cognitive ableism

When audiences at disability conferences laugh instead of listening

A challenge to disability professionals and disabled presenters at conferences and panels: Please find a way to respond to the routine contempt that presenters with disabilities are treated with.

I’ve gone to a fair number of disability-related conferences in the past few years. At nearly every conference, I saw an audience laugh at a presenter/panelist with a developmental disability. This happened particularly often to presenters with intellectual disabilities, but I also saw it happen to autistic presenters and presenters with speech disabilities. 

This isn’t a matter of random jerk encounters; it’s a major cultural problem. Even disability professionals who pride themselves on inclusivity and respect tend to behave this way.

This isn’t nice laughter. It’s not a response to something funny. It’s a response to presenters talking about what they’re proud of, what they’re good at, or talking about wanting control over their own lives. People also laugh similarly when parents and siblings talking about their disabled relative wanting autonomy or objecting to being treated like a little child. This happens all the time, and it needs to stop.

If you’re moderating a panel and the audience laughs at a panelist, here’s one method for shutting this down:

Be proactive about taking the panelist seriously:

  • Don’t look at the audience while they’re laughing, and *especially* don’t laugh or smile yourself.
  • Wait for the audience to stop laughing.
  • Pause briefly before going on. This will make the laughter feel awkward.
  • Ask the panelist a question that makes it clear that you respect what they’re saying.
  • You can explicitly ask “Did you mean that seriously?”
  • You can also be a bit less direct, and say something like “That sounds important. Can you say more?”
  • You can also ask a follow-up question about the specific thing they were saying. 

I think that we all need to be proactive about changing this culture. (Including disabled presenters who get laughed at; we need to insist on being taken seriously. More on that in another post).

There are more ways to shut down disrespectful laughter and insist on respectful interactions than I know about. What are yours?

Meaningful echolalia

Some people communicate mostly in memorized phrases or allusions to stories and events.

It’s actually pretty normal to communicate in phrases and allusions. I think most people communicate that way at least some of the time. For instance, a lot of people make Shakespeare references in situations that have little or nothing to do with literature. A lot of prose and interpersonal communication happens that way.

This is interpreted very differently for some people than others. People without disabilities who mostly communicate in literal language are taken much more seriously when they make allusions and quotes.

When a nondisabled person says “The lady doth protest too much, methinks”, it’s assumed that they’re communicating and that what they say is meaningful. They are usually understood. This is the case even if there are no ladies present and they’re obviously not talking about a lady.

Similarly, when a nondisabled person says something like “A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!”, this is understood as meaning something even if they obviously do not have a kingdom and are known to hate horses.

When someone with a disability communicates in exactly the same way, their communication is often written off as meaningless. It’s often seen as sensory seeking, or stimming, or a persversation, and having no communicative content whatsoever. This kind of communication is often ignored, and also often seen as a problem behavior to be extinguished by a behavior plan.

This is in part because there’s a widespread belief that autistic people are all hyper-literal and only understand literal language. That’s true of *some* autistic people. But there are also autistic people who have the opposite problem. There are people who find it nearly impossible to use literal language to communicate, but who can readily make references and use literary phrases. (This is true for other kinds of cognitive disabilities as well; it’s not unique to autism.)

People who can only communicate in references deserve to have their communication taken seriously. So do people who find references much easier than literal languages. Everyone else is allowed to use references to communicate; people with disabilities have the right to do so as well.

Here’s an example of a situation in which communication is often misinterpreted. Imagine a girl named Sarah:

  • Sarah doesn’t say very many words reliably. She can usually say a few things like mom, food, want, home, and SpongeBob.
  • Sarah watches SpongeBob a lot
  • She wants you and other people in her life to watch it with her
  • She says a lot of phrases from SpongeBob
  • (Eg: “I’m ready!”, “One eternity later”, “SpongeBob, you and I both know you’re just using me as a distraction so you don’t have to write your essay”, “Why is it whenever I’m having fun it’s wrong?”, “I’m ugly and I’m proud!”)
  • Sometimes, the assumption is made that her repetitive phrases are preventing her from developing standard language
  • Or they might think that TV is preventing her from developing standard language and that her access to TV is limited
  • Or they might think that she’s perseverating on SpongeBob in a way that’s preventing learning
  • When maybe what’s going on is that SpongeBob is *teaching* her language and communicative concepts, and she’s trying to use them to communicate
  • If so, she should probably watch more TV, not less
  • And it’s really important for people in her life to listen to her
  • And understand the references she’s making and what they mean to her
  • (Watching the shows with her is probably an important part of that; showing her other shows might be too)
  • If you want someone to communicate, you have to listen to them, even when their communication is unusual

A lot of this post about listening to people whose speech is unusual applies in this situation too.

tl;dr Repeated phrases are often meaningful. Some people with disabilities communicate mostly in memorized phrases and references and allusions to stories and other things. Nondisabled people are taken seriously when they communicate this way. Disabled people who communicate in references should be taken just as seriously. (Even when they don’t communicate in literal language very often or at all).

Doing what you must and feeling like you're faking

content note: This post is about the broad (inaccurate) perception that people with disabilities are faking, and ways that forces some people with disabilities to partially misrepresent the exact nature of their disability. Proceed with caution. 


Some people without disabilities believe that there are massive numbers of people faking disability, and that they must be caught and stopped. People who believe this usually don’t know very much about what disability actually looks like. They tend to assume that anyone with a disability who has non-stereotypical abilities is faking their disability. 


Real disability often doesn’t look like stereotypical disability. For instance, many wheelchair users can walk, and many people who have service dogs can read, and many people have different abilities on different days depending on their energy and pain levels. This doesn’t mean that they are faking. It just means that their combination of abilities and disabilities don’t look like media tropes, because they are real people.


People with non-stereotypical disabilities can be in a very difficult place when dealing with people who think this way. It’s a pervasive problem, and people with a misplaced dedication to rooting out fakers often have a lot of destructive power over people who need disability-related support.


Being thought of as faking can mean that you lose accommodations. It can mean that you lose services that you need in order to survive. It can mean you get harassed. It can mean people are violent. 


Sometimes, people with disabilities have no realistic option other than to allow people to believe that they fit these stereotypes: 


Eg: 

  • On a college campus, every dorm except one is completely inaccessible.
  • The main entrance to the partially accessible dorm has stairs
  • There is an accessible entrance for employees and residents with disabilities, but it’s always locked
  • In order to get a key, you have to convince Fred the building manager that you need one
  • Fred is very suspicious of disability claims, and is constantly trying to catch people faking disability
  • Fred believes that anyone using a wheelchair who can walk, stand, or even move their legs, is a faker who needs to be called out and prevented from using accessibility resources (if you don’t know why he’s wrong, read this post)
  • Wheelchair users who need access to that building are careful to give Fred the impression that they are completely unable to walk or stand. They never stand in front of him, or in a place where he might turn up unexpected. They carefully avoid referencing their ability to stand to anyone who might repeat it to Fred. 
  • They may even have to outright lie about this in order to prevent Fred from taking away their access to the only door they can use. (eg: If Fred asks them directly, or rants about fakers, or makes them fill out an intrusive form).


More generally:

  • Many, many people have strong attachments to stereotypical ideas about how disability works
  • They tend to think that people who don’t fit those stereotypes are faking disability
  • Most people with disabilities don’t fit disability stereotypes particularly well
  • It’s often dangerous for people with disabilities to be perceived as faking it
  • That’s a hard situation, because:
  • There may be times when you know that if you describe your abilities and access needs completely accurately, people are likely to think that you are faking
  • But if you somewhat misrepresent your abilities in a way that fits the stereotype, then they’ll believe you about your real access needs
  • Which can put you into the awkward position of having to choose between representing the nature of your disability fully accurately and being thought of as faking, or allowing people to inaccurately believe that you fit a stereotype and being believed
  • That’s degrading on a level it’s hard to understand if you haven’t experienced it
  • It’s also a common experience among people with disabilities, and if that’s what you’re dealing with, it’s not your fault.

Some additional examples:

  • Some people who can write a little bit by hand are careful not to write in front of most people, so they they will not be assumed to be capable of the kind of writing that is completely impossible for them
  • Some people who are not autistic but have similar support needs due to less well-known conditions end up with an inaccurate autism diagnosis in order to gain access to services that they absolutely need in order to access education or to survive
  • Some people with both physical and cognitive disabilities allow others to assume that they are more physically disabled than they really are as a way of getting their cognitive access needs met without having to face certain kinds of cognitive ableism
  • Some people who can speak only a few words are careful to avoid speaking in front of most people, lest someone decide to take away the communication system they need to communicate things that can’t be expressed in their few spoken words

If you have a disability and you are not free to describe it fully accurately lest you lose accommodations, lose services, or face frightening harassment, know that you are not alone. A lot of people with disabilities experience this at some point or other. It’s humiliating and corrosive to go through, and it may make you feel like you are faking or that your needs are imaginary. It helps to remember that this is not actually your fault.


You are not faking, and your needs matter. You are a real person with a real disability doing the best you can in a hostile world. You are not alone, and it helps to remember that. There are other people with disabilities who are there, or who have been there, who understand that struggle.


tl;dr People with disabilities are often forced to pretend to meet stereotypes in order to get their very real needs met. This is humiliating and degrading. If you’re dealing with that, it’s not your fault and you’re not alone.

Dangerous Assumptions

“And it’s a big problem, because the way they talk…..they think the problem was that they treated their child like they were intellectually disabled, and they weren’t. But that’s not the problem. The problem is that they thought their child was intellectually disabled,and so they didn’t treat them like a person.”

realsocialskills said:

This is a really important post that explains a big problem with cognitive ableism among some people who say “presume competence”. 

annekewrites:

Short version of the problem with Nonviolent Communication (NVC)

realsocialskills:

This is the short version of this post and this post:

  • In a conflict, sometimes one person is right and the other person is wrong
  • In such cases, it is important to judge the situation and figure out who is in the right
  • Emotional abuse exists
  • Working to meet an abuser’s emotional needs will…

annekewrites said:

Something I’d like to add:

Like any form of communication that is seen as “better than” some alternative, it creates barriers to actually communicating anything at all for at least some groups of people:

  • People who don’t know as many words to begin with, due to being younger, less educated, less experienced with a specific set of terminology, or whatever else
  • People who don’t know how to say things in English (or whatever language is being used) as well as they do in another language, especially if sentence structure works vastly differently in that language or if words didn’t quite translate properly
  • People who for whatever physical mental and/or developmental reasons have a harder time speaking (or writing, if that is the case instead) clearly or at all - even if they “know” the vocabulary, they might not be able to produce it on demand
  • If the conversation is spoken, people who have some sort of vocal quality that is stigmatized - whether it’s “too loud” or “too soft” or a “monotone” or a stigmatized accent or whatever else.

One of the things that I gave up as a result of getting a clue from my first MSW field placement is the practice of grammar snarking.  I had a field supervisor who is legally blind and who sometimes types the homonym of the word he actually meant without realizing it, because first of all, he can’t see what he wrote very well and secondly, the spellcheck doesn’t catch that necessarily.  I also had a colleague in the placement who had disability-related speech difficulties, and really it was more important to understand the content of what she was saying than it was for her to have to phrase it in some prescribed manner, especially one with lots of extra words.

This entire topic frustrates me so much - I, too, have been gaslit by people who seemed to think that if they just used the nice words it would disguise the unacceptable content, and who got very upset when they realized it didn’t work on me.

chrisss89:

Learning self respect

realsocialskills:

I’m twenty years old and I can’t help but think that everyone thinks I’m stupid. I stutter, I feel slow, I say dumb things, and I sometimes catch people giving me judging looks. No one’s ever said that to me except maybe once or twice when I…

chrisss89 said:

there probably are a lot of people in your life who think you are stupid.” i don’t know, this doesn’t really sound like a helpful piece of advice to me :/ other than that, i like the responses to this submission. 

realsocialskills said:

This is why I said that, and why I stand by it:

I face cognitive ableism on a regular basis.

I once had a friend tell me, “You know, it’s surprising to hear you say intelligent things. You give them impression of not being all there.” He didn’t mean it as an insult.

I get a lot of looks that I think I pretty accurately interpret as people reading me as having a cognitive impairment, and thinking that means I’m either stupid or dangerous and wondering what I’m doing in a place for real people.

I used to worry a lot about whether I was around people who saw me as stupid. Now that I’ve accepted that yes, I am around people who see me this way, because that’s the kind of world we live in. That’s what many people think cognitive impairment means. It doesn’t. Ever. Not any kind of cognitive impairment (including intellectual disability). People who think that cognitive impairment means stupidity are wrong, and mean.

I’m ok; they’re mean.

When other people tell me that people don’t think I’m stupid, it doesn’t help. Because it’s obvious to me that some people see me that way. That’s part of life; it’s something I have to deal with; pretending it isn’t so won’t make it go away.

People who are willing to acknowledge that people do in fact see me that way can join me in objecting. They can join me and say in solidarity “you’re ok; they’re mean.”

But in order to do that, they have to be willing to acknowledge the reality of what I’m facing. I wanted to do the same for others who are facing this reality.