I’m not saying, “O, woe is me, I hate myself and everybody like me hates themselves, too. Why don’t we just go eat worms?” No. What I am saying to you though, is that PWDs struggle harder than most to deal with negative self-concept. If I wanted to, I could make an argument that it’s somewhat inborn.

I know what you’re going to say: black kids, Asian kids, Buddhist kids in predominantly Christian countries–they all have that, too. Yes they do, and it’s something we should continually work to deal with. But those children grow up hearing that there are positive things about being X (whatever their differences are). They grow up hearing, “You can do/be anything you want.” While PWDs grow up hearing,

“When you grow up, Mom and Dad will make sure you’re safe/have what you need.”

“You’re 14 now, so it’s time to start working at job sites, so maybe VR can get you a job someday.”

“You can do the things other people approve of you doing.”

I mean, really. Who wants a life like that?

It’s even hard when your friends try to refute those negative messages. I know, because I have friends who do. They say things like, “You’re an inspiration to me not because you’re disabled, but because you’re smart/eloquent/whatever.” “I don’t see you as disabled.” A particular woman with whom I share a Bible study group loves to say, “We all have disabilities.”

Without going into the fallacy of that statement (because sometimes you wanna slap people but you’re trying to stay on track with Jesus), what do you do with that? Those statements are well-intentioned, but I’m not completely convinced of their value. That is, sometimes they make me feel better and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they’re not even compliments (like the “we all have” thing. That’s not a compliment, and it doesn’t make me feel better. More than anything, it denies my experience and my right to express that experience).

People with disabilities can and do develop positive self-concepts. They can and do legitimately inspire people. Too often though, their inspiration and potential is reduced to sentimentality. Too often–as in my experience–they’re given a few hours of time each week, and people leave, thinking they’ve done their good deed for now. PWDs routinely battle loneliness, depression, and anger, some of which lead to negative behavior. And then they are blamed for having “bad” emotions. The self-medication, addiction, and suicide rates for PWDs–I do not even want to go there.

I’ve said it before but I can’t say it enough. People with disabilities are people. We are not objects. We are not good deeds. We are not something to use, to make yourself feel better (that’s why exercise, pizza, chocolate, dogs, Netflix, and romance novels were created). But the way we’re being treated right now? The way we’ve been treated since time immemorial?

It’s reinforcing that we are “less.” I speak from experience–on a bad day, it has caused me to literally look in the mirror and scream, “I hate you” at the woman looking back.

Jesus said love your neighbor, yes. But He didn’t specify that neighbor’s ability level. He also said “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And my question is, why does the world expect PWDs to love and serve their neighbors, but hate themselves? That, not disability, is the real tragedy.

Disability does not = inferior, broken, less, or any of that. Disability = natural diversity, talent, strength, love, and opportunity. Let’s change our equations, shall we?

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4 thoughts on “Where Is the Love: Why are We Teaching PWDs to Hate Themselves?

  1. If there’s anything that can come from the election results is that people will realize that despite what progress they think that’s been made towards acceptance in the last 20 to 40 years, (with disabilities,racism, religion,LGBTQ issues etc..) we still have a LONG way to go and we all need to do better.

    BTW, I liked the cartoon version of How The Grinch Stole Christmas was better than the live action one
    (Hollywood doesn’t need anymore remakes)

  2. PWD rights does seem to be one of the last movements to really get much attention or momentum. There was the ADA and that was like… it. I don’t think that speaks particularly well for us.

    Sorta related, I’m curious if the phrase “Tom/Cindy, who happens to be disabled/have autism/etc” lands on your list of well-meaning but annoying phrases or if you prefer it. I get this from time to time in the context of gender identity (“Evan is a physicist who happens to be transgender”) and, while I know it’s coming from a good place, I find it kind of insulting. I understand that they are trying to not make my gender identity my whole identity, but it comes off sounding like they are embarrassed to accept it as a part of my identity at all, or like they view trans-ness as a defect that needs to be spoken of gently.

    But for as much as I hear that, I hear it in regards to people with disabilities WAY more. I avoid that language because I don’t like it for myself, but I realize that the experiences and messages PWDs get won’t necessarily match my own. So I’m curious your thoughts (obviously not going to be representative of all, but just wondering).

  3. I certainly agree; the ADA was a good start but then the movement just ground to a halt. Besides which, while well-meaning, the ADA is often more a hindrance than a help.

    As for “Evan is a physicist who happens to have X disability”–yes, in that context, it is a little insulting. (I say “a little” because there are many more insulting things that could be said). Why? Because the focus should be on the fact that Evan is a physicist, or a doctor, or a plumber, or whatever. But the disability has been stuck in there, almost like the speaker feels the need to qualify, “He can’t do some stuff.” Weird.

    Here’s the way I look at it. If the topic of conversation is the person’s disability itself, then yes, go ahead and say, “Samantha has cerebral palsy” or whatever. Identify her using person-first language. It’s also okay to say something like, “Samantha is an accountant, has two kids, enjoys downhill skiing, and is deaf” or whatever. In that context, the disability becomes a characteristic, like skin color or national origin. But “is a ___ who happens to have…” comes off as condescending.

    I think at the end of the day, the key is to remember, identify persons with disabilities as people first. After all, we don’t say, “Marcus is a ___ who happens to be black.” That makes it sound like “black” somehow makes him less of whatever and whoever he is.

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