I keep noticing a really peculiar trend, and while I’m speaking from the perspective of disability, it’s by no means limited to disability — it happens with race, with gender, with religious faith. It starts with a disabled person making a statement about her life, a comment on disability representation, expressing irritation with her treatment in society — something about her experiences as a disabled person navigating the world. And then a nondisabled person wants to argue with her, which leads me to wonder this: Why, if people care enough about disability issues to want to engage with them, do they feel the need to argue with us?
I was struck by a particularly frustrating example of this during the London Paralympics, when I wrote a piece about not wanting to be used as inspiration porn and the trend of talking about Paralympic athletes like they’re magical and special for being disabled. Instead of being amazing for being athletes at the top of their game. I wrote both about my experiences, but also more generally about commentary on the issue from the disability community, and how people engage with disability.
The piece was well-received among many members of the disability community. It also provided fodder for discussion among nondisabled people who wanted to critically examine the way they look at, and talk about, disability. But a large number of people didn’t like it, and some wanted to argue with me. Very directly. They didn’t just want to justify inspiration porn, but to specifically tell me that they were ‘inspired’ by me as an individual. In other words, they read a lengthy piece in which I expressed how upsetting this is, and they responded to it by basically erasing and ignoring everything I’d just said, invoking the very tropes I’d identified as troubling, making statements about how impressive it was that I’d ‘overcome’ to get where I was.
My first reaction was cold fury. But in a larger sense, it drove me to think about the larger issue of people who claim to be interested in sitting down to have a conversation about a social issue with no actual intent of engaging in that conversation on equal footing. Instead of talking about disability and how social perceptions affect disabled people, many people want to affirm their own impressions. If they receive information that contradicts the way they frame disability in their minds, they just override it as irrelevant. When they’re facing down individuals who are specifically identifying social problems, they act like those problems don’t exist.
People are often reluctant to recognise patterns like this in themselves, even if they’re the victims of them in other settings — for example, many of the people repeatedly invalidating my experience were women, and women have a great deal of bitter experience with being told that their words have no value and they should be instead defined by people around them. It’s hard to articulate why what they’re doing is wrong when they clearly have no interest in actually listening, preferring instead to focus on promoting their own opinions.
As Elon James White says, sometimes people need to take a seat. And in a lot of conversations I have about disability with nondisabled people, I feel like I need amphitheatre seating for all these people, because they don’t seem to have any investment in actually listening to what disabled people are talking about, and engaging with what they have to say. Instead, it’s all about making sure their views get priority — and they’ll get quite strenuous in their arguments, even when multiple disabled people are chiming in to discuss the issue and support the person who is talking, suggesting that this is not an isolated or marginal belief.
Being disabled doesn’t mean that you suddenly get a passport, uniform, and mandate to behave and believe like all other disabled people. Everyone experiences and approaches disability differently and there’s considerable variance in how people think about disability issues. Disabled people owe it to each other to listen and actually focus when people are talking about differential experiences and frameworks, no matter whether they align with their own. This is the point of diverse exchanges of ideas.
But nondisabled people really don’t get to have a say in this. Their opinions on disability aren’t relevant, no matter what they think. Instead, they should be listening to the conversations disabled people are having — and engaging on the level of interested observers, recognising that their stakes in the conversation aren’t the same. Contrast someone arguing with a disabled person saying that the depiction of Stephen Hawkings’ relationship in The Theory of Everything is hurtful with someone mentioning that she’s troubled by how disabled/nondisabled relationships are depicted in other media — or someone who wants more information about how to depict these things more accurate and less harmfully.
There’s a huge difference between these things. It’s not that people can’t speak at all, but that people need to think about what they are saying and consider the ramifications. A nondisabled voice carries more weight than a disabled one. Internalised attitudes about disability can make these kinds of conversations frustrating and sometimes frightening — someone may start to question the stability of her own beliefs and identity in the face of someone who’s tearing them down. People who claim to be interested in disability issues who spend so much of their time slamming doors in the faces of disabled people might want to rethink their attitudes and their goals.
Do they want to participate in a conversation, or prop up damaging social systems?
Image: Disability, Abhijit Bhaduri, Flickr