Beyond Anger’s Reputation

Anger has a bad reputation. It is associated with such negative emotions as hate, jealousy, ridicule and disgust. It has been linked to outbursts of shouting, abuse, violence, rape and destruction. Anger is associated with ulcers, high blood pressure, and heart attack. It has no redemptive value whatsoever.

I’ve been struggling with this assumption of anger as a negative emotion. While it can lead to less healthy and helpful feelings, is getting angry entirely bad? Anger might sometimes lead to bad behavior, but is that always the case?

When TABs do something ridiculous, I feel angry. Talking about the event later, even when I use humor, my anger is apparent to many. Based on anger’s bad reputation, my response to suboptimal TAB behavior has been called into question. “Jen, you are so angry. Why is that? It can’t be good.”

Oh, really? Can’t it?

I live in a world where my value is underestimated and who I am as a person completely misconstrued on a routine basis. I am subjected to a lot of actions I dislike. Furthermore, my life is shaped by these attitudes and assumptions. (If nobody sees me as datable, then bottom line is lack of sex. I’m pissed about that.)

There is an awesome quote by Krishnamurti: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” In other words, getting angry at a world that sees disability as ours does is not a bad thing. Getting angry at sexism, racism or homophobia is not a negative state. It is healthy to perceive societal sickness and have a negative response to it.

What is not alright is to be eaten up by the anger so that you become an angry person. It is equally undesirable for the anger to lead to health problems. Finally, if anger fuels bad behavior, it is not a good outcome. The question then becomes whether or not the anger is healthful or harmful.

My anger about society’s attitudes and behavior surrounding disability feels like a clear, cleansing presence. A person does something ignorant and on my good days, I become filled with a bright light. It burns away all the potential negative beliefs I’d otherwise internalize.

To me, the “bad” response to TAB ignorance is to think the world is right. That leaves me feeling worthless, small and useless. It feeds depression, low self-esteem and a sense of pointlessness because if they are right that I am less, what is the point of life? Sucking up resources when you give nothing positive back in return seems wrong to me.

Anger, though, clears out the emotional dark. Moreover, it fuels my desire to change the world. Anger is what makes me educate those I encounter with suboptimal beliefs. Anger keeps me trying even when it’s the fourth time in twenty-four hours that I’ve been treated like I’m three. Anger keeps me writing and talking and explaining and trying to change the world.

My passion –the thing I want to achieve above all other things in my life – is altering how society views disability. Anger keeps me trying to do this. It is motivation and feeds my hope that change will come. It doesn’t weigh me down. It lifts me up.

I can understand viewing anger negatively when the impact on the individual is harmful. How, though, is my anger doing me or the world around me harm?

A fire can burn. A fire can be a warm, comforting presence. Who is to say anger isn’t the same?

Misconceiving

Transgender(ed) people have an expression used to describe the way another person looks at them, sees certain identifiers they link to a particular gender and then assigns them that gender.  Misreading. 

 

An androgynous person with a prominent Adam’s apple is read as male.  If they instead had long nails and heavy eye makeup, they would probably be read as female.  In our heads, we all have traits we consider “male” and traits we consider “female.”  Based on their presence or absence, we assign gender.  a collection of traits goes into someone’s head and out pops a gender label.

 

This drives some trans people nuts.  So what if you can see their Adam’s apple?  If they call themselves female, then they are female.  Period. 

 

People with disabilities are misread in an entirely different way.    For us, it starts with a single entity – white cane, dog guide, wheelchair, prosthetic, support cane, hearing aid, use of ASL or informational disclosed – that identifies us as disabled.  From there, we are assigned traits and entire lives are created for us in the mind of another.  We are a word that leads to an entire story.

 

Maybe the word “misreading,” already claimed by another group to mean something specific, is the wrong term to use.  Maybe it should be “misconceiving,” which has the element of *creating* in its crafting. 

 

To the stranger who has decided they know what my life must be like, I can say, “You are misconceiving me.”  They might not know what I mean, but the explanation “You see my disability and then create this concept of what you think my life must be like which is inaccurate,” is far easier to give than debunking each false belief, one after the other. 

 

A broad term to convey a cognitive tendency.  Works for me.

Responsibility Teflon

I know we’ve all met that person – the one who can somehow avoid responsibility for *anything.* It is as if they’ve been sheathed in teflon and nothing will adhere to it. Ever.

The most drastic cases involve those who frame their lives in terms of things “done to them” that have resulted in bad outcomes. (Ever notice victim mentality is only present when it comes to bad outcomes?) More insidious cases exist in which individuals effortlessly float through life with nothing ever being their fault. They’re just “following their hearts” or “honoring their feelings” or “not engaging in negative self-doubt” or “practicing self-compassion.” In and of themselves, each isn’t a bad thing when done in moderation. Some, however, have raised their use to an art form. In the process, they acquire Responsibility Teflon.

I believe that perceiving me as amazing allows non-disabled people to don this same Responsibility Teflon. I’ve previously mentioned three ways non-disabled people conclude I am amazing – expecting less of me because of my disability, misunderstanding what it would be like if they walked in my shoes and lauding me for overcoming obstacles. Each is predicated on the idea that the “problem” is contained within me. She doesn’t have functional eyes, so I should expect less. If I didn’t have functional eyes like her, then I couldn’t do that. She doesn’t have functional eyes which would make that activity harder. It’s all about my biological difference.

The interesting part is that by making it all about my difference, non-disabled people have framed the situation in terms of my body, my abilities, my interactions, my defects. When it is all about me, Responsibility Teflon morphs into existence.

A crucial factor, how our society functions, is being left out of the equation. My difference only becomes a problem when my world doesn’t take it into account. Imagine if I lived in a world where my difference was accommodated by all information being conveyed visually, auditorially and tactilely. Would I be so amazing in that environment? Not really. I’d be simply another person going about her business.

I’m certain someone is now thinking, “Yeah, and you would also not be amazing if you could just see.” Following that line of argument, if all people were the same color, racism would disappear. If all people were of the same gender, sexism would vanish — along with our species’ ability to exist. Disability is a fact of human variation. Only when our society places meaning on human variation do we have things like sexism, racism and disability as individual defect.

When a non-disabled person observes me crossing a street, they could think I’m amazing for being able to do that. They could also think that they participate in a world that doesn’t take my need for auditory street signals into account. In the former, while they feel all warm and fuzzy for praising me, they are putting on Responsibility Teflon. In the latter, they are skating perilously close to assuming some accountability for the world they inhabit. You know, the same one I have to function in?

Amazing Revisited. Again.

Don’t roll your eyes, but I’m back to that “amazing” thing. Again. This time with something new. Promise.

I get to a doctor’s office via my dog, my feet and a bus. When the receptionist discovers this, she is in awe of me. Previously I’ve thought about this behavior in two ways. I’m amazing because I have failed to live down to the low expectations another individual has. I also become amazing when a person imagines walking in my shoes and decides I am doing something they could not. Now I think there might be a third possibility related to obstacles.

When people consider me going from point a to point b, they generate a mental list of all the steps that they think involve sight– assessing traffic to cross a street, determining what bus pulled up at the stop, getting on the bus and finding a seat, knowing what stop to disembark at and so on. Each of these tasks becomes tagged as “obstacle for blind person” in their heads. Because I have surmounted these obstacles, I become “amazing.”

This mental process is distinct from the first two, for there are no assumptions made about what I cannot do. The accolade is *earned* by doing things perceived as *challenging*, granting the praise the distinctive flavor of possibility. My amazingness is engendered not by doing the impossible but by accomplishing the unusual.

I have less objection when amazing is about overcoming an obstacle. I’m not performing magic, just doing something that might be hard. I can live with aspects of my life being perceived as hard, calling for skills most haven’t cultivated or even simply requiring above average persistence. It feels far less dismissive of…me.

Many people with disabilities, myself included, have issues with the concept of overcoming. The root lies in the fact that typically what we are seen to overcome is our disability, not the physical and social barriers society has created. To me, blindness is my natural state of being, so deciding that I have overcome it seems absurd. Do people of color overcome their skin color or the societal inequities and prejudice they encounter? Do cis-gendered women overcome their biology? Disability is a form of human variation that is an inherent part of the person possessing the trait. They’re not something you can discuss in terms of overcoming.

So, while being seen as amazing for overcoming obstacles is not totally insulting to me, I do take issue when the obstacle is perceived to be my disability. It’s like seeing me as amazing for overcoming my curly hair or extraordinarily narrow feet. The concept literally makes no sense. Fish, here’s your new bicycle. Ride it.

The Ultimate Excuse

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.

Through My Eyes

When I meet a TAB (temporarily able-bodied) person, they are not the first, second, or even third member of that community I have encountered. Having grown up in non-disabled society, I am very familiar with what it means to be non-disabled. I know about mortgages and kiddie carpools and working moms and stay-at-home dads and midlife crises and divorce and being elderly. I have been steeped in non-disabled culture to such an extent that it is second nature to understand the lives of the non-disabled people I meet every day. I don’t need to have lived the experience to relate to it because of my massive exposure.

I am quite often the first disabled person a TAB has ever met. That individual has no frame of reference, no vast exposure, no years of observing other disabled people to help them relate.

Instead, TABs rely on other means to understand such as imagining what it would be like if they were blind. Unfortunately, lacking any knowledge of the specialized training I’ve received or years of experience I’ve gained, TABs can create a very skewed impression of what my life must be like. They then call upon this inaccurate perspective to attempt to comprehend, evaluate and judge my life.

These efforts fail miserably resulting in things like: “Wow, you are so amazing. I can’t believe a blind person can…” “I’m so inspired by you.” “It’s such a shame you can’t see.” “You must not be totally blind because you just…” “You can’t see, so let me do that for you.”

People can become very entrenched in their beliefs, assuming thirty seconds of imagining what it would be like to be blind is more accurate than the reality I–a blind person–describe. I’ve had arguments. Lots of them.

TABs thinking they understand what it’s like to have a disability better than someone *with* that disability are not limited to imagining walking in our shoes. Basic beliefs about how the world works can inform reactions. Those who think people are essentially good have trouble comprehending someone being unkind to a person with a disability. Customer-service people tell me to ask my neighbor to read my mail believing they would read the mail of their theoretical blind neighbor. Folks who believe our social-welfare system is adequate and flourishing act like I have help coming out of my ears to accomplish any task I want. How a person sees the world impacts how they see my life.

I’m discovering this phenomenon of “I know better about you than you” is more insidious than the smell of skunk spray. From strangers, it is somewhat excusable for they have little data to use besides their own imaginations, view of the world and some dimly remembered after-school special. Friends, however, should in theory know better because they have evidence gained over time both through observation and direct conversation. And yet, often friends of years fall back on this attitude of knowing better than me what it is like to be me.

This phenomenon is not unique to the disabled versus non-disabled populations. Men think they know what it’s like to be a woman better than women. “Oh, honey, that guy in the hardware store wasn’t being condescending. You’re overreacting.” Those outside a marginalized group often dismiss what a member of that marginalized group conveys about their experiences substituting their uninformed outsider view for that of an expert.

When, exactly, did it become reasonable, let alone smart, to take the opinion of a lay person over that of an expert?

I just lost a friend because of this. He firmly believes that his assessment of how I’m reacting to my current emotional turmoil is somehow more valid than my own. He’s never lived through any of the things I’m struggling with, but he is certain it’s perfectly reasonable and possible to handle them in a better way. I refrained from saying, “How about you try and let me know.”