That's a sentence I've heard a lot. And when they don't say exactly that, they say things that mean the same thing. Usually in the developmental disability system, for some reason, although I can easily imagine it in other contexts.
What it really means:
“DD people aren't like regular people. When people do things to them that would be horrible if they happened to other people, there's always a logical reason that justifies whatever is happening. Staff and case managers rarely if ever abuse power. All of their decisions have the best interests of clients at heart. So if something looks terrible, chances are that there's a reasonable explanation behind it. I just don't know what that explanation is. And I likely never will, so I'm not going to judge.”
They say this when staff scream at an old woman with an unsteady gait every time she falls, and refuse to help her get back up or allow her to hold onto things for balance.
They say this when staff publicly humiliate a man who clearly has trouble moving to avoid obstacles, when he accidentally bumps into someone.
They say this when staff do their best to keep a boyfriend and girlfriend apart. Or when staff are okay with boyfriend and girlfriend, but balk at the idea that two women with intellectual disabilities have fallen in love. As if it's even their job to decide who can love who.
They say this when parents simultaneously put on a big public show of wishing their son could move out on his own like he wants to, but sabotage his every attempt to do so. Because they had planned out a whole life for him in the group home they run, and can't handle the idea that he doesn't want to live under their control the rest of his life.
They say this when a staff person kisses a grown man's leg and says “I kiss you boo boo aww betta!” in baby talk.
They say this when, in the name of integration, staff prohibit disabled people from speaking or socializing with each other. I just saw an instance of that last one, which is why I finally remembered to write a post on the matter.
They say this when we get outright tortured. Tied down. Skin shocked. Slapped. Pinched. Made to smell ammonia.
I wish I could upload the scenes from real life that play out vividly in my head. But like as not, people likely to say these things wouldn't consider me a reliable observer. They never do, when you start pointing out the truth. When you see yourselves as people. With all that this means.
Suddenly you are either too severely disabled to understand what's happening, or you're not disabled enough to grasp why treating people like dirt is necessary. Or both at once. And they'd much rather you were highly submissive, maybe even the really cool type of client who helps staff out by giving them information about other clients.
All of this requires seeing DD people as less than. It just has to. There is no other way to justify these actions towards us.
And I know how people see us. As in, I know what we look like inside their minds. Sometimes we're human — almost, anyway. Not quite. There's something vitally important inside every real human. And to them, we either don't have it, or are missing large chunks of it. So we go around in human bodies but there's pieces missing in our minds and our souls. Even people who don't believe in souls in any religious sense, still perceive something inside us as only partial.
I know this because this is one of those viewpoints that isn't content to stay in the minds of others. It tries to force its way as deeply into us as it can manage. Until many of us look in the mirror and see only part of a person.
I can't describe the violence that involves. It's horrible. And a whole system of relating to us, forces its way into our lives. It tells us that we are taken care of, that we can relax, go to sleep, almost. And then it suffocates from inside. There's no words for it.
I suspect the drive to say this about people comes from several places at once.
If you work in the system, there's not wanting to see yourself or your coworkers or people who could be you, doing something horribly wrong. Much less on a regular basis.
I also suspect a strong desire to trust the society they live in, not to do horrible things to people. Or at least, not to do horrible things to certain kinds of people.
A member of my family once told me that it took him a long time to believe what happened to me in mental institutions. He said that in order to come to terms with the reality of the abuse, he had to destroy a strong desire to believe that the society he lived in was safe and just. Him telling me that was far more honest than a lot of people are.
That desire to trust society gets in the way of understanding every kind of injustice. I am amazed that people trust a society that does its best to shut out and destroy all but a handful of people. But they do.
And not seeing us as quite exactly people, is the one thing that you can't avoid if you think like this. Because if you see us as people, you have to see what happens to us as dreadful. And you don't immediately, upon being told of the latest awful thing, say any variant on “I don't know that person's program.”