Wednesday, January 6, 2010

When is Amazing Insulting?

Sometimes people tell me I'm amazing. Such a compliment should flood me with pride, right? Nope, not me. My internal reaction is more akin to somebody who has been insulted. Few understand this response, and my explanations do not elucidate. Perhaps what cannot come out of my mouth persuasively will pour from my fingers convincingly.

First, let's get one thing very clear: I am amazing – smart, funny, creative, a great friend, and sometimes wise. The real problem is the single word that sooner or later is attached to most accolades. "Wow, Jen, I don't know how you do that. If I were blind..." or "Jen, I'm so amazed at how you "x" because you're blind." Now replace the word blind with woman. "Sally, it's so amazing that you can build a bookcase because you're a woman." Feminists everywhere would protest. In the case of any disability, however, it's somehow not only acceptable but flattering to say this.

In our minds, we all have a collection of others' actions we consider typical/average/ordinary/normal in any given set of circumstances. The behaviors usually are not fixed but represent a range of possible acts. For example, typical responses to coming upon a burning building could be anything from calling 911 to turning a hose on the flames, or even smashing in a window to enable a trapped person to escape. Both walking by doing nothing or running into the structure are outside this range. We judge one of these acts to be worthy of praise, and the other deserving of condemnation. Assumptions abound in this highly subjective process that is fundamentally about internalized social norms, cultural expectations, and stereotypes. These behavioral norms and evaluative processes function as social lubricant and have a definite place amongst humanity, but sometimes they can go a wee bit awry.

In order for somebody to find my actions admirable, they must determine that these acts fall outside the range of ordinary behavior in a positive manner. Rather than evaluating me based on what is typical for any person, they use the category of expectations they have for blind people, which are often substantially lower. I do not find it flattering to be told I have surpassed low expectations. Furthermore I find it insulting to expect less of a blind person simply because they are blind.

Most people tell me that "If I were blind, I'd have trouble doing 'x'." Their expectations of blind people are engendered by what they think it would be like and how that would impact what they could do. To me, there is a difference between my perceptual abilities and what I can accomplish. In baking a cake, I cannot see if the measuring cup is full. Is my cake somehow better because I felt instead of saw my way through the task? TABs reason from what a disabled person cannot do directly to how that impacts achievements without taking into consideration adaptive techniques and assistive technology. Skipping the middle part makes miraculous what is in actuality, commonplace.

Not convinced yet? Well, I have another reason to loathe such praise. Those we label as amazing are separated from "average folks" by their accomplishments. Being up on a pedestal to be admired creates more barriers between me and my goal of being seen as different without being alien. Nothing would make me happier than to just be Jen, not that amazing blind person who can live all by herself. It strips my individuality while further distancing me from those with whom I should be socially integrated. In fact, it is my experience that friendship is only possible after people stop continually seeing me as an amazing blind person and admire me simply as a person.


Mike Croghan said...

Well, I was with you right from the title, so I might not be the best judge, but this seems like a clear and illuminating explanation to me.

Steve said...

I thought of another analogy. Did you know that I can move in excess of 100 miles an hour?

That's pretty amazing. If anyone measured, it would allow me to bring the world speed record for the mile down from 3:43 seconds to a flat 36 seconds.

Obviously, the reason I don't displace Mr Bolt as the fastest human is because I'm using the assistive technology of my car. The next time someone tells you that your implementation of the mundane is amazing, tell them that you think it's amazing that they can move at 65 miles per hour. (We shouldn't be speeding)

If I had a commercial pilot's license, I could move at two thirds the speed of sound.

Allysin & Josie said...

I really liked reading your article and wholly agree with what you’re saying. I am hard of hearing and grew up in the deaf community, and have since become advocate and partial educator of the Deaf culture. I hated the way people would just talk down to me or my friends, and the misconceptions that were had. (i.e. deaf people can’t talk.) Also, there was pity, because of us “missing” stuff like music and whatnot. I know many deaf people that go to clubs and dance to the music that are stone deaf… music is great… Yesterday, this woman was talking about how her grand daughter was deaf and she didn’t think she could lead a normal life, so she was forced into getting the coclear so she could “succeed later on”. I guess what I’m saying is that it would really be nice if people were educated on the normalcy that others have. I might not hear great, but I lead a pretty normal life, and I’m sure you do too.

kathrynzano said...

Hey Jen, I know we've talked about this subject a lot together, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading this--your writing is so sharp and clear. I particularly loved your analogy of substituting the word "blind" with "woman." That is a brilliant comparison, and I think more than anything else you've said it may help people to understand why they're calling you amazing for the wrong reasons. Go Jen!