So it’s Blogging Against Disablism Day once again. I’d been thinking for the past couple days about what precisely I want to blog about today… and then it hit me yesterday.
People tend to make assumptions of a person’s abilities and general nature based on that person’s appearance. But sometimes these assumptions turn out to be incorrect. Some people adjust their personal stereotypes to adjust for their errors; others cling to their assumptions and classify these cases as exceptions to the rule.
You’re all probably familiar with this sort of dynamic as it applies to such matters as race and gender… but yes, it applies to disability as well. And in fact, I’ve seen it happen in two different directions in just my own experience.
I’m considered a high-functioning autistic; in most cases, I’m not all that indistinguishable from a neurotypical. But just because I appear ‘normal’ in most circumstances doesn’t mean that I am— as people discover when I’m put into certain situations that do give me difficulty.
For just a few examples: I can’t drive safely because my visual perception is just garbled enough to be dangerous. I can’t carry on conversations in noisy bars because I can’t hear one person above the crowd. There are some people I can’t even carry on phone conversations with because their voices are unintelligible to me over the phone.
Yet many people have difficulty believing I have trouble with these things… because, in other circumstances, I don’t look disabled at all. Even when they’ve seen me in the circumstances that give me trouble, many people don’t believe that these issues are, in fact, issues; I’ve been accused on more than a few occasions of deliberately exaggerating my difficulties when I was trying to do no such thing.
And of course, it gets worse when I’m stressed and the coping strategies start flying out the window. In these cases, I start acting more stereotypically autistic, with such behaviors as hand-flapping (which, though it appears a bit quirky, I should stress is completely harmless). With even more stress, I start having trouble speaking, further puzzling people who have known me in circumstances where I could speak perfectly fluently.
In essence, because I present ‘normally’ in a typical scenario, people make the mistaken assumption that I am neurotypical, and are quite surprised when the autistic quirks start coming out of the metaphorical woodwork, when they find out that I can’t drive a car even after years of practice, or when they try holding a phone conversation with me and it ends up being made of Epic Failure To Communicate. Some people do realize that yes, these things are in fact issues for me, and make appropriate accommodations; others, on the other hand, remain convinced that these things couldn’t be difficult for me despite the evidence.
Several of my acquaintances from various autistic forums online have the opposite issue: they’re extremely intelligent and quite eloquent in writing, and yet their presentation in the offline world is one that could hardly be considered ‘normal’. In their case, their intelligence has ended up being underestimated by people who saw someone with typical autistic behaviors who was using a communication device rather than speaking— never mind, of course, that neither autistic behaviors nor the use of alternative communication says a thing about overall intelligence— and who refused to adjust their stereotypes even in the face of overwhelming evidence otherwise.
It’s quite frustrating in either direction.
And the thing is, I honestly can’t blame people for making these initial assumptions; it’s an easy trap to fall into. I do, however, think that sticking to these assumptions even in spite of evidence is very much worth criticism. And I also think it’s worth trying to work against the larger stereotypes that lead to these assumptions— by, for instance, emphasizing that the use of a communication device indicates nothing about one’s intelligence, or that just because someone appears healthy doesn’t mean they aren’t disabled.
And this leads to one of my biggest problems with a lot of the disability ‘awareness’ campaigns out there: they only enforce these stereotypes further, rather than working against them. Just thinking back on the autism awareness ads I’ve seen, I still see a lot of doom-and-gloom scenarios talking about how most autistics will never live independently, will never have significant others, etc.— but, with the exception of the recent Autistic Self Advocacy Network campaign, can think of very few cases that have shown that autistics on the high-functioning end of the spectrum exist or that lower-functioning autistics can still hold successful lives without a cure.
Now compare the traditional autism awareness ad to this wonderful commercial from United Cerebral Palsy, which takes the traditional stereotypes about CP…and turns them completely on their head. Unlike most of the autism awareness ads I’ve seen, UCP’s ad campaign is all about destroying these sorts of stereotypes; I honestly wish there were more autism PSAs along these same lines.
So, in short: Be careful with the assumptions you make; you might be surprised at how wrong they may be.