Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Chip on my shoulder

I have a friend who instinctively understands the way I experience the world as a disabled woman with one notable exception: we often argue about the psychology behind others' behavior. Usually it comes up when I'm griping about being ignored in some social situation. While some people try to convince me everyone is isolated in group settings making my experience commonplace, this particular friend acknowledges the behavior and its uniqueness, but contends my understanding of motivation is totally off base. Her position has changed instantaneously, utterly, and unequivocally.

The transformation was accomplished by the experiences of David Mixner, a writer and long-time activist on issues of civil rights, HIV/AIDS, sexual orientation, and war. Recovering from illness, Mixner needed to use a wheelchair and was blown away by what he discovered which he chronicled at I told my friend a brief version of what happened to Mixner when he sat in his chair at a Whitehouse event attended by many of his friends and acquaintances. Previously these individuals would have approached to converse, but while Mixner occupied that chair, he received a few nods and smiles with little actual contact. Essentially, he was ignored.

After I conveyed the incident, my friend said, "Wow, that makes no sense. You must be right about people thinking you're contagious or something." Like most, I enjoy being told I'm right, but the conversation did not leave me with the glow of long overdue validation, instead a vague disquiet. It took the words of a TAB stranger to accomplish what years of conversation could not despite my academic background in Disability Studies and lifetime of experience. I felt irrelevant.

Loathing that feeling, I tried to wrap my mind around why people dismiss my observations and hypothesized reasons for behavior. One possibility is simple – if I cannot see what people are doing, how can I observe with accuracy? Ears. I have ears. I realize that reliance upon sight causes most to not comprehend what can be determined by sound, but I am an expert at the auditory. Sighted people read body language and I read the language of tone, act, and reaction. Unfortunately, ears are not granted the reliability of eyes, but if a tree falls in the forest and you only hear it does that mean it didn't happen?

My perceptions and theorizing are dismissed for other reasons as well. If my observations were granted validity, then people would have to also recognize humans are often idiots. It is far easier to decide one person is wrong than to acknowledge we live in the kind of world where individuals are ignored because they are sitting down instead of standing. Refusal to concede this truth does not prove its falseness, rather it hinders social progress for admission of the problem must occur before it can be addressed.

The most frequently mentioned reason that my observations and hypotheses are wrong is the chip I carry on my shoulder. Apparently I mostly have a bad attitude when it comes to TABs. I jump to the wrong conclusions, create motivations out of nothing, and generally take everything personally. Guess what? That's all entirely true.

My chip has been formed over time shaped by accumulated experience filtered through my personality. The balance of formative data tends to be negative creating chips, but there are also people who have been fashioned by positive events. No maladaptive stigma is associated with their perceptual tendencies. Whether burdened by a chip or not, probabilities, predictions, and assumptions are the tools we all use to navigate life from relying upon our alarm clock to wake us to knowing the waiter will bring you food after you have ordered. Because my assumptions are about negative things they are transformed from advantageous life strategies to bitter conjecture.

I confess here and now that I misinterpret behavior and motivations with some frequency, but I am right more than I'm wrong. When possible, I'll check my assumptions with the person, often interrogating a friend about their initial reaction to me. I compare notes with other disabled people, read memoirs of disabled folks, and study how other disabled people are treated in my presence. Speculative though my conclusions may be, they are not made in a vacuum nor are they rigidly carved in stone. New data changes old impressions and I try to maintain flexible thinking. I am completely certain I make mistakes, form inaccurate conclusions, and think not nice things about good people. I admit to being human.

Negative though my interpretations might be, they are not necessarily false. While I wish we lived in a world where my physical difference did not impact the actions of others, I have witnessed a different reality that refuses to submit to my will. I am going to leave you with an often repeated sequence of events. Perhaps you will find an explanation that I have yet to consider.

I walk up to a bathroom and there is a line. Somebody either at the front or in the middle of the line says that I should go before them. This offer has not been made to anyone else. Polite refusal tends to meet with insistence on the part of the offeror. How is this neither ignorant nor condescending?


Mike Croghan said...

Everyone knows that the blind have tiny bladders.


Jen said...

The behavior makes no sense on multiple levels, like I'd think it's not in her best interests for me to go first since of course I'm going to miss the toilet or something.

omniwombat said...

I think this sort of mentality is reinforced by the various concessions society makes to the disabled as a whole. When boarding a plane, disabled people and people with small children board first, even before those holding a "Seating one" ticket.

At UCSD, on campus housing is very limited and has been for the past fifteen years. In my second year, we registered in groups of four for a lottery which would decide when we got to pick our housing. One of the members of our group, Zach, was on file with the office of student disabilities as having attention deficit disorder. He could see, hear, and walk around just fine. Yet his status of being ostensibly "disabled" allowed our entire group to bypass the lottery system and choose our housing outright. Needless to say, we chose the best available. (Then, to top it all off, he later decided that he would move off-campus anyway, and left the three of us.) That was extremely unfair compared to what the rest of the students had to go through.

There are signs on buses which emote "Give up your seat for the elderly and the disabled." The closest parking spots are designated for use exclusively by the disabled, and the TABs are punished if they use them.

This sort of thing is probably what causes people to let you go ahead of them in lines. This is probably a good thing, because it shows that people have consideration for others even when it is not mandated by law. Now, as for ignoring a man in a wheelchair at a dinner party, that shows that we've got a ways to go to get to an ideal.

Jen said...

Sometimes accommodations make no sense to TABs because they only see part of the story. I might get on the plane first, but if I want any help whatsoever, including a sighted escort through the airport, I wait on the plane until everyone else has disembarked. This has caused me to miss connecting flights.

As for your roommate with ADHD? All of you could have passed on the privilege knowing Zach didn't need it as an accommodation. It actually compares to my example well. Zach was offered priority in the bathroom line and, unlike me, took the offer though he didn't need it. As with the times I decide to take the offer, Zach might have done so because refusal would have been more complicated and problematic than accepting. He also could have needed it for a reason neither of us totally understands.

I hadn't quite put my bathroom example in the same context you did. From that perspective, it is encouraging and I'll have to keep it in mind. Some days well-meaning but ignorant behavior gets to me and I snap. This might be one of those cases where you might not get how it feels to be somebody like me until you've had the zillionth person speak to you a blind person in an extremely loud, clear, stilted voice because they think everyone blind is Helen Keller and therefore deaf.