The vehement defense of prejudicial behavior.


The Autism Diva recently posted an article about an autistic teen who is advocating for reform of the same special education system that he himself ended up in. Someone posted a response to the effect that he is inspirational, not for reason of inspiring people to action, but for reason of having overcome a lot to get where he is today.

I wrote that while I could not speak for him, I doubted his intent was to inspire through his story, but rather to highlight an unjust system.

I had reason for what I wrote (some people think I respond to the word “inspiration” the same way in all contexts and am merely being hypervigilant here, and that is not true). Some of it is summed up here in John Kelly’s Inspiration.

This is the bad faith of the inspirational story: that which we overcome is what has been done to us in the first place.

But what’s interesting to me here, is not so much the meaning of disability inspiration, which I can discuss another day, another time. But the vehement reaction of people who say they were “inspired” by something (in this individual sort of manner), and who are then told “You know what, this might be the wrong way to look at it.”

The reaction I got this time, was basically “I guess I’m not intellectual enough for around here, sorry for wasting your time, bye.” And then coming back later to say that, regardless of what anyone said about me, the person felt scolded by me, and that they were glad of everyone who “defended” them against me, and that I was basically calling them stupid and a terrible person and a lot of other things I never said. They provided more and more detail showing that, in fact, my conception of why they said “inspirational” in this context was quite accurate. But I was not supposed to say so, I was supposed to agree the more detail they gave that in fact they did not mean it in exactly the way they kept saying they meant it.

That they viewed my comment as something that needed defending against, reminded me of this quote from Cal Montgomery’s article Project Cleigh:

For those of us who encounter these incidents over and over and over, they aren’t isolated. They’re a pattern. They’re a pattern perpetuated (often unthinkingly, but unthinking does not necessarily mean okay) by people who see the little reminders that we are not as good as regular folks as entirely normal. Entirely natural. Entirely justified. And they’re a pattern that has a tremendous effect on our lives.

Like members of other groups who face regular reminders that they have their places and should stay in them, our attempts to convey to other people what the problem is seem to them like weird acts of discrimination against them, because we are trying to deny them their right to degrade us over and over again. “I didn’t mean it that way,” they say, or “You have to understand.”

That’s exactly what seemed to happen today. The comments I got when I tried to explain the problem seemed to often come from the viewpoint that I was oppressing someone else, or at the very least, that I was overreacting. (How “I don’t think he meant it that way” was an overreaction, I don’t know. I could have gone into a lot more detail and still been justified.) That my own attempts to convey these ideas were bad enough that they needed to be defended against.

But the sheer level of hurt defensiveness in the responses is what is unnerving to me. Elsewhere in that article, Carol Cleigh (the article’s named after her, and the author of the article describes her as inspiring in a non-problematic way, as in “inspired to action”) describes having a door ripped painfully from her hand by someone trying to “help” her. When she tried to do something about this situation, the door-grabber responded with yelling and physical violence.

I do not think the person I am talking to right now would have resorted to violence. But — and I am sure this is to her evidence that I’m calling her a bad person again — the same mechanism seems to be at work here. The extreme defensiveness that Carol Cleigh encountered, seems to spring from the same source as the extreme defensiveness that I and others encounter among people who feel like we are infringing on some sort of sacred right of theirs when we talk about the problems of certain kinds of “inspiration”.

I use a wheelchair. I can’t speak. I don’t always have access to the ability to type, particularly when people are grabbing at me. Grabbing the arms of a wheelchair without permission is the same as grabbing somebody by the shirt and dragging them around or holding them in place. It’s a form of assault to grab someone’s handles without permission. Normally my only possible defense against this kind of assault is to calmly reach around and pull the person’s hands off my chair, without even hurting them, then go on with what I was doing.

One time, I did this and the person erupted. She started screaming and crying. She talked about what an awful person I was, and how she was only trying to help. I was (I was not in a setting with a lot of power) made to apologize to this person for hurting her feelings so badly, but they saw no need for anyone to apologize to me for grabbing and immobilizing me.

The message in all of this is: It doesn’t matter if we cause actual immediate physical harm to you. It doesn’t matter if we cause physical pain. It doesn’t matter if we restrain you. It doesn’t matter if we assault you. It doesn’t matter if we say things that are themselves linked to an entire way of thinking that causes great harm to you and everyone like you. What matters is that you not hurt our feelings by trying to defend yourself, pointing out what is happening, or other actions meant to protect you or others like you.

I doubt that is actually the message anyone is trying to send. I do not think they think of themselves as assaulting us, as holding viewpoints that cause us great harm, and so forth. And I think that in itself is where the problem lies. When we point these things out, politely or bluntly (and as an autistic person I don’t even have access to anything but bluntness in my communication repertoire), they think we are striking at something deep in their self-concept as good people, and turning them into terrible people. That, I am almost certain, is where the bulk of the extremes of defensiveness are rooted.

I’ve posted before about the confusion between “doing good” and “being a good person” that a lot of people have. I think there’s an opposite side of the coin, in which “doing bad” is considered “being a bad person”. These are natural ways to think about things, and I think nearly everyone does think that way from time to time, but they’re ways that should be resisted. As human beings, we all do things that are right, and do things that are wrong, and do things that are a mix of the two.

But it is not even a wrong thing to do, to react to or point out prejudice, or actions that come out of prejudice, or an unexamined sense of superiority, or anything else like that. These things need to be pointed out. Pointing them out is not the same as calling someone a bad person, and reacting as if it is, is just one more way to ensure that the bad kinds of prejudice (and there are bad and good kinds, people would not survive long without any prejudices, but there’s a bad side to that fact) stay entrenched and defended. I am glad that people have pointed things out to me at times, rather than letting them slide. It may not feel good, but there’s more to life than feeling good in the short term.

There’s also a profound difference in what’s at stake. For disabled people, in the situations I have described, what is at stake from the prejudices and actions of others is our safety, our value as people, our health, and at times our lives. Even things that seem like mere insults, are actually often reflections of prejudiced attitudes that can mean life or death for us. For non-disabled people, having this pointed out to them, what is at stake is their hurt feelings at the mistaken impression that we are calling them bad people for contributing to these things. (Of course, there are disabled people who buy into these things, and non-disabled people who don’t. For all I know, the author of the article is not personally insulted by being called an inspiration for what he’s done, but since this is not just about his personal feelings either, it’s still relevant.)

It shouldn’t be a mystery, then, when I choose to point out these things. Given what’s at stake. And why I choose to stand by what I have said. What I am writing though is not just about today, not just about this one situation, and not just about me.

People reading this can choose to take it as me calling them bad people (and once you take that perspective, it’s not hard to view me as piling insult after insult after insult and being generally mean and nasty), or they can choose to take it as me calling them people. People (including disabled people) tend to be raised with a large number of prejudices against disabled people, and tend to act on them, and these end up having dire consequences for disabled people overall, and forming a pattern even if the people doing it can’t see the pattern, so mentioning this is in a way pointing out the obvious. But it’s also very necessary — without mentioning it, all that would happen is things would continue. Someone pointed out to me yesterday the assumptions I was making about him, and while it was certainly confusing and unpleasant at the time, I ended up having to eat my words. So it goes.


About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods. Crochet or otherwise create constantly and compulsively. Write poetry and paint when I can. Developmentally disabled, physically and cognitively disabled. I'm not really part of any online faction or another, even ones that claim me as a member. The thing in the world most important to me is having love and compassion for other people, although I don't always measure up to my own standards there by a longshot. And individual specific actions and situations and contexts matter a lot more to me than broadly-spoken abstract words and ideas about a topic. My father died in 2014 and that has changed my life a lot in ways that are still evolving, but I wear a lot of his clothes and hats every day since he died and have shown no sign of stopping soon.

8 responses »

  1. I wrote about this on Friday.

    (Synchronicity raises its head once more.)

    This “inspiration”, I think, comes from disabled people being presented as disabled, as if that were the only thing that mattered.

    I recently shared, on a.s.a, a conversation I had with the 11yo autistic boy I do respite for twice a month. I shared it because it was funny, and very cute. If I were to choose to share it with someplace that collects anecdotes about children, I probably wouldn’t say that the child in question was autistic. Why? Because his autism isn’t an important part of the story. Not really.

    People seem to think that a person’s diagnosis or disability is all there is that matters about them. I think that’s what leads to the attitudes you’re talking about here. NTs are victims of “overgeneralisation”, to use a term from my ABA therapist past. I fail to understand how it’s good when they do it and bad when autistic people do it.

    One person who is in a wheelchair is not the same as the next. One autistic person is not the same as another. One “ADDer” is not the same as anyone else.

    I think it’s much like the latent racism that lurks within most people. It’s probably not malicious racism, but “all oriental people look the same” is a very good example of that. Taking pride in having a friend of a different ethnicity is another example of it. It works out to the same thing as disability discrimination – it’s not generally malicious, but “everyone in a wheelchair looks the same”, and there’s pride to be found in befriending someone who has a disability. (Even if it’s not real friendship.)

  2. Estee: Saw it, and responded.

    And believe me, I’ve heard that kind of crap before that you were getting from that person. I’ve even heard that caregivers should be allowed to kill us whenever they want to if we get too “difficult” for them, and that this is not the same as killing someone else. I mean, that’s toward the extreme end, but I’ve heard it, and that’s the level of disturbing that some people think is polite conversation.

  3. Hi,

    I’m sorry that that comment thread went belly up like it did. Your comment was entirely appropriate and not hurtful at all.

    I’m sorry if I didn’t make it clear that you comment was fine. The person who took offense seems to me to be very sensitive.

    I don’t think she reacted to you because you are autistic or otherwise disabled, though. I doubt she knew or cared who you were when she read your comment, but I could be wrong about that.

    I guess since she says she rarely comments, she must be afraid of negative feedback and so when she got some she felt like, “SEE! this always happens to me.” Your feedback was negative in the sense that you didn’t agree, it wasn’t hostile or anything vaguely hostile.

    I hope you don’t feel like you were too beat up over there. I think that communication is hard to manage sometimes with just words. Well, it’s next to impossible to manage no matter what method is used, and we are strangers, basically, or partial strangers so we can’t always tell the other’s motives or why they are feeling sensitive on a particular day.

    I’ve seen my family member who uses a wheelchair go ballistic over having the wheelchair moved without permission. I can still remember the incidents, probably once where I moved it and once where one of my kids moved it. We moved the wheelchair like an inch to the side by picking up the big wheels off the floor and moving the chair sideways (not rolling it) like you would move any piece of furniture to the side. Without warning.

    Like I said, the person in the wheelchair (who was quite little) went berzerk with anger (to the extent that that person does, which is pretty minor compared to me) and taught us that that was NOT OK! As far as I know, neither of us ever did it again. The kid who moved the wheelchair might have talked back and said, “what’s your problem?”, but I made sure that the kid who moved the wheelchair learned that it was wrong to do that. It wasn’t a problem after we learned not to do it.

    When I thought about it, I realized how horrific it would be if someone just lifted me off the ground and moved me like a chess piece without asking. I mean you can do that to a baby… but you don’t do that to people who can move themselves at request.

  4. It’s indefensible, and too often so deeply rooted that people have no idea how they are stumbling when they engage in it. (As when someone asked my husband if I were “Asiatic on both sides”; “uh, actually,” he replied, “both of her parents are from California.)

    Thanks for your extended translation of my attempted translation of Charlie and his head.

  5. I saw the comment thread on Estee’s blog and I didn’t understand the problem Anonymous had.

    On the ‘net, you use words to say exactly what you mean. If anyone reads something into it that is not in the words you use, it’s their own fault. (Conversely, if someone doesn’t use the right words to spell out exactly what they mean, and several people who are very careful about their words interpret them in a way very different from what you meant, that’s the fault of the person who didn’t use the right words in the first place. I have never seen you do that, but I have seen a number of other people do it, some of them chronically, some of them only under certain conditions.)

  6. Dear Amanda-
    I just recently read your thread filed under inspiration. I know that it seems to you that I over-reacted, I should not have felt scolded, should have just let it go, whatever.
    I’d like to give you a little background, if I may take some of your time, to try and explain my knee-jerk reaction.
    Before I had my son, I had very little interaction with autistic people. Having him diagnosed with autism was one of the most humbling and frightening experiences ever. Humbling because I have four other children, all of them (reasonably) physically, emotionally, and mentally average–typical. Frightening because autism was an unknown. I knew nothing about it, and still know very little even now. But I am trying to learn.
    I started looking online to try and find some answers on how to cope with his differences, and, far more importantly, help him to cope with the world. His has not been an easy childhood thus far, though he is making progress at this point in time. The first place I landed was AutismWeb, and while I found it odd that all these parents were trying to “cure” their kids, there was a degree of emotional support that I needed at the time. I hung around for a few months, getting ideas and offering support to other parents of more recently diagnosed children than my own. I drifted away from the forum when I started figuring out that my son was doing okay with the treatments he had. The only treatments he has ever had are speech and OT through his preschool. No supplements, no vitamins, no chelation, no hyperbaric oxygen treatments, no MB12–none of that. The one thing I had figured out was that there was no cure–only adapting to him and helping him to adapt where he can. I don’t want to change my son–I love him exactly as he is–and I accept him unconditionally.
    I had begun to read from Diva’s, Estee’s, kristina’s, neurodiversity, the usual blogs, and realized that there were *gasp* people who shared my views, but with more finesse, more education, more experience.
    I headed back over to AutismWeb and tried to let other folks know that autism was not all doom and gloom, that there were GOOD things about autism, if they’d only stop focusing on curing their kids and focus on their kids’ gifts, their uniqueness, their strengths rather than their deficits. You can only imagine the reaction I received. I was repeatedly tag-teamed by other commenters, telling me I was a bad mother because I wasn’t trying to cure my child with the almighty biomedicine. I was accused of being a “pharma shill” because I don’t necessarily agree that vaccinations=autism. I was told I just want to keep all the autistic kids autistic, so that my own son will not be alone. I was ridiculed by a bunch of parents who have the best, if misguided intentions for their children, and they obviously did not want to hear from me.
    Fast forward to Ari’s essay—
    I was moved to tears by his words. Forgive me, I am very sensitive and very emotional and I adore kids. This is a great kid, and I’ve seen some really rotten ones out there. For me, saying Ari’s essay was inspirational was not done to say, “Oh look what the autistic kid wrote! Isn’t that pretty?” It was me thinking about the potential that can be lost if kids like Ari don’t get the supports and education they are entitled to. It made ME want to affect some change. Yes, things need to change in this country–our approach to education(not just for disabled people, mind you), our acceptance of those who are different, and our treatment of disabled persons. I was SO tempted to post a link to Ari’s essay over at AutismWeb, but did not because I figured they would see who had posted it and assume it was a bunch of “acceptance crap.” Yes, that’s how they viewed me. One commenter went so far as to accuse me of child abuse, because I am not treating my child with supplementss, MB12, et al.
    When you pointed out that the my use of the word inspirational was, uh, inappropriate, it hit me SO hard. I had thought I finally found a place that I felt like I belonged, and then I felt like I was being chastised and put down. There I go with those damned “feelings” again. ;) I realize you didn’t intend to put me down, and I sincerely apologize for my reaction. I know now that you had the best of intentions. Please realize that I ALSO have the best intentions, just not always the right choice of words.
    Eli’s mom

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