On the Social Dimension of Disability: “I don’t think of you that way.”
I can’t count the amount of people who have said some variation of “I don’t think of you that way” when it comes up that I’m disabled.
Disability (n.): a physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities.
I have permanent paralysis in my shoulder, arm, and hand from an injury to my brachial plexus. My range of motion in that arm is about 40% of what a typical, uninjured arm would be, not to mention my underdeveloped strength, dislocated shoulder, and the resulting scoliosis. I could go on. Based on the simplest, literal definition, I am definitely disabled, because at the very least, compared with a typical body, my movements are limited.*
So, why am I always hearing “I don’t think of you that way”?
Often a person says it to relieve their own social discomfort or cognitive dissonance, either because I’ve self-identified as disabled or because they’ve said something disparaging about disabled people. Examples:
- My boyfriend’s mom says she has “crippling self-doubt.” My boyfriend says, “bad word choice,” gesturing to me. She does a double take, looks my way, and says “Oh, I’m sorry, it didn’t occur to me because I don’t see you that way.”
- My college roommate and I are chatting and I mention, in a neutral tone, that I am disabled. In the voice of someone finally expressing something that’s been bothering her, she says “I don’t know why you think of yourself that way. I don’t think of you that way.”
In the first example, my boyfriend’s mom uses “crippling,” (cripple (n.): a person who is partially or totally unable to use one or more limbs) as shorthand to say that her self-doubt prevents her from normal activities, or at least from the activities she’d prefer to take part in. When my boyfriend points out that this metaphor implies physical disability (such as mine) necessarily means abnormal, negative, or useless, she experiences discomfort. She relieves it by saying, “I don’t think of you that way,” preserving the abnormal, negative, or useless associations in her head with physical disability. Because she sees me as normal, useful, productive, I must not be disabled. The definition of disability shifts from a value-neutral description of physical or mental difference to a negative social role, in order to exclude me.
In the second example, my roommate does something similar. Although I don’t express sadness or anger when calling myself disabled, it makes her upset, and she pushes back. That’s because, rather than seeing disability as a value-neutral physical or mental difference, she sees it as a negative social role. In her mind, by self-identifying this way, I’m insulting myself.
The problem with both these lines of logic is twofold:
- The definition of disability shifts at will in order to protect the nondisabled person’s perception of disability as a negative attribute.
- Inclusion and exclusion into this social role shifts at will in order to protect the nondisabled person’s perception of disability as a negative attribute and attitude toward disabled people that they do “think of that way.”
If I’m not disabled, then I have no way to explain why I was told not to become a lifeguard, or why men routinely refuse to date me because my “arm is just too weird,” or why strangers approach me to tell me how great it is that I’m out living life. I lose out on putting a name to these negative experiences (which is a necessary part of healing from them and fighting back) in order to protect nondisabled people’s shifting definition of disability.
Worse still, if I’m not disabled, then disabled people are just the faceless, abnormal, negative, useless Other. If, as soon as a person because a valued figure in your life, they’re excluded from that group, it is far too easy to dehumanize, objectify, and disenfranchise that group.
*I wouldn’t trade that limitation of movement for the world, as it’s caused me to develop an interesting set of physical skills that nondisabled people lack along with character traits that are integral to my personality. But that’s for a different post.