Different — No Different
This is a reply to this post that got so carried away that I am making it a post of its own. Don’t worry, I do eventually address your post directly.
There’s something that happens. And I don’t know if it applies to how other people talk about us. But it definitely applies to how we talk about ourselves, and it’s responsible for some conflicts between different disabled people. Which is there are different ways disabled people can get treated by others.
Note that I’m talking about disability. But this can apply to any group of oppressed people, or even just plain unusual people. So keep that in mind, and you’ll see a lot of conflicts suddenly making more sense.
Some of us are treated as if we are essentially the same as everyone else. People assume we are mostly just like them. They think we should just try a little harder. We are usually expected to live with, work with, go to school with, and compete with nondisabled people, and blamed if we can’t keep up.
And some of us are treated as if we are fundamentally different from everyone else. As if we have no common humanity at all. Often we get stuck in fully segregated environments. Or are told we ought to be. People view us as completely incapable. Maybe not even people.
And a lot of us get both, in different situations.
Although… I also see this thing going on. Where an organization (like Aut$peaks) will talk about disabled people in a certain category (like autism). And it will make descriptions of autistic people that sound at first glance like they’re putting all of us in the second category. But if you look a little closer at their statements over time, they’re not. They’re actually saying “The only autistic people we are talking about right now are in the second category. Those autistic people in the first category? We are using them for our 1 in 88 statistics. But other than that? They might as well not exist. They’re out there, but we don’t really give a shit as long as they shut up.”
To also be clear: I am not saying these are two genuine categories of autistic or otherwise disabled people. I’m saying these are two ways we can be treated. Aut$peaks thinks they’re real categories based on inner traits. But I don’t.
But sometimes people assume that Aut$peaks is putting all of us, and therefore them included, in the second category. But really many of them are people Aut$peaks is putting firmly in the first category — and ignoring the hell out of their existence. Which is subtle but sometimes important.
Anyway people who are currently being put into the first category tend to want to tell the world that no — they’re not the same as everyone else. They’re different in all kinds of important ways.
And people who are currently being put into the second category tend to want to tell the world that no — they’re not different than everyone else. They’re the same in all kinds of important ways.
Most people experience a mix of these things. Among most people unfamiliar with me, and some people familiar with me, I currently get treated like I’m in the second group. Among many people familiar with me, and some people unfamiliar with me, I currently get treated like I’m in the first group. Emphasis on currently for all of this. Only a very few people in my life see who I am underneath all that.
Examples of being treated like I’m in the second group:
I attended a science museum with a staff person and a friend. We watched an exhibit on roller coasters. A man saw me talking on my communication device. He approached and asked how the device worked.
I explained that I type things into it and it speaks them out loud.
The man looked profoundly skeptical. He thought for a moment and said, “Can you tell me what we just saw then?”
I was too enraged to even put my fingers to the keyboard.
The man got all self-satisfied. He said “I didn’t think so!” and walked off while the staff person yelled at him that actually I could, and my friend, who was a part-time aug comm user, tried his best to disappear.
I later realized the guy thought the whole thing was a computer trick. That I was just hitting random buttons and somehow answers were coming out. But that if he forced me to come up with a novel answer, I couldn’t.
Another time, I was hospitalized for a physical illness. I was often too sick to use my communication device. At one point, I watched a medical professional explain to another, that I had the cognitive functioning of an infant, regardless of the age on my chart.
Neither of these men regarded me as a person on the same level that they saw themselves as people. I’ve observed that people like that tend to regard me as a weird combination of a person and an object. Shaped like a person. Alive like a person. But not-real in the same way most people see objects. Not worth considering, ethically, on the same level that you’d consider another human being. The same sort of idea the r-word conjures up.
And my first impulse on being treated that way is to tell them that I’m just as much a person as they are. That I have deep similarities to all other people. That, whether I’m exactly alike or not, I’m fundamentally equal. As in, I have the same value as everyone else. (Which is what equality means. Anyone who tells you it means sameness in various other characteristics doesn’t fully understand it. But someone can easily use the language of sameness to mean exactly what I mean by it.)
I’m different from other people in very important ways. But I’m not going to be emphasizing those differences at that exact moment in time.
Some examples where I’ve been considered the first type of person:
There’s people out there who assume that the only kind of communication problem that really exists in the world, is the inability to use your mouth to talk. That is actually the least of my communication problems, it just happens to be the most obvious. So I will be sitting there unable to work out how to say something. Maybe sitting still, maybe trying futilely to use home signs. My home signs are notorious for being confusing or ambiguous.
So I’m getting frustrated and the other person is getting frustrated. And most times their first impulse is going to be to blurt out “JUST USE YOUR KEYBOARD!”
But that of course doesn’t work, because if I could “just” use my keyboard, then I probably would. The problem may be trouble initiating or switching, or trouble using words, or trouble finding a particular word. But it’s sure as hell not that I forgot I have a keyboard, or just didn’t feel like using it.
Another problem I encounter is mostly Internet-based. People see that I can write well — at least most of the time, and during times that they can see me. And so they view it as impossible that I could have any significant cognitive impairments. And they also view it as impossible, except in the case of purely physical impairments, that I could have trouble with daily living skills, let alone the degree of trouble that I have.
In both of these examples, people consider me just like everyone else, but with one or two minor differences. They have trouble seeing that the differences run much deeper, and much stranger, than they’re accustomed to.
So in both of those situations I would be telling people that I am different in all kinds of ways they are not aware of or acknowledging. I would be explaining those differences in detail. I would be wanting the other person to acknowledge how different I was. Because in assuming that I’m similar to them in these ways, they’re not grasping who I am on a deep level at all.
The conflicts between disabled people (among others) about these things, usually happen in specific contexts. Note that all of these things may apply to the people in general, or they may only apply in the specific situation the conflict is happening in:
One person has mostly been considered in the first way, and the other person has mostly been considered in the second way. The first person is talking about how different they are. The second person is talking about how similar they are. One or both people, doesn’t understand why the other is reacting how they are.
And that right there is enough for a serious conflict.
“Whiner. You’re probably just pretending to be different for the hell of it. Some of us have real problems.”
“You want to deny our differences.”
“You want to deny our common humanity.”
“You want to be the same as everyone else.”
“You’re obsessed with difference for its own sake.”
“Why can’t you just admit that we aren’t all the same?”
“Yeesh. We’re all people. Get over yourself.”
To make it worse, both sides are generally fighting for our lives.
Disabled people die all the time because we’re considered so outside the realm of what it means to be human, that our lives aren’t worth living and therefore not worth saving. Or because we are denied jobs because we couldn’t possibly be competent at anything.
Disabled people die all the time because nondisabled gatekeepers see only our similarities to them. So they deny us disability benefits. They deny us services. They deny us every bit of assistance we need to survive. And they do it because they see — or only think they see — one or two things we are good at, and think we must be good at everything. Or we get services, but we don’t get enough, or don’t get the right ones.
So people who have mostly been considered only different, or only the same, know they are fighting for their lives. And so when they fight against each other, they fight hard.
Of course plenty of disabled people have been treated both ways. And we are probably the most equipped to notice the problems of seeing it only one way, or only the other. That is unless we experience one as so much worse than the other that we ignore the other one. (Or for that matter if we romanticize one or the other.)
So that is one way that we can be both the same and different, and want to emphasize both, without being contradictory at all.
Not that that’s guaranteed to be what’s going on here. But it’s a possibility. It’s a possibility even when it’s a nondisabled person saying these things about us.
And it’s a possibility that someone means something similar but not quite the same. Because ‘different’ can mean more than one thing. Or refer to more than one area of a person’s life.
So my guess is that when they say we are no different, they mean that our value is no different than that of other people. And when they refer to us as people who are different, they mean we have differences besides differences in value. Then “different - not less” means we have some differences from other people, but are no less valuable. (Same as “they are no different”.)
Nonautistic people don’t usually use language as precisely as some autistic people do. The person in question also probably didn’t think it through as clearly as I just did above. But it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re using doublethink. I mean they could be. But I don’t see any signs they absolutely are.
An article on some of the topics I discuss above is Critic of the Dawn.
What “equal” and “human” mean for people like me.
This has been bothering me ever since I got a comment suggesting that if I talk about equality or disabled people all being human, that this is somehow about making everyone the same. The short answer is no it doesn’t. But there’s a longer answer about why I say these things that’s really important.
Understand these five things if you understand nothing else:
1. It’s still a matter of scholarly debate, whether people like me count as persons or not. For much of my life (and still, much of the time) I would not have matched certain bioethicists’ definitions of a person, because of lack of awareness of myself as a self persisting over time. But it almost doesn’t matter whether I see myself that way or not, because most such judgements of personhood are done by appearance and not by actual cognition. And my current appearance would normally flunk that test.
2. When people discuss the cognition of people like me, they often say things like “This brings into question what it means to be human.”
3. One scholar wrote a book in which people like me, from the title onward, are compared to apes. Comparisons to apes in general, chimps, and monkeys are frequent in literature and research about many different cognitive conditions including mine. Historically, people with developmental disabilities (as well as people of color, and even more specifically people of color with real or presumed developmental disabilities) have been explicitly dealt with as not as evolved as real humans. And it’s not all gone yet.
4. There are still people who believe the old legends that disabled children, and particularly children like I was, are actually fairies or demons who have been left in the place of the “real” stolen human child. Our nonhumanness has been used as an excuse to abuse and kill us without remorse, for centuries.
5. Disabled people, especially cognitively disabled people, are still murdered at alarming rates and it’s a matter of actual debate whether it’s wrong to do so.
As someone who both is and looks cognitively disabled, equality means that I have the same value as a nondisabled person.
Similarly, being part of humanity means actually literally being considered a human being and everything that implies. Not another kind of ape, not a monkey, not a demon, not an enchanted block of wood, and not some weird category of a half-person, human in shape only.
The only thing I want to be the same as other people is value and rights. I’m not the same cognitively, physically, or culturally as the people with power and I have no desire to be.
Also factor in that I have genuine language problems. I can’t tell you what I was envisioning in my head as I wrote that. Literally can’t tell you. It doesn’t translate. I did what I could and it took me over a decade to get this far.
So I’ve finally got this pile of words vaguely pointing in the right direction. And someone decides that two of those words mean that I was talking about something totally unrelated to my topic. This is practically the definition of mental widgets(*), or language dickery(**) — take two words from what I said, connect them to an ideology, decide I have that ideology, ignore everything else. This never works. Ever. Even when the ideology is as close to my views as an ideology can get. And this ideology was as far from my views as it can get. One of those weird ways that you can take a word, and people can read two completely opposite meanings into it.
Anyway — what I want is to survive. And I also want to not have had to actually spell out why a disabled person, especially a cognitively disabled person, might feel they have to emphasize our equality (of value, not sameness) and humanity (which includes literally being considered the same species as everyone else). This is so much not the fucking time, to take those two words and make them into something bad that I never said or believed.
It’s not the time because cognitively disabled people have to be able to assert these things to a world that denies them to us. And it’s not the time because we are using the words we have, and nitpicking the word choice of someone with language problems is a really good way to make us freeze up and lose the ability to use language at all.
Now pardon me while I tell people I’m equal and human. Because most people (no really, it seems like its most people) don’t truly get that. And I want people like me to survive, even if I haven’t come up with the perfect words and the perfect disclaimers to explain it all. Because I may never have those words and I’ve got to use what I have.
(*) See Politics, Ethics, and Mental Widgets.
(**) See Disambiguation post: On Language Dickery.