fighting dehumanization

On bearing witness to the humanity of disabled people and the destructiveness of ableism

One of the most powerful things that we can do is to bear witness to the humanity of disabled people and the destructive consequences of ableism. When we bear witness to our humanity and to the things that others do to us, it changes the conversation. Our stories are powerful.

Some people have the privilege of being largely untouched by ableism. (Or being untouched by a particular kind of ableism.) Most people who are privileged in this way are also unaware of how deeply marginalized disabled people are being harmed. (I’m using disability as the primary example here, but this actually applies to ever kind of marginalization.)

We are dehumanized, and a lot of people don’t notice that it’s happening. They’re taught to overlook our humanity, and a lot of what happens to us is hidden from them. When people learn how to notice, they often start caring.

Bearing witness to our humanity means making it impossible to discuss disability in the abstract. It means making people have to notice that when they talk about disability, they’re talking about *actual human beings*. We do things. Some of us have jobs. Some of us are artists. Some of us write. Some of us are married. Some of us are fans of TV shows. Some of us are experts in our fields. Some of us cook. All of us matter. Making people notice us as real human beings changes the conversation about disability.

Speaking out about the consequences of ableism also changes the conversation. When institution survivors bear witness to what happens in institutions, it becomes much more difficult for people to believe that institutionalization is good for disabled people. When people speak out about what authoritarian childhood therapy did to them, it’s harder to pretend that compliance training is harmless. When people speak out about electric shock, it is much harder to pretend that people who are tortured with electric shocks think that it makes their lives better.

When disabled people talk about what it is like to learn the name of their disability by eavesdropping and googling, some parents listen. Likewise, when disabled people talk about what it’s like to grow up without accurate language for ourselves, some parents come to understand the importance of talking to children about their disabilities.

Bearing witness also matters to other disabled people. We often learn to overlook our own humanity. We often learn to disregard the things that others have done to us. When other disabled people are unapologetically human, it’s easier to see ourselves as human. When other disabled people talk about the harm ableism does, it’s easier to remember that these things shouldn’t happen to us.

This doesn’t always work. When people with disabilities bear witness to our humanity and to what happens to us, we often get hostile responses. Even when some people are listening, there are usually also angry people who are not. Even when people are eventually willing to listen, they are often initially angry and mean. Those of us who talk about these things pay a price for doing so. Everyone has the right to decide for themselves whether this is a price they’re willing to pay in a given situation.

Your stories belong to you. Stories can be a powerful force for liberation, but you are not a liberation object. You are a person. You have the right to decide whether or not to tell your stories. If you choose to tell stories, you have the right to decide which stories to tell, how you want to tell them, and who you want to tell them to. (Including, whether or not you want to answer questions that people ask you.) You can also change your mind. Doing some advocacy work doesn’t make you an advocacy object, and it doesn’t strip you of the right to say no. No matter how politically or socially useful your stories are, they belong to you.

The word “institution”

In a disability context, “institution” means something like “an organization that keeps disabled folks separate from mainstream society and under the control of others”.

It used to be fairly common practice for families (under great pressure from doctors and state authorities) to send their disabled children to residential institutions and then have no further relationship with them. That’s fallen out of favor in the past couple of decades, but a lot of the underlying power dynamics remain in service providers in other settings.

For instance, group homes are often referred to as being “living in the community” rather than “institutions”, but they also often have identical power dynamics.

Similarly, some places will say that they are not institutions but are rather “intentional communities” or some sort of utopian village because they are farms and cottages rather than big harshly lit buildings. But again, they have the same power dynamics.

The power dynamics can be hard to spot if you don’t know how to look for them, because a lot of institutions will go out of their way to pretend they’re doing something fundamentally different.

Erasing the line

There’s this line that people believe in. That, as a person with a disability, you had better be on the right side of, or else.

This is how the trope goes:

If you’re on the right side of the line, you’re almost-normal. Sure, you’re disabled, but the only real disability in life is a bad attitude. You’re fine. Really. So inspiring. Just don’t demand special treatment. 

If you’re on the wrong side of the line, you’re not really a person. You get called the r-word. Or low functioning. Or having a young mental age. Or whatever term for “not quite a real person” is currently fashionable. You’re seen as someone who needs to be institutionalized. Controlled. Protected. Micromanaged. For your own good. Because you’re dangerous. No one should have to deal with someone like you.

Everyone’s afraid that they’ll end up on the wrong side of the line. Or that their kid will. Because the line could always get drawn differently, and you could easily end up on the wrong side, this time. Because the line is about power, and perception, not innate qualities.

People are often afraid that if their kid waves their hand too much, the line will get drawn on the wrong side of them. Or if they hit people. Or if they yell. Or if they fail a class. Or can’t learn to drive. It’s terrifying. No one wants to disapear into that place beyond the line, and no one decent wants to see their kid end up there. (The unfortunate reality is that some parents very much do want to put their kid on that side of the line. But they shouldn’t, and a lot of people don’t.)

The thing is, the line is not real. The r-word doesn’t apply to anyone. Neither does “low functioning”, which is the new pseudo-clinincal way of calling people the r-word. The line is something that gets done to people, not a description of attributes people actually have.

Keeping this in mind helps. It’s not a complete defense; people are going to draw lines and you might someday end up on the wrong side no matter what you do (although there are ways of resisting).

But it helps to know that you don’t deserve it, and that you’re a full human being no matter what happens. And that your kid is. And that everyone else is too.

And, if you know that the line isn’t real, it can help you to avoid hurting people. If you know that people are fully real and that the r-word doesn’t apply to anyone, you can learn not to think of anyone as too r-word or low functioning to be real. If you know the line isn’t real, you can stop drawing it and respect everyone. That’s not everything. But it’s something.

Don’t hang your legitimacy on ideology

This dynamic happens a lot with autistic or otherwise socially-marginalized people:

  • You’re not treated as fully real, for your whole life
  • And you don’t even realize it, because it’s pervasive. You don’t know that it’s possible to be treated as real. You don’t know this isn’t normal.

And then you discover a group of people who seem to approve of you

  • They’re an ideological group, and they approve of anyone who shares their ideology
  • And their ideology seems plausible, or valuable, or good
  • And it has some concepts that allow you to understand things you never understood before
  • And you adopt the ideology
  • You’re accepted into the group. In a way you’ve never been accepted before.
  • And they treat you more like a real person than anyone else has before
  • And you yourself *feel* more real than you ever felt before

And so you throw yourself into the ideology

  • Passionately, completely, and sincerely
  • And you care deeply about understanding it, and using the concepts, and doing good and right
  • And so you work really hard
  • And then, eventually, this pulls you away from the ideology
  • Because you learn something, or notice something, that the ideology doesn’t cover
  • And that makes you a heretic
  • And you lose your standing in the group

And then they stop treating you as real. And then you wonder if you are real, if maybe you’re just not good enough for anything. And then maybe you find another ideological group, and it repeats over and over and over. Because you think the problem is that you just haven’t found the right ideology, and that if you find the right one, it won’t fall apart.

Until you realize that, actually, you were real the whole time. And that groups that only think their members are real people are never going to solve the problem. And that when they treat anyone as non-real, it’s a threat to you, too. Because you have to think everyone is real, because everyone *is* real. And seeing people as unpeople is always destructive.

And then you realize that the world is both better and worse than you thought it was. Worse, because there’s no ideological group that will solve everything, but the awful things the ideological groups notice are often true. Better, because everyone is already real, and genuine respect between people is already possible. Because you don’t have to wait for a revolution to be a person, and neither does anyone else.

Trying to detect dehumanization

Trying to detect dehumanization

I’m really good at telling when people don’t quite think I’m a person, but I’m not quite sure *how* I detect this. I’m trying to figure it out.

A good part of what’s in this post is probably wrong, because this is really hard to get a handle on. And *some* of these things are sometimes the result of other things, like communication problems.

But here’s a draft list of things I think that I detect as signs that someone doesn’t see me as a person:

  • There’s kind of more of a pause than usual, and then what they responded to wasn’t really in reaction to what you said. They’re reacting to some imaginary person.
  • They don’t seem to understand what you’re saying, but they don’t ask any clarifying questions.
  • They don’t answer your clarifying questions.
  • They look at each other a lot, but not you.
  • They try to insist on talking about your feelings rather than the problem or concrete thing you want to talk about.
  • They tell you in authoritative tones what you are thinking or feeling or need or want, and they’re not open to corrections.
  • They completely ignore you when you say things that don’t fit their agenda, to the extent that you start doubting that you actually said it.
  • They go on and on about how smart you are, but they don’t seem to want to discuss anything else with you.
  • They expect effusive gratitude for mundane acts like getting something down from a shelf they can reach that you can’t.
  • Their body language shifts dramatically when they’re interacting with you; it’s really different than how it looks when they’re interacting with others. 
  • They have a voice they use with adults, and a voice they use with young children, and they use their little-kid-voice with you.

Thoughts, anyone? Which of these things am I wrong (or right) about? What other signs are there?

I think a good percentage of y'all know exactly what I am talking about, but it’s really hard to pin down.