Tuesday, April 16, 2013
Running With Scissors
When I throw my yoga bag over my shoulder, my guide dog, Camille, runs over and assumes harness position. Knowing we are headed to a place of endless pets and belly rubs, her tail wags with greater than average enthusiasm. We call this a learned behavior, concluding Camille is smart for predicting what will happen. A child carefully walks across their kindergarten classroom carrying a pair of scissors in the prescribed way. They have learned – probably because numerous adults have repeatedly scolded, coached and cajoled – that it is unsafe to run with scissors or to hold them the wrong way. We also consider this admirable behavior. I walk into my local grocery store betting myself how long it will take to find someone to assist me. Through experience, I have learned that help will not materialize quickly or easily. When a child learns safety procedures or a dog begins to accurately predict a routine, we call that good. When I anticipate an activity usually difficult will probably again be hard, I am making assumptions, thinking negatively and not giving people a chance. Is there truly a difference between the three things? When adult humans take the totality of their experience and apply it to a new similar event to forecast what will happen, we call it optimism if the predictions are good, and carrying around baggage when they are negative. If the prophecies are routinely downbeat, we are further labeled pessimists. Because we are creatures capable of reason, we try to overcome our negativity – to set down the baggage or remember that a familiar situation might turn out differently. In other words, set aside the statistically significant in favor of believing things will be better this time around. (This more positive attitude has been proven over and over to be healthier for us on a multitude of psychological and physical levels.) At Rolling Around In My Head, Dave Hingsburger wrote an entry about his own personal baggage. He articulates the fine line between the benefit of predicting based on past events and the ways baggage can interfere with our experience of a situation. To summarize, just because 95% of the time a situation unfolds in a specific way it does not mean you aren't currently in the 5% of the time version. Behaving like it is the 95% of the time event when it is the 5% occurrence is suboptimal. I began thinking about how the copious amounts of baggage people with disabilities carry is often used against us becoming a tool to minimize, silence and dismiss. People with disabilities acquire their baggage by living. One morning, I did not impetuously decide knitting in public would elicit excessive praise. Instead, it happened repeatedly, creating my voluminous luggage over time as I interacted with the world. Based on that, I might leave the knitting at home to avoid unwanted attention. Suddenly, I'm judged to be carrying unreasonable and unnecessary baggage, impacting my decisions negatively. (To be clear, even I think leaving the knitting at home is absurd, but not because of the reasons given. I think letting other's ignorance limit my actions is just that.... limiting.) This baggage can in fact provide a benefit in the form of lessons about how to approach a situation. Last time I asked a bus driver to drop me off at a particular stop and didn't pay close attention, problems developed. That part of my baggage helps me remember to remind drivers, even if I might be perceived as annoying. The label "nice" is not worth it if I end up in an unsafe situation. Sharing this acquired knowledge with others often backfires. I'm not seen as learning through experience and being prudent; I am perceived as holding one person responsible for another's actions. "How do you know this driver will forget about your stop?" In fact, I don't know. I just know that if they do forget, it will suck to be me. I do agree with Dave that determining if you are in the 95% situation or the 5% one and not treating one like the other is key. Therefore, if a driver is announcing each and every stop, I don't offer any reminders of my request. The thing that bothers me the most, and the thing I cannot prove through logic or reason, is the fact that my same actions done by a non-disabled person would be perceived differently. I have baggage. They're being smart. Leveling such value judgments at the same behavior done by different people is the first step in employing social control. It isn't far from "Why are you behaving in such a negative manner?" to "Nobody likes a negative person," to "Your bad attitude is why nobody will be friends with you." Do I sometimes behave badly? Of course. Is it sometimes because I used my experience as a person with a disability (baggage) and judge things badly? Definitely. How does this make me any different from a person without a disability who uses their experience gained over time? It doesn't. Why, then, is mine baggage and theirs learning? I'm just running with scissors, cutting myself and using more care the next time around.