What’s up my ass today

Hi! I’m back from a whirlwind couple of weeks, during which I attended a conference here, then flew across the country to tag along while Al attended a different conference. Which means I’ve pretty much spent 2 straight weeks negotiating enormous crowds in not entirely familiar places, sitting still more than I like to, and doing a lot of squinting across rooms, going, “Is that someone I know, or just someone who looks like someone I know?” I’m tired.

And in the meantime, the internet has continued its job of documenting the mind-bogglingly assholic things people say. I have two “favorites” this week.

1) The BBC kids’ show CBeebies recently introduced two new presenters, one of whom, Cerrie Burnell, was born with only one fully formed arm. This has led to comments on their message board such as this gem:

I question the logic of hiring a girl with part of her arm missing (and so obviously placed on display for kids to see it) to present cbeebies. My child was immediately freaked out and didn’t want to watch. There’s a time and place for showing kids all the “differences” that people can have, but nine in the morning in front of 2 year olds is NOT the place!

Little overboard on the need for political correctness, perhaps?

Now, before your head explodes — as it certainly should — I want to say that I did follow links back to the message board, where I learned that the ratio of comments like that to comments like, “OMG, WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU, YOU ABLEIST SHIT?” (I paraphrase) was roughly 1 to 200. I found that heartening, and I think it’s worth pointing out that the “controversy” seems to have originated with a Daily Fail article, sensitively titled, “One-armed presenter is scaring children, parents tell BBC.” Whipping up outrage is what that publication does best, so keep that in mind.

Of course, one comment like that is obviously one too many, and if anyone deserves a good pile-on, it’s a shit like that. What I find perhaps more troubling, though — because openly bigoted assholes are neither surprising nor necessarily the most formidable enemy — is the ableism coming through even in the messages of support. Such as:

  • People talking about how “brave” Cerrie is. Sigh.
  • People smugly announcing that they’re raising their children “not to see” differences among people’s bodies, and proudly declaring that their children “haven’t even noticed.” Oh, okay. Because your two-year-old hasn’t mentioned it so far, it’s clear that pretending physical differences don’t exist is a stellar way to combat discrimination. 
  • People smugly explaining that when their children asked about Cerrie’s disability, they simply said, “Not everyone grows properly in their mothers’ tummies.” I think there’s a slight cultural thing here, in that British people seem to throw around the word “properly” a lot more casually than Americans do, but I cringed every time I saw something along those lines — way to reinforce that there are “correct” bodies and “other” bodies when you’re ostensibly trying to give a lesson about human diversity. (Also, telling children that babies grow in “tummies” is an unrelated pet peeve of mine.) 
  • People referring to Cerrie as having only one arm, when she clearly has two, one of which is more developed than the other. I’ve only seen one picture of her and have no idea how she uses her smaller arm, but it’s amazing how many folks erase it completely. 

That’s off the top of my head, without going back to look at the comments again. I’m sure if you go look, you’ll find more. 

I’m as outraged as anyone by the “People with disabilities frighten children!” crowd, but at least in the context of this message board, it’s a crowd of 4 or 5, that I noticed — vs. dozens of comments in which folks pat themselves on the back for being fabulous, open-minded parents while slinging more subtly ableist language and sentiments. The vast majority of that, I assume, comes from privilege, not malice — and I can hardly cast the first stone. Ableism is probably one of my biggest blind spots, as I’ve only started to actively learn and think about it relatively recently. (Two or three years ago, I was still defending my right to say “retarded” because “I didn’t mean it like that.” I hate admitting that, but given how often I smack commenters down with Rule 10, I think it’s only fair.) And obviously, I still have major blind spots about stuff I’ve been learning and thinking about for years, because that’s the nature of privilege.

But that’s exactly why it troubles me that all the attention here is going to a few openly bigoted shits, rather than the entirety of the conversation, which involves many, many shades of privileged ignorance and discriminatory language. Granted, the shock value of seeing someone claim that disabilities are frightening to children (conveniently ignoring children with disabilities themselves) might shake up some people who’ve never thought at all about hatred and discrimination. That’s worth something. But it also provides one more opportunity for privileged people who aren’t openly hateful to congratulate ourselves for not being openly hateful — “I’m not bothered by it” was a common refrain among the comments, with no one noting how incredibly patronizing a statement that is — without examining our own prejudices. “As long as I’m not like that asshole, I’m clearly not ableist, and as long as most people on the board are condemning that asshole, we clearly don’t live in an ableist culture! Vive la difference!” Yeah, no.

So. If you want to use this thread to vent about those few outrageous comments, please do feel free, because they are fucking outrageous, and I know how hard it is to resist railing about how hateful and willfully ignorant some people are when you’re given a prime example like that. But I’d also love to see this discussion go beyond that.

And now I’m going to save the second asshole statement I was going to write about for another post, because I think this one deserves its own.

135 thoughts on “What’s up my ass today

  1. I’m able-bodied and I hear you on finding it hard to call out my own privilege, and even still hard to call out other able-bodied people effectively on theirs. I know there was a post here a while back about using ableist language–”retarded” and “lame” being the most commonly used, I think–and interrupting language like that can be effective if derailing to a conversation. I need to get off my politeness kick and call out people, especially when they’re my close friends. The power of interrupting a joke, even if it’s more of a comment than a joke=powerful way to check some privilege.

  2. I think the part that bothers me most is the “She’s so brave” part. As if this woman is “Brave” for “Existing”; let alone doing so publicly; especially do so publicly for ALL TO SEE! *gasp*

    Instead of the smug, thinly veiled ableist-perpetuating, what about folks considering things like “All of us are different and that’s okay” “No two people are exactly the same and that’s okay”. Not sure I could think of other ways to phrase what should be a simple concept that has been discussed before: that human lives and bodies are not and SHOULD not be split into a dichotomy (Normal or NOT, Average or NOT, Able or BROKEN.) We are a spectrum and that needs to be acknowledged…

  3. You know, disabilities can be frightening to children, who are just learning how to reason inductively and therefore have an excuse for confusing “typical” with “normal.” When I was a kid, my parents had a friend who had “one arm” in the same way that Cerrie does — her arm terminated just below the elbow. My first memory about Shirley is being scared of her and not understanding what was up with her arm. My SECOND memory is my mom explaining why she had an incomplete arm (and not just “she didn’t grow properly” — her umbilical cord was wrapped around it in utero so it didn’t develop completely, and they were perfectly happy to tell me this) and telling me that I could ask her about it if I was curious. (She told them it was fine.) Practical upshot being that I understood a) this was just a thing that happened, not a different way of being and b) if I didn’t understand something I could find out more about it instead of being afraid of it. (ETA: Just in case it’s not clear, I’m talking from a kid’s perspective… by saying that a disability isn’t “a different way of being” I don’t mean to elide disabled identities, just to acknowledge that kids can replace “unfamiliar thing I don’t understand!” with “normal person who differs from me for whatever reason.”)

    I don’t mind parents acknowledging that children can find physical differences frightening. But thinking that the solution to this is never exposing children to physical differences is not only bigoted but incredibly harmful to the children. It makes it clear, too, that parents are interpreting this not as “my child finds Cerrie’s arm frightening” but “Cerrie’s arm is frightening” — nobody advocates isolating children from things they’re irrationally scared of.

  4. I hate the word “tummy” in general – it’s twee and cutesifying and almost always used to patronise. Last time I heard it, for example, was from a particularly irritating doctor.

    “Belly” is far better, being an ancient Anglo-Saxon word related to “bulge” and “bag”, which I find very pleasing. I’ve just looked up “tummy,” too, and it’s Victorian nursery-speak. Figures.

  5. It makes it clear, too, that parents are interpreting this not as “my child finds Cerrie’s arm frightening” but “Cerrie’s arm is frightening” — nobody advocates isolating children from things they’re irrationally scared of.

    This is a great way of putting it. I mean, I was utterly terrified by my uncles when we first moved to PA in my childhood, because they all had big bushy mustaches. (Clearly, I was a Mark Trail reader in the womb.) But after, you know, a very short amount of time, I learned that they were my uncles and I liked them, and then my fear of mustaches went away. This seems to me like a great opportunity for some straightforward body talk with kids, minus the condescension and othering, which will set the ground for kids growing up less ableist themselves.

    Laurakeet, this is the post you were thinking of: http://kateharding.net/2008/05/01/why-i-dont-use-the-word-retarded/

    Kate, thanks for this post — I saw that story and couldn’t bear to visit the message board, so I’m glad you did.

  6. Fillyjonk, thanks for writing that! I sort of had the same response, thinking that, as a wee child, I also would have been frightened or shocked or something similar. Yes, it’s because kids are just making sense of things in the world via pattern recognition (let’s remember Sesame Street’s “One of these things is not like the other”) and the unexpected can be shocking. Hey, Freud built a substantial part of his psychological theory on a certain stage when kids notice “what’s missing,” right? (bleagh to that, btw.) And you went a step further to say, “But thinking that the solution to this is never exposing children to physical differences is not only bigoted but incredibly harmful to the children.” And that’s the part I really appreciate! Yes, absolutely.

  7. Oh, the “tummy” thing. I hate that, too. So you’re teaching your child that Mommy swallowed a baby? WTF is up with “explaining” something to your child by introducing further confusion?

  8. SM – heh! My boyfriend’s dad occasionally used to send children screaming because he had a bald head and big beard. One of them tearfully told his mother “that man’s got his head on upside down”.

    There’s a time and a place for showing kids all the “facial hair” that people have blah blah blah.

  9. I’m wondering if the parents who are claiming their children got scared by Cerrie Burnell are overexaggerating. Maybe the kids simply said “Mommy/Daddy, look at the lady with no arm” which in turn led to “ZOMG THAT WOMAN IS SCARING MY CHILDREN!” It’s not the first time something along these lines have happened.

    I know kids can get scared by many things, but at the same time, we don’t give them enough credit for their perception of the world around them. For the most part, it’s us adults who can’t get our shit together when it comes to acceptance and tolerance of differences, and then when we make horrible comments, we use that tired meme “think of the children!” Instead of being morally outraged, this would make for a wonderful opportunity to teach kids about disabilities and differences.

  10. One of them tearfully told his mother “that man’s got his head on upside down”.

    That is amazing.

    Mr Machine grew up in coastal Oregon, that haven of old hippies. Once, when he was a teenager, a little boy came up to him all confused and asked if he was a boy. He said yes. The boy said, “But boys have long hair and girls have short hair!”

    /hair threadjack

  11. It speaks more to parents that their kids are scared of such things than it does about the people doing the scaring. Like FJ said…kids are going to be freaked out at things they have never seen and don’t understand. Your job as a parent isn’t to shield them from it, it is to teach them about it. Babyehad was terrified of bugs for a long time until my BIL, and entymologist, took him out bug hunting one day. Now every time he sees a bug he wants to tell Uncle J about it.

    As far as the other comments…well…the whole brave thing is from a different time period. It used to be brave for people with disabilities to be in the public eye as so many of said disabled people were usually shipped off somewhere. The other is just a “Ima better parent because I…” For some reason parents tend to think they are in some kind of competition with each other. I don’t understand it and try very hard not to do it myself.

  12. You know what else is especially gross about that quoted comment, btw? This phrase: (and so obviously placed on display for kids to see it) . On display?! It is her actual arm. If an able-bodied person is hosting a show, does she not ever show her arms? Clearly, Cerrie is just flaunting her disability.

  13. Yes, FJ, awesome point. I didn’t go into the nuances of all that’s wrong with that comment, since I was taking the post elsewhere, but that was one of my thoughts on it as well.

    Also, one of the common questions parents said kids were asking was, “Does it hurt?” — and the corresponding fear is, Could I lose half my arm, and would it hurt? Even though the truthful answer to the second and third questions there is yes (unlikely) and yes (if it happened, very likely), I might not be inclined to spring all that on a toddler. But at least as to the first question, the truthful answer (afaik) is no, and it’s just an opportunity to talk about how people are born with different kinds of bodies.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a kid being frightened by the thought of losing a limb. That’s even a rational fear. But obviously, there’s something seriously wrong with parents acting as though their children should not be exposed to anything that might evoke fear, including natural human diversity.

  14. Um, what about 2)? Not to be too demanding or anything, but my obsessive-compulsive side screams in agony over that lonely 1).

  15. As far as the other comments…well…the whole brave thing is from a different time period.

    I think I see what you mean, Sandy, but this is still a fundamental trope underpinning ableism, and by no means something that’s disappeared or really even lessened with time. People talk this way about people with disabilities ALL the time.

  16. You know what else is especially gross about that quoted comment, btw? This phrase: (and so obviously placed on display for kids to see it) . On display?!

    Yes. The nerve of her, not tying that arm behind her back!

  17. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a kid being frightened by the thought of losing a limb. That’s even a rational fear.

    Or it could be an irrational phobia in action. Since childhood, I’ve had irrationally phobic responses to people with amputated/missing/differently shaped limbs or digits. I mean by this “overwhelming visceral responses that include heart racing, dizziness, nausea.” The same kind of phobia that people more commonly have about blood, or needles, or snakes.

    My parents–somewhat remarkably for them, because they weren’t the most attentive parents–noticed this and sat me down to explain that there wasn’t anything wrong with the way I felt, but that it was really, really important for me to treat people with those physical differences with respect and not to freak out at them. They suggested some simple techniques like breathing deeply, looking the person with physical differences in the eye rather than focusing on the area of difference, and reminding myself that “this is a person, and this is how their {arm/leg/finger} is shaped, because people are different”. I’m still kind of in awe about this, because we had this conversation when I was about 5.

    As I got older, I grew better able to cope with the phobia, but I still experienced it quite overwhelmingly, especially the first couple of times I saw or met someone with one of these physical differences.

    Then, when I was in my 20s, I was watching the “Maury” show for some reason (SHUT UP) and he was having one of his phobia shows. There was a woman who was afraid of frogs, and a woman who was afraid of buttons (?) , and a man who was afraid of people with growth syndromes (a/k/a “little people”, formerly known as “dwarfs” and “midgets”). And he had a behavioral therapist on there doing crash-course therapy with the guests, etc.

    So I thought HOLY CRAP I COULD GET THIS THERAPY AND STOP WORRYING ABOUT BEING AN ASS TO PEOPLE WITH PHYSICAL DIFFERENCES! And I did go get the therapy, and a few sessions really made a giant difference.

    But if I had parents like the ones who complained to the Beeb, I guess I could have gone around being an ass to people with differences my whole life.

  18. The flip side of “brave” people with disabilities is blaming people with disabilities for not trying hard enough. Not everyone is Lance frigging Armstrong, and it doesn’t mean someone is lazy or a coward for reserving her spoons. Or you know, actually being depressed about having a disability, that puts you firmly out of the “brave” category too. People seem to think they’re owed either plucky courage or a touching life lesson from disabled folks. It’s not complimentary, it’s just another form of othering.

  19. MissPrism- the head-upside down thing KILLED me.

    I think it’s possible that the kids were terrified, because to small children change and difference can be scary. The inverse of the mustache story above, when I was 2 or 3 my Dad shaved his 70′s cop mustache and apparently I freaked right out. My Mom says I cried, I screamed, and I hid. I was wary of him until it grew back. I do not remember this, nor do I know why I reacted that way.

  20. You know what kills me about the smug, “I don’t see disability” crap is that it’s such a lie. Unless you literally have a visual impairment (and I am not knocking or making fun; without my glasses, the world is pretty much a blur), you are lying.

    Of course I see someone’s wheelchair. Just like I see someone’s blond hair. The problem has never been in the seeing. The problem is in the judgment of a person because of a disability or difference.

    What is so infuriating about both sides of the ableist bullshit it that both the “not on my tv” people and the “little timmy doesn’t even notice” people want to disappear those with disability just in different ways.

  21. Which, to be clear, is not condoning the boneheaded parents who can’t be bothered to explain rather than complain. Just that the kids may be genuinely terrified, because of whatever goes on in their little kid brains. I also though Dracula lived in my closet. Why? Who knows.

  22. I have no idea what my kids think of that presenter, but when I threatened to cut my kid’s feet off today if she kicked me again, she went off on a big riff about how we could build a ramp over the staircase and she could do wheelchair dancing.

  23. Oh, and I like the word tummy for kids, but not for adults. It’s useful for them to have the same vocabulary as the other people they interact with expect them to, too.

    I draw the line at Front bottom though.

  24. I think it’s possible that the kids were terrified, because to small children change and difference can be scary.

    Yes, but the parent’s job then is to explain to the kids that people have physical differences, not complain to the BBC that one of their presenters had the nerve to be physically different on the TV.

    If my fairly neglectful parents could manage it, I think it’s probably within the grasp of most parents.

  25. Deborah, what an excellent point! I envision this asshole commenter having to set aside an entire day to discuss potentially difficult subjects that he (I think the NYT said it was “a father”) has so far avoided and/or shielded his child from. “OK, in the morning, we’ll do where babies come from, with separate modules on LBGT issues. Then, we’ll break for lunch, and come back for seminars on race, religion, disability, and national origin. After a Q&A period, we’ll award the certificates, and you’ll be qualified to see ‘different’ people in their natural habitats.”

  26. I dunno, I want to call everyone out on this “privilege” issue, ala: And obviously, I still have major blind spots about stuff I’ve been learning and thinking about for years, because that’s the nature of privilege.

    Because, you know, UNprivileged people have NO blind spots. Lack of privilege gives you clear eyes and the ability to see everything exactly how it is.

    You have blind spots because you’re a human being. We have thousands of years of evolution telling us to build communities of people who are the same and reject people who are different. No matter your race, sex, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, ability or disability, hometown, or hair color, you’re going to build stereotypes and prejudices as you grow up that you don’t even realize are there until someone kicks your ass about it. I think it’s part of growing up.

    Hell, last week, a dear New Englander friend who I consider to be intelligent and open-minded visited. During a late-night bull session about population shifts that might be required by sustainable living, she characterized the entire interior of the United States as an “armpit” and said that nobody would want to live there. This to someone who grew up in Indiana and misses it deeply. Up until I told her I was offended, I don’t know that she’d ever examined this prejudice. My job was to poke her on it and not make her feel like a shit because next time it would probably be me.

    So yeah, we’re all hypocrites, and we’re more hypocrites about the stuff that we have the least experience with. And at some stage of growing out of a prejudice we’ve identified, we’re going to make awkward faux-enlightened remarks like, “She’s so brave!” Hopefully that’s just a stage in growing up.

  27. one more comment on babies made in “mommy’s tummy”: as a child from a blended family (two adopted children, two non-adopted children) i’ve been aware that this kind of language implicitly privileges biological family ties.

    I have no recollection of conflating the two as a child, but i vividly remember my brother (the other adopted child) making some reference to having “been in mommy’s tummy”….30 years later my mother will still talk (when prompted, in those late night utterly honest conversations) about how hard that conversation was for both of them….

  28. Susan, I’m down with your thesis but your logic is off… “privilege causes blind spots” is not logically equivalent to “lack of privilege causes lack of blind spots,” nor did Kate say it was.

  29. While I am sometimes more unclear about racist issues, ableism is much clearer. My grandparents were deaf. I can’t tell you the number of times that we had people shouting at them in restaurants once we’d let the server know my mother would be ordering (they signed and did not read lips).

    It’s absolutely insane to imagine that everyone is the “same” and not see differences. They are there FFS…and how can we learn to make accommodations for people if we can’t recognize the ways that differences occur for people.

  30. Children are far more resilient than their parents often give them credit for. I agree with the others who have said that an initial fear of “differentness” might be understandable, but with a kind explanation, children will stop seeing differences as a cause of fear.

    My mother is blind in one eye, and has had a prosthesis since several years before I was born. I don’t honestly remember the first time I saw her without the prosthesis in, but I’m glad she was always open about it – I think it helped me understand from a very young age, that differences aren’t scary or bad.

    As another note about the use of the word “retarded” as a derogatory term: I don’t know if other schools had this program, but when I was in elementary school, we had a program (run, of course, by my mother) called “Understanding Handicaps” (which is now called “Understanding Differences” – I was in elementary school 20 years ago). One of the things I took away from that was not to use terms like “retarded” as insults, and I’m definitely still bothered as an adult when I hear the word used that way. I remember being shocked as a middle-schooler when the Boston Globe had an article on “Boston slang” and included “redahded” for stupid.

  31. fillyjonk: Agreed. And yet we seem to by implying something close to that, ala:

    dozens of comments in which folks pat themselves on the back for being fabulous, open-minded parents while slinging more subtly ableist language and sentiments. The vast majority of that, I assume, comes from privilege, not malice

    The assumption seems to be that the primary source for self-congratulatory prejudice-by-faint-praise is privilege. If it doesn’t come from privilege, where else shall we assume it comes from?

    Eh, for the record, I’m mostly just being a pain in the ass :). But I think it’s worth it to poke at assumptions, or possible assumptions, sometimes.

  32. If it doesn’t come from privilege, where else shall we assume it comes from?

    Er, malice? But in this case we are assuming it comes from privilege, not malice?

    We are using the same definition of “privilege,” right? Sometimes conversations get bogged down because one party means “having lots of money” or “having an elite education,” while the other means “having unexamined areas of ignorance or inattention due to avoiding the necessity of constant awareness in those areas because of an accident of genetics or circumstance.”

  33. Sweet Machine…sorry I didn’t get to really put all of what was in my head down…and now I have forgotten much of what I wanted to write. I have a 4yr old and a 8mo old and they are both wanting my attention at the same time.

    What I wanted to add was that it was from a different time period..but people need to realize that this isn’t early 1900s or earlier. This is the 21st century and it is ok to be disabled…not some kind of shame that you can be brave to show the world.

    There was more … but now I can’t remember… LOL

  34. I think that “properly” thing is an American/British difference. They do use words in a way that seems kind of shockingly blunt to Americans. (I like it!) I remember one article talking about the alleged link between breastfeeding and intelligence referred to intelligent mothers as “clever.” You’d never see than in an American newspaper.

  35. Most infuriating to me in the post you quoted is the assumption that the new presenter must have been hired due to political correctness. This seems to be the default assumption whenever a person doing a job is a different race, gender, body type, etc. than we expect. Couldn’t it just be that, of the candidates who applied or auditioned, she was the best one?

    I will never forget one of my first times out of the house in a wheelchair. I was at the mall, sitting in the children’s play area. A little girl walked by and asked her mother why I was in a wheelchair and her mom said, “Her legs probably don’t work right, so this lets her go to the mall and play like you do.” So many parents won’t even answer that question, let alone answer it with tact.

  36. FJ: Hmm, the definition I was using was, “led a comfortable enough life that they didn’t have to worry about this,” where “this” means “disability” in this context. I think that might be the same definition, but I’m not sure. I say “comfortable.” You say “avoiding.” It seems like the core idea is that we can criticize people, even ourselves, for not having walked in the shoes of every other person on Earth.

    Everyone, at all times, in all walks of life are privileged about a whole lot of subjects. So it seems like a loaded word such as privilege is going to take you all sorts of emotional places, when what you really just want is “human.”

    “And obviously, I still have major blind spots about stuff I’ve been learning and thinking about for years, because that’s the nature of being human.”

  37. Yeah, I have to say that I think you’re quibbling needlessly. Especially since you seem to have deliberately interpreted my “avoiding” as meaning “shying away from” rather than “not being forced to deal with.”

    I have to say, I’m excited to find out how you rephrase “not being forced to deal with” to sound like I’m criticizing people for experiencing privilege!

    Nah, I’m not really.

  38. So it seems like a loaded word such as privilege is going to take you all sorts of emotional places, when what you really just want is “human.”

    The whole point of identifying and thinking about privilege is to recognize the ways in which people who are different from you *don’t* get treated as “just human.”

  39. I love the assumptions behind scaring “the children”? Gee, aaaaand which children are those? Presumably not those for whom physical differences like these are as everyday and familiar as their own bodies or the bodies of those in their family?

    Susan: You have blind spots because you’re a human being.

    Well, sure, but then coming up with lots of precise descriptions of things is another thing that we do we’re human beings.

    And one thing that some people have found it useful to describe, is a very particular way in which one’s blind spots can cause one to be an asshole.

    Because there are different ways to be an asshole, after all. Somebody without a disability could tell Cerrie Burnell, “Well aren’t YOU brave?” for going on television. That same person could sarcastically say to his/her friend who declined to join the weekend skydiving expedition, “Well aren’t YOU brave?” Same words, both asshole-ish, but with a crucial difference. And the word that describes that difference — that names what’s operating in the first example, but not in the second — is “privilege.” Which is mighty useful if you’re the one on the wrong end of the privilege.

    Why take issue with a term that allows things to be described more precisely? Perhaps I misunderstand your objection.

  40. A Sarah, the Hoydens had a post a while back that discussed a similar “controversy” about a set of dolls that included one doll who came with a wheelchair. I believe one of the objections was that it would make kids sad. Because of course, no kids use wheelchairs themselves or know anyone who does.

  41. So it seems like a loaded word such as privilege is going to take you all sorts of emotional places

    What’s loaded about “privilege”? Or emotional? I’m genuinely asking here. Because as a concept, privilege seems pretty straightforward to me. Here’s how I became acquainted with it: Several years ago some people of color told me that it’s a concept without which they can’t describe their own experience with white people. I believed them; I trust they know their experience better than I do. I realized that my own identity is bound up in white privilege. Since then I’ve found it to be a useful and essential concept across a number of domains. I can certainly understand people becoming emotional about it — but, you know, people are allowed to be as emotional as they like about whatever in fact stirs their emotions, and I don’t view this as a problem to fix. But I don’t see how the concept of privilege itself need be anything but a very accurate descriptor. And if it gets people’s emotions going, then that’s probably worth paying compassionate attention to… not stifling by choosing a different and less-accurate word that won’t get them so riled up. Don’t you think most people can handle it?

    And now I’m going to hit “Submit Comment” and find that ten people made the same points, only better, while I was typing. :)

  42. SM, ugh, I hadn’t been aware of that controversy! But I can totally see that happening. In the local university-affiliated parents-of-preschoolers crowd I’ve sometimes observed a few parents who seem to treat it as a badge of honor if they are Highly Distressed that their children are Sensitive and Very Easily Upset. (Which, I mean… what better way to ensure that you have a Sensitive and Very Easily Upset child than to focusfocusfocusfocusfocus!!!! on the child and his/her sensitivity ALL THE DINGDANG TIME?) And oddly it seems to be the most well-off white parents for whom this is the case. But my own judgment is very clouded here probably, and in any case it’s not a big enough sample size to tell whether that’s actually any kind of pattern.

  43. Aha! I knew someone has already said the thing about vocabulary better than I just did. From tekanji’s awesome FAQ on privilege:

    Standard language just isn’t equipped to deal with the concepts that non-privileged groups have to engage with on a regular basis. And why would it? The language we’re taught is designed for the masses. But, just as you have to learn a bunch of new terms for things like science class, so to do you need to do so for non-privileged groups. Not understanding terms can and will cause problems in the beginning – I know because I’ve been there. We all have. But just sticking it out and continuing to listen and learn will help. There are also places specifically designed for those who have no background in the area. In some, but not all, cases starting up a dialogue around a specific term is fine. What’s not fine, however, is telling a non-privileged group that their terms are wrong. You, as the privileged participant, don’t get to define what is and is not appropriate usage in a minority space.

    Not saying that this is a minority space in this particular instance, but the conversation about whether ableist comments come from a place of privilege is obfuscating. Of course they do. They may *also* come from malice or some other motivation, but they also come from privilege.

  44. It seems like the core idea is that we can criticize people, even ourselves, for not having walked in the shoes of every other person on Earth.

    Please. The point is, when you are not the target of a particular kind of discrimination, you have the luxury of not thinking about it much, which can lead to your reinforcing that very form of discrimination, even if you’d never do so deliberately.

    Example: Last week, I was in an elevator that had a recorded voice announcing each floor as it stopped, as well as a lighted display with the numbers. A guy standing there with me, just making small talk, was like, “God, the huge lighted numbers aren’t enough? People really need the robot voice, too? Haha!” I pointed out that the robot voice was for visually impaired people, which had not occurred to the dude.

    Do I think that guy dislikes visually impaired people, or is in any way mean or stupid for not thinking of that? No. But I do think the whole reason robot-voices in elevators — or at crosswalks, etc. — are still relatively rare is because too damned many people, including those in charge of designing public and semi-public spaces, just don’t think about people with disabilities unless they’re forced to. That’s able-bodied privilege, and it’s damaging to people who don’t have it, whether those of us who do mean any harm or not.

    It’s not about mortifying yourself because you haven’t experienced every possible form of discrimination personally, or apologizing because you happen to be able-bodied/white/straight/male/cisgendered/whatever. It’s about thinking critically about how our culture fosters different kinds of discrimination and how we all play a part in that, wittingly or unwittingly — with an eye to reducing the number of times it happens unwittingly.

  45. That makes me a little crazy. A friend of mine with two very differently sized arms is “brave” enough to be a professional golfer and whoop my ass at pool. The smaller, differently formed arm may not have “properly” grown, but it is clearly more useful than my matching arms when it comes to eight ball.

  46. A guy standing there with me, just making small talk, was like, “God, the huge lighted numbers aren’t enough? People really need the robot voice, too? Haha!” I pointed out that the robot voice was for visually impaired people, which had not occurred to the dude.

    So I was at a stand-up comedy show, which never happens, because a friend of a friend was performing and my friend had gotten a group together to support her friend.

    And this guy gets up and starts doing his comedy act, which isn’t very good. About a minute into the thing, he starts with “And sugar-free chocolate? I mean, what’s with that? Who eats sugar-free chocolate?”

    So of course I call out, “Diabetics!”

    And he just stops dead. Because it had never occurred to him.

  47. I have to say, objecting to thoroughly well-established vocabulary seems to me a classic strategy to avoid actually talking about the issue at hand.

    This. I hope it’s just a misunderstanding that will be cleared up by the last several comments, but it’s always hard to tell.

    Truth be told, I’m not in love with the word “privilege,” either, precisely because I think it’s confusing when you first hear it in this context. Problem is, I’m not the boss of the English language, and this specific meaning of “privilege” is established enough that we’re well past the point where complaining about it or proposing alternatives would be a good use of anyone’s time. So I can certainly empathize with initial confusion, but after the context has been explained to you, rejecting an established meaning for the word becomes a means of not engaging with the concept behind it.

  48. I haven’t gone to the website, so maybe I’m missing the tone, but it sounds to me as if this presenter IS pretty brave. She’s gone into a very public profession involving children which makes her a magnet for parental worry, and she’s basically agreeing to act as an ambassador for people with disabilities to benefit both the generation of TV watchers and everyone with physical differences they meet in life.

    Fear of difference is based on ignorance, but it’s exhausting fighting through that fear in order to educate. If she’s volunteered in that forum, she’s not just brave, she’s a bleedin’ hero.

  49. [i]So of course I call out, “Diabetics!”[/i]

    LOL. I love this so much.

    Also, I hate the word “tummy,” too. Particularly when uttered by childfree adults in reference to their own anatomy. See also: tum tum, yum yum, and nom nom. The latter is only acceptable when uttered by hamsters or cookie stealing rabbits.

  50. TB, the problem with the “brave” comment is that it’s not clear whether people mean she’s brave because she has gone into a public profession knowing what kind of scrutiny and prejudice she was going to face, or that she’s brave because all disabled people are brave by virtue of how excruciating their lives must be. Since we don’t know the commenters’ intent, we have to judge by their words, and their words play into a very common, kneejerk, othering trope about disability. If you check out the link Kate put in the post, you’ll see why:

    MYTH: People with disabilities are inspirational, brave, and courageous for living successfully with their disability.

    FACT: A person with a disability a simply carrying out normal activities of living when they drive to work, go shopping, pay their bills, or compete in athletic events. Access to community based, long term service such as attendant care, access to buildings, public transportation, sidewalks, etc, access to quality health care, and necessary equipment enables them to carry on the same as non-disabled people.

  51. Sweet Machine: and of course no kid who doesn’t use a wheelchair would want to play at using one, through dolls! In my experience, kids think wheelchairs *rock*.

  52. Tummy: I really hate it when doctors say “tummy”. Or “bottom.” I’d much rather know what they are talking about – my stomach? My intestines? My abdominal cavity? My pelvic bones or my rectum? Something else?

  53. I think there’s another subtext to ‘people with disabilities are brave’ etc. — that it can also be a way of saying, ‘I don’t want to hear about your pain or fear,’ or even, ‘Take what you’re given, and don’t complain.’ And it can be used as a back-handed slap to shame anyone who complains anyway: ‘And here I thought you were being so brave!’

  54. Kate – Thanks a lot for those explanations. This really cleared up my confusion about the privilege. Your ability to communicate complicated ideas is marvelous. Thank you for taking the time because I do not always get it on the first go.

  55. “Instead of the smug, thinly veiled ableist-perpetuating, what about folks considering things like “All of us are different and that’s okay” “No two people are exactly the same and that’s okay”.

    Yeah, when I began talking to my older child about it, I was uncomfortable with phrases like “some people’s legs don’t work,” “some people have ONLY one eye” and so on. I adopted a policy pretty much of exactly what you suggest: I describe the difference without privileging one side of it as “normal”.

    So now with my younger child I say things like “Some people have two arms, like you do, and some people have one arm or no arms.” Or “Some people’s legs don’t work the same way yours do” or “You see things with your eyes, right? But some people’s eyes don’t see things.”

  56. I have a friend with quadraplegia who has two children. When she and her partner were trying for their first baby they were very open about it and discussed what they were doing in terms of diet etc. to improve their health and fertility – as many people do. But this openness was often misinterpreted as wanting some kind of validation, and so they were showered with comments like ‘you’re so brave to be doing this’ and ‘you amaze me.’ And sadly most didn’t take advantage of my friend’s frankness to ask things that were really on their mind (like how she would give birth and whether she would be getting home-help or if her partner would be staying around to feed/change the baby.) Happily, two thriving children later, and people seem to have stopped saying she’s brave – at least, any braver than anyone willing to have two children.

    I guess my point here is that the part of that comment that is most offensive is the assumption behind it that only the able have children, should have children, or can even be around children. I think someone else alluded to that but it bears repeating.

    And as for ‘people with disabilities are brave just for existing’ – that is bad enough. But what about ‘people who are married to/in love with people with disabilities are special and soooo compassionate.’ It’s kind of like ‘men who f*ck fat chicks must be sensitive and only care about personality’ only worse. That happened with my friend too. Thing is, no-one said her husband was lucky to have her, only the other way around. And that sucks because he’s one lucky guy because my friend is all kinds of awesome.

  57. Kristin,

    I’ve been struggling with how best to talk about people with disabilities with my son. He will often point out shoppers in the grocery store who are on the motorized carts or are using the wheelchair carts and ask “What’s dat?” Interestingly to me, he’s most wanting to know about the equipment itself and is not at all distressed about why the people aren’t walking around, including people who may be missing all or part of their leg(s).

    I’ve been trying out how to talk about it and I’d been using “Some people use a little car (all motorized vehicles are cars to him) or chair to get around”. Your suggestions are very helpful in adding to my discussions.

  58. Eucritta- I remember reading an interview ages ago with a woman who had been born without arms and legs. She and the interviewer went out to lunch, and the story began with how the table was covered with crumbs and one of the women had made a mess, and the big reveal was…it was the interviewer! Because the woman who was being interviewed may have been disabled, but she would never be a messy eater.

    And now looking back, I realize that what seems like a pat on the back, isn’t she great story is kind of that same thing of, “Look, she’s the perfect kind of disabled. She doesn’t even leave any crumbs!” And the more disturbing implication is that the woman wasn’t allowed to be a messy eater, because that might draw attention to her disability even though an able bodied person making a mess is just…making a mess.

  59. Interestingly to me, he’s most wanting to know about the equipment itself

    I meant to say “Interestingly to me because it is exactly opposite to this parent in the story’s complaint”. But re-reading it, I still sound like a jerk.

    Anyway, I will keep trying.

  60. I am pleased that you did bring up the use of the word ‘retarded’, as that word upsets me a lot more than how the word ‘properly’ as used in the examples above.

  61. The “brave” thing really chaps my ass. I have an invisible disability, and when people learn about the limitations of my life because of it, “brave” is the first word that comes up. I’ve had several people tell me that if they had to deal with such restrictions, they would kill themselves. They think they’re complimenting my emotional strength. What they’re really doing is making themselves feel better about their own lives in a really petty way. I mean, people should, certainly, be grateful for what they have, but not by assuming a fundamental superiority over someone else. It’s sort of the equivalent of telling a fat person, “It’s just fine if you’re fat, but there’s no way I could possibly deal with living that way.”

    I think there is, like Kate mentioned, a huge segment of the population who doesn’t think about people with disabilities until they run into one, and then the reaction is something like, “That’s scary. Oh well, it’ll never happen to me. Okay, moving on,” rather than: “Okay, now I’m aware that this particular type of disability exists, and I can try to be as accommodating as possible to people with said disability in the future.”

    There IS a way to acknowledge the challenges that people with disabilities may face without being a condescending asshole about it. It involves examining and working through the initial fear you may feel about it–which I think is understandable–instead of calling that fear “concern” or “admiration” or anything else that makes you feel like less of an asshole while still being an asshole.

  62. “Look, she’s the perfect kind of disabled. She doesn’t even leave any crumbs!”

    Yes! And not only does it imply that the woman wasn’t allowed to be a messy eater because it might draw attention … there’s sometimes an unspoken expection that it’s only okay to be disabled-in-public if it doesn’t make any mess, or extra work, or get in the way of any of the more important people.

    Unspoken? Hah. Years ago, when I was at a bus stop by the city college watching a fellow student in a wheelchair go up on the hydraulic lift, a man who was also waiting at the stop began to loudly complain that ‘the wheelchair’ — he couldn’t even bear to refer to the woman in the chair as a person — should’ve waited for the next bus, because ‘[his] time was important.’ I pointed out that my fellow student’s time was important too, at which point he wailed, ‘But I have a job!’

    But what about ‘people who are married to/in love with people with disabilities are special and soooo compassionate.’

    Argh! My husband has sometimes gotten this — most offensively within my hearing, in connection with income: ‘If only you had two good incomes … it’s wonderful how you’ve stuck together with [your wife] no matter what.’

  63. Ugh, the brave thing. I think I hate that more than outright bigotry (for the same reason I hate douchebags whose politics I agree with more than those I disagree with–I expect assiness from the known asshats).

    I took a class last semester on representations of various stigmatized identities, which obviously involved a lot of work on disability. At one point we watched a documentary about wheelchair users that was very good and not at all patronizing (it’s called Rolling, if anyone’s interested). Our prof was also a sometimes wheelchair user (she also used a Segway, which was freaking awesome). So: class about the awful ways society treats people with various stigmatized identities, taught by a person with a disability, watching a frank, honest representation of the lives of people who use wheelchairs. The comments from my fellow students afterward? “They’re sooooo brave! And so are their spouses!” Ugh.

    Later that semester I wrote a paper about how offensive and obnoxious that reaction was.

  64. it’s wonderful how you’ve stuck together with [your wife] no matter what.’

    Also note the underlying assumption that no one would voluntarily marry a person who already *has* a disability, but if the disability comes later you must soldier on.

  65. We have thousands of years of evolution telling us to build communities of people who are the same and reject people who are different.

    In fact evolution is better served by our rejecting people who are too similar to us. This is so that our species can have genetic diversity.

  66. They think they’re complimenting my emotional strength. What they’re really doing is making themselves feel better about their own lives in a really petty way.

    Meg, I’ve got an invisible disability myself–your comment is absolutely spot-on. I find the “you’re so brave” comments really creepy and slightly patronizing.

  67. Speaking as a Brit, that whole “look at me not being bothered, what a good girl/boy am I” thing is very common in the UK. And honestly I think that attitude, that you’re a special awesome person for not being openly bigoted, is what allows the more overt expressions of bigotry to flourish.

    I had a distant cousin growing up with a clearly obvious disability (he had to wear a leg brace). I remember being alarmed the first time I saw it because he walked in an awkward looking way that I’d never seen before – little kid me assumed that he must be in pain and was upset, and blurted out “What’s wrong with your leg? Does it hurt?”. At which point my mother took me aside and explained both why my cousin needed the brace and how it wasn’t appropriate to blurt things out like that because it could upset him and make him feel uncomfortable. I’m still glad that she approached things that way, ie. explained that his looking a little different was just the way he was and that it was wrong of me not to stop and think that my blurting things out without thinking of what that might feel like from his pov was unkind.

    The parents quoted, above, otoh, are training their kids to think that it’s totally OK to make people feel uncomfortable if they look different in any way. Which will have repercussions in a wider sense than how they relate to people with disabilities. I have to wonder if Bree is right and the kids just casually mentioned that they saw something unusual and it was the parents that freaked out, too.

    On “proper” – yeah, Brits use it a lot more often and more casually than Americans. I can see why the parents might pick that phrasing, and it sounds a little less fucked up in British English than it does over here, but stil, not the best word choice even in the UK.

  68. People use “brave” in all kinds of contexts where it really does not fit. I remember reading a book by Barbara Sher in which she described a woman who, with no husband or children in her house any longer, decided to decorate each room exactly as she wanted to — glossy apple green paint and white lace curtains in one room, red flocked wallpaper and Victorian furniture in another, etc. — and she said people told her she was “brave” to decorate her house that way! It makes me think “brave” is often a marker for what I call “normalcy fetishism,” i.e. fear of not blending in, because not blending in is the very worst thing that could happen to you, you betcha.

    And yeah, the partner of someone with a disability being nominated for sainthood? Happens to partners of people on the autism spectrum, too. Because we’re just such a handful, OMG. My dad has made some comments like that about C., how good he is to be able to deal with everything that I’ve been through. Right. Come on, dude (or dad), I’m not his frigging pity date. Just ask him.

  69. Spilt Milk, on February 24th, 2009 at 9:39 pm Said:
    And sadly most didn’t take advantage of my friend’s frankness to ask things that were really on their mind (like how she would give birth and whether she would be getting home-help or if her partner would be staying around to feed/change the baby.)

    Heh. And I would totally have asked exactly those things, and then (if she was there) my mom would have read me the riot act for being rude. I think a lot of people say stuff like, “You’re so brave” and whatnot “because it’s the polite thing to say,” but in practice (if not in intention) these “polite things” function as a way to NOT engage the other as a fully human person (and not just when it comes to the handicapped).

    But perhaps that’s just the cynic in me.

    meowser said:
    brave” is often a marker for what I call “normalcy fetishism,” i.e. fear of not blending in, because not blending in is the very worst thing that could happen to you, you betcha.

    So true. Also agree with the comment about people on the spectrum, plus you’ll hear similar comments about people who’ll marry a sexual abuse survivor or others with obvious PTSD symptoms, or, worse, you’ll hear comments about the partner “needing to be needed” or otherwise defective. Not to say that people who want to be rescuers never end up with survivors, but the fact that someone choses a survivor as a partner is not evidence that that’s where they’re coming from.

    So either it’s brave to go against the norm (particularly when you had no choice), or it’s an indication that you’re a bit whacked (especially if you chose the situation).

  70. My birth defect means my one arm is kind of munty and I only have three fingers on it, and I gave up dreams of an acting career at age 12 because obviously people with physical defects/disabilities can’t appear on television.

    (I later realized I can’t act, but that’s neither here nor there)

    So even though those parents are stupid (my hand upset some of my peers, too–but they learned to live with it) I’m just pretty psyched that someone even more obviously different from the norm than me got an acting gig on TV.

  71. I also have an invisible disability, and I get the “you’re so brave!” thing ALL. THE. TIME. Even from my family. Um, I’m going to college. Period. Just like my sister and most of my friends. This isn’t Purple Heart material. I’m living my life. Yes, it’s different and college is taking longer for me than for my friends. Still not Purple Heart material.

  72. I’m surprised anytime people are upset by differently abled people they’ve been a part of reality for me since I was born. My former uncle was in a wheel chair and was hard of hearing due to polio before he was a teenager. I don’t even remember there being a discussion about why he was in a wheelchair. But I do remember there being a very clear message from my family that acting ‘scared’ or asking questions about people who I perceived to be different from me was rude and I’d catch hell when I got home. That wasn’t out of any kind of PC fear. It was a genuine belief that my discomfort or curiosity took a clear backseat to another person’s dignity. I was also exposed early on to the identity politics inherent to people who deal with mobility issues etc. To this day I cringe when I hear the term handicapped because for some people that’s as pejorative as the term crippled. Differently abled is a mouthful but it gets at the fact this person is still a functioning human being.

    My uncle was just my uncle who was funny, really mean, had a job, had unreal upper body strength, played sports, and he clearly had sex based on my cousin’s presence and his numerous extramarital affairs. Now that he’s abandoned our family for a whore at walmart, he’s missed by everybody while also being hated. Hell, I still think ‘would this place be accessible for Gene’ even though I haven’t talked to him in over four years.

    It wasn’t until I was older that I realized not everybody was like my family. So I was shocked when a friend in middle school said she was scared of the kids in special ed or when a college room mate didn’t date a guy because he was in a wheelchair. The horror stories that my partner tells me about how people reacted to her mother, who was a double amputee, is mind numbing.

    I remember being pretty self-righteous about those incidents but as time has gone on, I’ve realized that my parents had the right approach. There were no lectures about ableism and brave handicapped people. I just knew everybody’s body was different and it was my job to get the fuck used to it and keep my mouth shut and not stare.

    The truth is that nobody should have discussed what these kids said because these are the kinds of things that are talked about in private. I think the Daily Mail just legitimized the idea that people/children have to be ‘taught’ tolerance or acceptance for people who are different and that these are legitimate topics for debate. As a former student who is an immigrant, gay, and differently abled wrote in a journal entry ‘fuck your tolerance. I don’t need it’.

  73. It’s a little funny to me that this subject comes up today of all days. My entire Philosophy class today was spent talking about the bias of language. About how subversive and invisible the reinforcement of bias is in our very words.

    Even words like “special” have a negative connotation now.

    Given the scenario listed here, I’d say that when dealing with kids my preferred method is to explain that everyone is different and everyone is “differently abled” (another common replacement for the word disabled). If everyone is different and everyone is “differently abled” then being different becomes “normal”. I think that’s good for kids.

  74. Hello all! Since you moderate all new comments and my email’s not working, I thought this would be a good way to send some posting ideas. Your blog is lovely. I don’t care whether this gets posted to the comments section, since it has little to do with this post.

    1. Other blogs that I follow, like terrierman.blogspot.com and fuglyhorseoftheday.blogspot.com are constantly on about how fat pets are all our fault for overfeeding and underexcercising. While that is probably the case for many of them, who will get almost no exercise and the diet of a working animal, but are animals likely to have fatter body types as well? Are we judged by our fat pets too?

    2. Your blog references fat women owning their sexuality. One of the most common kinks out there is submission/domination, and one of the biggest complaints about it is that all the women involved seem to be fatties. Are we not allowed to be submissive, or dominant, or any other kink?

    3. What is up with gays and body issues? Between the fashion industry, the entertainment sector, and the stereotypes out there (twink, bear, lesbian bed death, etc)… I think there’s some deeper things for gays and fat than there are for straight people.

    4. Do you all know Weasel? Sure, it’s nothing to do with fat, but whywomenhatemen.blogspot.com is hilarious. Heartlessbitches.com is pretty good too. Also cakewrecks.com.

  75. I guess I’m late to the party but this whole thing makes me uncomfortable. My brother was born with a right arm that looks more or less just like Cerrie’s and he can do anything anyone else can do. There has literally been nothing he has ever tried to do that he wasn’t able to do just because he only has one hand.

    So I don’t like how the word “disabled” is thrown around in situations like this to describe physical differences. Ability doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with it.

    Just my two cents.

  76. I don’t think it’s just privilege. I know people with disabilities who use able-ist language just because that’s what our culture uses.

    It takes time for language to change. In the last ten years my brother has gone from “mentally slow,” to “learning disabled,” to “someone who has a developmental delay.” He’s so frustrated with it, he just says he’s retarded and people should get over it already.

    Please, don’t misunderstand. I am in no way implying that it’s ok for people to still go around using the word “retarded.” I’m saying that the language around diabilities changes so often that most people stick with the vernacular because it’s understood. The more sensitive language IS starting to filter into society, but people who aren’t exposed to disabilities in any form aren’t exposed to it, generally speaking. It takes time.

    It has started and it will catch on.

    In the meantime I get to keep having these conversations:

    “I work as my brother’s caregiver.”
    “Oh. What’s wrong with him?”
    “He has a developmental delay.”
    *blank stare*
    “He’s retarded.”
    “OH! That’s too bad. It’s good that he has you to look out for him.”

    *sigh*

    It isn’t just the general population who are taking time to catch on. I’ve had the same exact conversation with doctors, nurses, medical receptionists, and other people who should bloody well know better by now. It just takes time for everybody to get the meme…memo.

  77. Twilightriver, it seems like almost every word that’s ever “officially” been used to describe your brother’s condition and others like him has eventually been turned into an epithet — moron, idiot, cretin, imbecile, etc. Now “mentally retarded” has joined the list (although “retard” as a noun was never an official term) and the American Association on Mental Retardation changed its name to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities in 2006 because they wanted to use a name that hadn’t been turned into an epithet. But “mental retardation” still has ICD-9 and ICD-10 codes (for billing) which is probably why it’s still in clinical use. (Kind of like “obesity,” I guess.)

    Makes me wonder, though, how long it’s going to be before kids turn “intellectually disabled” into an epithet.

  78. @Az–my aunt has an arm that looks just like Cerrie’s. The only thing she isn’t able to do is use a traditional pepper grinder easily. We got her an automated one.

    Common sense dictates that she also probably can’t play the piano. She’s not very musical anyway.

  79. “Intellectually disabled” is already considered an epithet because it defines a person according to ability rather than defining the person as a person.

    Thus, my brother is not developmentally disabled. My brother is a person who has a developmental delay. I can be reported and have it on my record if I screw that up.

    To which my brother says:
    PFFT! That’s retarded!

  80. The point of all that I’m saying is that the language isn’t the problem. Language is always evolving. Sometimes, people who are doing their best to be sensitive don’t have access to the most up to date language.

    The ONLY reason I know the current “correct” way to address my brother’s issue is because I had to take a class as part of my job. Without that class I’d still be trying to tell people “he’s developmentally disabled” instead of saying “he has a developmental delay” (in both cases I get blank stares and resort to “retarded”.)

    With all of my tolerance and sensitivity and awareness, I still end up using some form of -ist language sometimes just because it can get cumbersome to try to show awareness for all of the possible variations. Our language wasn’t developed with that awareness, so we are in a period of developing that language and most people aren’t on the same page. Those of us who are trying are not the problem.

    The problem is the douchebags who aren’t helping and are doing what they can to hinder efforts to give more exposure to variances so that we can all figure out how to deal with these subjects with sensitivity and compassion.

    That’s a lot of words to say that quibbling over language usage tends to do more harm than good because it turns allies into enemies when they feel they are being picked on for doing their best while the actual douchebags are given passing comment and left to be douchebags because we all know they aren’t going to change anyway.

    So, if we really want to help people use more sensitive language then haranguing them, even behind their backs (because it’s to some of our faces,) isn’t much help and it would be better to model some counter examples.

    But I didn’t come on here to tell Kate how to post. Just offering my perspective because I deal with this DAILY. It never gets any easier.

  81. The one I get all the time is that my husband, Don, is an “inspiration”.

    *sigh* Don was not put on this earth to be someone’s inspiration, thank you very much. He was put on this earth to make me tea on demand, obviously.

    And yeah – like everyone else, I also get the “you’re so brave”, and people get even more laudatory when they find out that Don was born with his disability, so I was so amazing! for falling in love with a man who uses a wheelchair!

    *headdesk*

  82. I’m pleased that she was hired to begin with. Before I looked at the picture, I thought maybe she obviously had one shorter arm, but there was a sleeve covering it. When you look up pictures on google, you can see that her stump is bare, on what looks like professional pictures.

    On the down-side, she’s beautiful, and if she wasn’t, she probably wouldn’t have been hired. She looks like Gwyneth Paltrow.

  83. I just want to take a moment to give Shapely Prose a big chewy chocolate chip cookie for talking about ableism, and the commenters for dealing with it sensibly (though I’m not seeing what’s going unpublished!). Very few TAB feminist bloggers do, and those that try tend to have trainwreck comments sections. So I appreciate it.

    I’m trying to remember the first time my son noticed visible disability. Pirates in books, I think. He threw around some theories as to how whichever-pirate-it-was had come to have one leg, and concluded that it must have been either a shark bite or a crocodile bite. It was all rather matter-of-fact, and I didn’t interfere with his process.

    He has noticed wheelchairs; I think the first time I responded something like “some people can’t walk or can’t walk very far, so they use a wheelchair to get around”. The second time, he was older and interested in biology, so I explained a bit about spinal cord injuries, and mentioned a couple of other possible causes for needing a wheelchair. Again, he was matter of fact. Take a note, and move on.

    I haven’t made a big deal of my invisible disability to him; he knows that I rest a lot and can’t walk far or fast, and he’s never really turned that into a drama. It just is what it is.

    The only time I’ve noticed him show fear around illness/disability is when there was possible mortality involved. When his cousin was born way too early, he chose not to see him in the hospital or even look at photos until he was discharged, as he was very distressed over the possibility that he might die. I think this was his way of protecting himself from those terrifying emotions, as he was right in the middle of a big phase processing ideas of mortality at the time. He asked me almost daily at first, “Did [X] succeed?”, (he meant “survive”), and I kept him updated on when the various tubes came out and how his feeding was going.

    Kids ignore all sorts of things their parents freak out about them seeing. (Cf: breastfeeding.)

  84. I’m saying that the language around diabilities changes so often that most people stick with the vernacular because it’s understood.

    That’s a lot of words to say that quibbling over language usage tends to do more harm than good because it turns allies into enemies when they feel they are being picked on for doing their best while the actual douchebags are given passing comment and left to be douchebags because we all know they aren’t going to change anyway.

    I feel like you’re conflating people who don’t know correct terminology in respectful conversation with people who want to use words as insults. Calling out insults isn’t “quibbling over language.”

  85. Harveypenguin:

    What’s your point? Are you trying to imply I’m wrong/oversensitive/stupid?

    BTW I’m sure if my brother wanted to play the piano or use a pepper grinder he could.

  86. If this is an appropriate place to ask a question on a new term I’ve heard lately, I have a question. And if it isn’t an appropriate place, please just ignore the following, with my apologies:

    May I ask whether anyone can shed some light on the expression, “receives services”? I suddenly hear this a lot in parent/preschool circles, about kids who’ve been diagnosed with autism or PDD-NOS. I wish I weren’t ignorant about what’s at stake, but as of right now I am… is this thought to be a less-ableist way of talking? Or is it more a dare-not-speak-its-name-type euphemism? Or both?

  87. But I didn’t come on here to tell Kate how to post. Just offering my perspective because I deal with this DAILY. It never gets any easier.

    And other people who deal with it daily have come to different conclusions from yours. I remember the first time I went to watch my brother compete in the state level of Special Olympics, there was a young man who made a really passionate speech about how much more human it made him feel to identify as “mentally challenged” rather than “retarded” (this was in the late 80s/early 90s). I understand what you’re saying about you and your brother’s frustration with people not understanding you, but, again, that doesn’t mean the effort to change biased language is invalid.

    So, if we really want to help people use more sensitive language then haranguing them, even behind their backs (because it’s to some of our faces,) isn’t much help and it would be better to model some counter examples.

    What is “haranguing” about saying, “Hey, I don’t like it when you say that because that [phrase/word/whatev] has negative connotations”? To me, calling people out respectfully is a form of “modeling” an alternate way of talking.

    I guess we disagree on this, but IMO language matters greatly. Words matter. Little things add up to great, massive effect when it comes to prejudice and discrimination. Working to correct or better the smaller instances of discrimination doesn’t mean we can’t also work against the larger ones.

  88. I feel like you’re conflating people who don’t know correct terminology in respectful conversation with people who want to use words as insults. Calling out insults isn’t “quibbling over language.”

    Thanks for that, Volcanista.

    Twilightriver, if you scroll upthread, I think you’ll find my comments on privilege relevant to your points. Not because you need an explanation of privilege, but because I think — hope — they illustrate that my point here is not to criticize people who don’t know something, for the sake of punishing or ridiculing them. My point is to discuss how able-bodied privilege keeps so many people — kind, well-meaning people, as often as not — from thinking about how their own attitudes and actions (or lack thereof) might contribute to a culture of discrimination against and fear of people with disabilities.

    I’m not going to bitch out someone who doesn’t necessarily know what the up-to-the-minute language being used by disability rights activists is (especially since I’m one of those people) — but a reasonable person in this society should know damned well it’s not “retarded.” (Choosing to say that about yourself or a family member who invites it is, obviously, a different thing.) Furthermore, when it comes up here, it’s not usually in the context of “I have a brother who’s retarded,” but “I forgot to turn the coffeemaker on — I’m so retarded.” It’s about an ableist culture keeping people from seeing the offensiveness inherent in using a pejorative term for people with developmental delays to describe a moment of absent-mindedness. So we point that out when it happens — which, although I mention it in passing in the post, is not really the kind of ableism I’m talking about anyway.

    Finally, I would never discourage anyone from soundly rejecting people who say hateful things, or pointing to the most stunning comments like that as evidence of what people who are the targets of that hatred deal with on a regular basis. I just felt uncomfortable about how so much of the coverage of this is narrowly focused on “OMG, CAN YOU BELIEVE SOMEONE SAID THAT?” — which puts the spotlight on individual bigots instead of a culture woven through with ableism, in which we all participate.

    Again, it’s not about shaming well-intentioned people who say the “wrong” thing, or flagellating myself for having privilege, or congratulating myself for noticing that I have privilege. It’s about discussing how able-bodied people have the luxury of being ill-informed about people with disabilities, which can and does lead to unwitting reinforcement of an ableist culture at multiple levels.

  89. It’s about discussing how able-bodied people have the luxury of being ill-informed about people with disabilities, which can and does lead to unwitting reinforcement of an ableist culture at multiple levels.

    And this is a much clearer and nicer way of putting what I was trying to say — the luxury of being ill-informed is exactly it. What people with disabilities and their friends and family choose to do with their information is up to them; twilightriver and I have come to different conclusions about that, and that’s cool. But people say all kinds of shit *because* they’ve never had to think about it, which is what the Beeb commenters seem to be doing, even the ones with good intentions.

  90. Great post!

    I’m going to ask a few questions here. Not as a criticism of anything in the post or the comments, but because the bloggers and commenters here seem smart and knowledgeable about ableism.

    I get the sense that it’s considered bad to draw attention to disability causing any kind of difficulty. “We’re all different and that’s OK” – absolutely true. But my experience is that some people are different in a way that presents challenges to them and sometimes the people around them. Now, a lot of these challenges are caused by a society that’s not as accommodating and accessible to everyone as it should be, but they still exist.

    I sometimes find it hard to understand the “It’s all fine! Not a problem at all! Just one more totally equally great way of being!” messages. Is that really how most people feel about their disabilities? In that case, what is that like for the ones who don’t feel like that? Or is that most people default to “poor you, I’m so impressed that you can perform the basic tasks of daily life”, which is far worse?

  91. But my experience is that some people are different in a way that presents challenges to them and sometimes the people around them.

    You mean, like having a fat ass that prevents you from fitting comfortably in standard chairs?

    Or having no sense of balance? That one’s given me loads of trouble.

    I’m being flip, but the point is there are lots of ways of being in the world, and bodies have different challenges and different advantages. There’s not a definable point at which a body shifts from “works differently” to “doesn’t work.” Except, I suppose, death.

    We talked in another thread about how people’s experience of their disability depends a lot on context — for instance, someone who lost her hearing as an adult would feel its lack, and probably feel disabled by that lack, in a way that someone who’d been hearing-impaired from birth would not. But I’m sure it’s not news that you can’t make sweeping judgments about how any class of people relates to what their bodies can and can’t do. :)

  92. Mia, it seems to me that the best way to find out the answer to your question would be to read different perspectives from people who have disabilities. There’s a vibrant and diverse disability blogosphere; you should check it out! People have different understandings of their disabilities, and of course different disabilities have different social, physical, and psychological consequences.

    I get the sense that it’s considered bad to draw attention to disability causing any kind of difficulty.

    I don’t think it’s about drawing attention so much as it is reconsidering what the difficulty truly is. For instance, consider a building that’s inaccessible to people who use wheelchairs. I think a pretty common way of thinking about that is something like, “Oh, it’s so sad, these people need a special ramp just to get into a building! Their lives are so hard.” But the problem here isn’t in people’s bodies; it’s in the building. We live in a society that has to legally mandate that buildings have ramps because we don’t think of “people who use wheelchairs/walkers/mobility aids” as part of the default group “people who might need to get in this building.” So it’s not about “we’re all different and that’s okay and so we should never talk about how having a disability might be hard,” but rather “we’re all different and why the hell do we not consider that in our decisions about infrastructure/economics/television programs/etc.”

  93. Yeah, these are good points. It’s not really qualitatively different from me not finding pants that fit or not seeing much without my glasses. It is what it is, I deal with it, so why wouldn’t others do the same with their issues.

    Thanks for responding thoughtfully to stupid questions.

  94. Sweet Machine: I totally know what you mean about the problem being with the environment, not the person. I need to go back and take a hard look at some of my past experiences with that in mind.

  95. So I don’t like how the word “disabled” is thrown around in situations like this to describe physical differences. Ability doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with it.

    I don’t think it’s being used to define the person’s abilities, but rather the *souce* of the prejudice.

    From that perspective, it doesn’t matter if the difference is disabling in the physical sense of what you can or can’t do, because of the social effect – if people react to you based on their perception of what disability means *that* is the issue (and where the “your attitude is my disability”-type explanations of ablism come from).

  96. Sorry if someone has posted about this already, but during the audition phase of “American Idol” there was a young guy who was legally blind. He had a kick-ass audition (cause he’s talented), but all the judges could talk about was how “brave” and “inspiring” he was, and i just wanted to throttle them. How fucking condescending can you get?!?!?!

  97. Alyssa, I feel like that happened in the So You Think You Can Dance auditions too. Ugh, it’s like there’s a condescending reality TV show host handbook.

  98. May I ask whether anyone can shed some light on the expression, “receives services”?

    A Sarah, I can’t speak about this when it comes to disabilities, but in human services organizations, this is our way of saying homeless or extremely low-income clients have social workers, getting food stamps and TCA, or are going to agencies that are assisting them in finding housing, rent and/or bill payment help, gas vouchers, food, etc. I guess it’s a vague expression to try and take away the stigma that clients get from others not in their situation who perceive them as lazy, unmotivated individuals who try and play the system so they don’t have to actually do things on their own. (Yes, there are people like that, but that’s beside the point). But I think “receives services” applies to your question too.

  99. I do not disagree with this in any fashion.
    “Again, it’s not about shaming well-intentioned people who say the “wrong” thing, or flagellating myself for having privilege, or congratulating myself for noticing that I have privilege. It’s about discussing how able-bodied people have the luxury of being ill-informed about people with disabilities, which can and does lead to unwitting reinforcement of an ableist culture at multiple levels.”

    I disagreed with the way that you chose to express it this time because your tone was alienating towards people who were doing their best to show support within their limited experience of doing so.

    We get so wrapped up in our own subcultural language and sense of enlightenment about issues that it’s easy to point out the stupidity of others in ways that would piss us off is someone did it to us.

    I didn’t do a good job expressing that and that’s my failure as a writer.

    So, let me try to be more specific:
    It’s possible to point out the flaws in the language usage of people who are using able-ist language while trying to be supportive without implying that they are stupid, brainwashed, morons, who are just going along with whatever comes easiest instead of doing their best to figure out the RIGHT way to be supportive.

    “People smugly announcing that they’re raising their children “not to see” differences among people’s bodies, and proudly declaring that their children “haven’t even noticed.” Oh, okay. Because your two-year-old hasn’t mentioned it so far, it’s clear that pretending physical differences don’t exist is a stellar way to combat discrimination,” is a far sit different than “People who say that they are raising their children to ‘not see’ differences are supporting the abilist viewpoint that differences should be ignored because the language implies that differences are invisible rather than simply different.”

    But what’s the fun of being pissed off if you can’t make assumptions about people’s tones and actions without knowing a thing about them beyond their use of one phrase?

    It’s the psychic “you” statements that bug me. I hate it when people do it to me and I hate it when we think we can do it to others because we somehow know better than them about human dignity and human rights because we fight for acceptance and tolerance.

    We should know better.

  100. I was writing a letter to myself about my own use of psychic language and uncovered the point I have been so desperately trying to make. I’m sorry it took so many words to get to it.

    “If you are going to bitch about someone’s use of any form of -ist language, it’s best not to use psychic language because you don’t know why that person chose those words. Discuss the words without attacking the person. If you attack the person, then I feel the need to defend the person even if I agree with the points you are trying to make.”

  101. Twilight, the last part basically what I’ve been thinking for two days but haven’t been able to articulate. Thanks!

  102. Valerie, given how hard it was for me to get to that point, I can totally relate. Given how much I wrote before I finally got there, I’ve been feeling like I’m totally crap at expressing myself. Kind words are a balm. Thank you.

  103. harveypenguin~ Sorry for jumping on you. I thought you were arguing with me and I’m clearly sensitive on this topic.

    When my brother was a little kid, he and my mom were at a restaurant and a man came up to my mom and mentioned he worked with “disabled” kids like my brother

    My brother turned to my mom and said “Mommy, I’m not disabled! Am I?” She assured him that no, of course he’s not and then she told the man that they clearly did not need his help, as there were no disabled children at the table.

    So I think even the terminology of the “able bodied” (kind of arrogant right there IMO) is limiting to people who may LOOK different (that’s what this whole thing is about, after all, not ability). But it’s hard to change the minds of people who are trying to be sensitive but still assume one hand = obviously can’t do the things we lucky two-handed people can.

  104. Bree, I just saw that you’d helped me out with my question. Thank you! That does provide a lot more context for me.

  105. Kate, I could tell by the responses that I had utterly failed to communicate this time. Thank you for letting me know that further attempts to clarify were helpful rather than annoying.

  106. Az said: “My brother turned to my mom and said “Mommy, I’m not disabled! Am I?” She assured him that no, of course he’s not and then she told the man that they clearly did not need his help, as there were no disabled children at the table.”

    I’m having some trouble with this being held up as a good thing, because the interaction, as reported is still glaringly ableist. Obviously it’s not my place to tell Az how these members of hir family should interact and view themselves. Now that it’s been posted here I’m having trouble just letting it stand without comment, though.

    The thing is that, okay, so this particular child isn’t disabled. So what if he were? This way of insisting that he is not disabled, dammit! still sets up being disabled as this horrible thing that no one would want to be.
    As a way of thinking about what I mean, try replacing the description of the child and the category with something else:
    for example: Slightly chubby child says “I’m not fat! Am I?” Response: “no, of course not!”
    Similarly “Obama’s NOT!!!!!!!!!!! Muslim!!!!!!”

    In all of these cases, the factual answer may be “No, you are not/he is not.” But truly, that shouldn’t be the only thing communicated, because if left to stand on its own, that kind of communication also includes the idea that Xthing would be a bad thing to be. Ideally, in my opinion, the answer should also communicate that it would be okay too if it were true, especially when speaking with a child.
    ex: “Well, no, you’re not _____. But some kids are, and that’s okay too. Sometimes people just get confused.”
    “No, Obama’s not Muslim, but so what if he were?”

  107. @monkey: Earlier in the thread, Az mentioned that her brother has an arm that isn’t fully formed, much like the presenter in the original post. I don’t mean to speak for her, but I got the impression that her family was rejecting the label “disabled” as well as the in-person concern-trolling.

    Since everyone has covered the important bits of this discussion already, I wanted to speak up in defense of telling kids that babies grow in their mother’s bellies. My oldest child just turned 3 and I am currently 8-months pregnant. She knows that her baby brother is in Momma’s belly and when he’s ready, he’ll arrive.

    She’s old enough to notice the changes in my body. She’s also old enough to be prepared for the arrival of another sibling (unlike the sister who arrive when she was 18 months). However, she does not have any conception of interior anatomy. “Belly” is the part that she can see and that is big(ger) and round(er). It’s not “stomach” or anything to do with digestion because we haven’t introduced that idea yet.

    When we do start talking about internal anatomy (likely in the next year or so), we’ll use this as an example. “This is the stomach, where the food goes. This is the bladder, where pee comes from. And this is the uterus, where babies grow. Remember when baby brother was in Momma’s belly? He was growing in my uterus.”

    As it is, “belly” is what she’s comfortable with. And I’m pleased we’ve been able to establish an underpinning of biology and sex education this early. No storks or cabbage patches! :)

  108. A Sarah–I know this is a bit late, but hoping you see it. In my experience, “receiving services” can also mean receiving mobile therapy and TSS (therapeutic staff specialist) help, based on what the child/teen needs. Not sure if that was the case in the group you were talking about. HTH.

  109. I don’t mean to speak for her, but I got the impression that her family was rejecting the label “disabled” as well as the in-person concern-trolling.

    Lee, I don’t think that negates the point that monkey was making. After all, the “disabled”=”needs help” association is still a negative one that goes beyond “we reject this label”, and enforces certain stereotypes.

  110. Hi – Great post. This is my first visit to your blog and I look forward to reading more. I think I could learn a lot here.

    I agree with you that British people use “properly” much more casually than Americans. I also think the British news headlines are even more sensational and insensitive than the American headlines.

    If you are interested in some further observations about the cultural differences between the USA and UK – we blog about this all the time. We have even dabbled a bit in feminism and political correctness. Like you, we are three gals blogging together.

    http://shesnotfromyorkshire.com/

  111. Monkey, I wasn’t saying anything against people who have things they cannot do. I think it does not apply in this situation because what people are objecting to is what she looks like, not what she might be able to do or not do.

    I also think that telling people they cannot do the things people who might be built differently can do is limiting. It’s sort of the same thing as telling a fat person that they cannot surf because they are fat. Maybe they can, but they won’t try because of what they were told.

    I agree that if someone actually does not have the ability to surf (or anything else), they should not be thought any less of or discriminated against. But I don’t think it applies in this particular situation, and I think it’s damaging.

  112. After all, the “disabled”=”needs help” association is still a negative one that goes beyond “we reject this label”, and enforces certain stereotypes.

    Maybe if we used a word that didn’t mean “lacking in ability” it would help with that stereotype.

  113. @Az, Yeah I do get that you weren’t saying anything against people who do have impairments.
    I’m just trying to get at something a bit more subtle in terms of the stigma that gets attached to having a disability.

    FTR, I agree with most of the rest of your points, and I do think it’s a really interesting perspective to look at this particular situation from, in terms of the fact that this is all about perception and looks, and really has absolutely nothing to do with what this particular person can or can’t do or how she self-identifies (b/c maybe she does identify as “disabled”, I don’t know).

    Maybe if we used a word that didn’t mean “lacking in ability” it would help with that stereotype.
    I can see this as problematic, I personally take my cues from activists/writers/bloggers/etc. who are themselves disabled, and seem to prefer that term at current. The thing is, though, that even if someone is “lacking in ability” in whatever form, that still doesn’t give some stranger the right to assume that person needs help.

    But really, this is why I like the social model of disability, which puts the blame for the lack of being able to do something squarely on the physical and social environment that is not accommodating enough of people whose bodies or brains work in a variety of ways. (MissPrism, upthread, linked to a post on this for anyone who’s reading this and has no clue what I’m talking about.)

  114. I finally gave up waiting for her to commentand asked my 4-year-old outright; “See that lady? with one hand? Some grownups think she shouldn’t be on telly because she might scare children. Is she scary?”

    She put on her best “Duh-you’re-an-idiot-stop-bugging-me” voice and said “No, she can still do things with her OTHER HAND. Get out of the way, I can’t see.”

    I bet money those parents made that “scary” shit up from whole cloth.

  115. My god, Ailbhe, you mean she didn’t FREAK OUT AND START CRYING INCONSOLABLY? She’s not going to have NIGHTMARES until she’s 40? How’d you get such a jaded 4-year-old?

  116. I was thinking about this, for those parents who wanted good shows that discuss disability in a real way, I recommend Clifford the Big Red Dog and George Shrinks. Clifford has several disabled people in the show, and George Shrinks, being about a boy who is 6 inches tall, frequently deals with how environments have to be altered to accommodate different people. Neither show beats kids over the head with “special messages”, both do a good job of showing differences in ability as normal parts of life. (Though George Shrink’s family is…atypical. “Well off” might be another good way of putting it. I honestly don’t know where they get the money.)

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