At a symposium on disability, I attended a wide array of workshops, but the same theme kept repeating. “They don’t know what to do,” was related to how TABs deal with invisible disabilities, approach our sexuality, deal with us in public, offer or avoid giving aid and the list goes on. About half way through the day, it struck me — not knowing what to do has become an all-purpose excuse with incredible power that simultaneously liberates TABs and imprisons people with disabilities.
If I describe to a friend an annoying encounter with a non-disabled person, I am invariably told, “They didn’t know what to do.” This explanation is proffered as the conclusion to the conversation, seen as explaining everything and making further discussion unnecessary.
Any emotional upset on my part should be assuaged by this rationalization. Blaming the non-disabled person becomes impossible for holding someone responsible who didn’t know better is perceived as mean-spirited. Further conversation is made irrelevant for the explanation is known. Everything vanishes with six little words.
Each time this happens, I feel as if I began a journey that ended five seconds later. It is a foreshortening of what should be a conversation or at least a chance for emotions to be vented. Though this happens frequently, each time I still feel caught between my unresolved feelings and social pressure to accept the excuse. The end result is the minimizing, silencing and dismissal of my experience and feelings.
When a TAB uses the axiom “I don’t know what to do,” I find it even more infuriating. Admission of a lack of knowledge, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. What this confession of ignorance is allowed to achieve is problematic. Feelings of discomfort or fear can be dismissed, any associated guilt is alleviated and need for further action eliminated. This potent combination allows the non-disabled person to go merrily on their way.
From my knowledge of disability issues, I have learned that TABs often feel uncomfortable when they are presented with the possibility of interacting with a disabled person. This unease can come from a multitude of sources – fear from having to think about potentially becoming disabled, concern that they will become entangled in a situation where they need to do something unpleasant, not wanting to admit ignorance, discomfort with an unusual appearance and… You get the idea. Instead of acknowledging or dealing with these thoughts and emotions, the person waves the magic want, “I don’t know what to do,” and – poof – all of that unpleasantness vanishes.
There may still be residual guilt or a sense of obligation. “Someone really should be helping that person.” The thought continues, “But I don’t know what to do.” Obligation, guilt and responsibility disappear.
I have no idea why not knowing what to do has become an acceptable justification for needing to do nothing, but it has. I’m not certain if this is unique to issues related to non-disabled people confronted with disabled folks, but it is definitely true in this case. Finding out what to do is not contemplated as a potential course of action. “I don’t know” becomes “I don’t have to.”
What I find intriguing is that “So ask” never comes into play. My suspicion is that this is because people with disabilities are not seen as the ultimate experts on their own needs nor are they considered people capable of communicating. We are seen as our disability and that fact is all consuming of TAB awareness.
Thus, “I/They don’t know what to do,” functions as an ending. No more discussion is needed. No action should be taken. Until that changes and “I/They don’t know what to do” begins a journey to find the answer, a situation that could lead to better understanding is squandered.
Ironically, “I don’t know what to do” has no power when spoken by a person with a disability, except maybe to open the flood gate so suggestions as to how we can fix it drown us. If we don’t know, we have to fix it. If they don’t know, we have to live with it. Meanwhile, those who don’t know in the first place move forward unimpeded.