Some people are so weird, and scary. They’re the kind of people that make me want to retreat to my room and spend the rest of my life working from home, watching Once Upon a Time, and scouting Amazon for 99 cent Kindle deals.
You might think I’m talking about ax murderers, serial rapists, and those people behind the “clown killings” of 2016. And yeah, in a way I am, but I have encountered much more innocuous-looking, yet scarier people. People like therapists and doctors who believed my life would finally be fulfilling if my walking were 10% better. People like teachers and administrators who equated being smart and expressing it with needing “behavioral remediation.” And recently, I encountered another type of scary person.
Last Tuesday’s episode of Dr. Phil featured a woman whose fiancé claimed she needed “wife lessons” before she could marry him. The man constantly said things like, “I need to teach you…you don’t know what it means for the house to be clean. It is not that hard to do things my way. You are lazy.”
Now, this woman did not have a disability, but the relationship between her and her fiancé scared me a bit, because I could definitely see a man being nice to me at first and then saying things like, “You are lazy. I do not want to be your caregiver. You need to be taught how to do things you ‘claim’ you can’t.”
And then I realized, why am I so scared of a man, a potential relationship partner, doing that based on disability, when it’s already been done to me by other people? More to the point, why is much of society unaware that we treat PWDs like perpetual students? Yes, we all learn something new every day. Nobody is past the point where they can learn. But there is a huge difference between learning because it’s what you’re expected to do, or learning for pleasure, and having someone treat you like a perpetual grade-schooler. I have seen this happen a lot. Middle- and high-schoolers with disabilities, who have strong social circles, are still told they need to work on social skills or learn to behave. Adults with disabilities are told they need to “learn how to work” before they can get a job. Or if they already have jobs, they are told they need to learn to do them one certain way; all other ways are wrong. I had this happen this week. After apparently asking for help one too many times, I received an email in which I was chastised for not working independently.
I say this whole construct is a bunch of baloney. Once again, the solution goes back to the Golden Rule. Think about how you, as a TAB person, would want to be treated. After working all day to clean your house, or putting effort into socializing when it’s hard, would you want to be told, “You didn’t do that correctly, nor can you. Is it so hard to do this the right way?” No, you would not. So why do we do it to people with disabilities, in the name of helping them learn? That’s not learning; that’s shoving your expectations and standards down another person’s throat.
The solution to this problem also involves common sense. Let’s go back to the email I received about working independently. After emailing back to express how I felt about that little dig, I’m still trying to figure out what it meant. No one person is fully independent. I don’t care if you can raise five kids, skydive, make a cheese soufflé, and cure the common cold in the same week. At some point you will still need help with something, and most work environments understand that. We treat PWDs as if having a job is some impossible goal, one that if they reach, they are supposed to handle completely by themselves. Otherwise, they are failures. We chastise PWDs for not having relationships and social lives, but out of the other sides of our mouths we say, “You can’t because you need to learn how.” Yet, the TAB population gets to ask for help. They get to be interdependent, to make mistakes, and to manage themselves, because they are able-bodied. They are somehow better and more skilled.
And don’t even get me started on the fact that we tell PWDs they need to learn things, but never let them stop learning one thing and move on to the next. In the TAB world, you are expected to progress. You pass Spanish I, you move on to Spanish II. You learn how to make cupcakes from a mix, you are trusted to try a more complicated recipe. You master your letters in kindergarten, you move on to first grade, where you are taught how those letters produce words, words produce sentences, and sentences produce books. Yet PWDs are constantly stuck in a holding pattern based on the judgments of other people, who often do not see or care about their desires, efforts, or successes.
A lot of people, like that so-called fiancé from Dr. Phil, say they perpetually try to “teach” out of love. And yes, most people helping PWDs have good intentions. Yes, PWDs need to learn things like everybody else. The problem is, PWDs often feel like perpetual students–i.e., children–because that’s what they’ve been taught they are. Many PWDs in school don’t know what grades they are in, because they have been “educated” in self-contained environments where grades, age, and progress are not relevant. Adult PWDs are still being told they need to “learn to be adults,” when according to their ages, they have been adults for years. Maybe the problem is not learning, teaching, or a lack thereof. Maybe the problem is that we’re scared to see PWDs as adults, because once we do, we have to treat them as such. Treating someone as an adult often involves a level of trust we’re not all prepared to give, because we want control. Let me speak from experience: PWDs are some of the most controlled individuals in the world, and because of that, they often lead artificial lives. Yet the people claiming to help them or teach them are never satisfied; they pile on more goals, more standards, more control.
It’s good to learn and to be a student of the world around you, but eventually you have to get out of the classroom and apply what you know. I’d like to see PWDs given more chances to do that. When they get those chances, I’d like to hear less, “Well, uh, yeah, you did it, but not the right way. Let me teach you more.” I’d like to hear, “Nice work! You did great. You’re really talented at this; have you ever considered teaching others to do it?”