Disability Hierarchies

Last week, K at Transcending CP wrote an interesitnb blog post on the “us” vs. “them” mentality non-disabled people have about people with disabilities. I commented and mentioned several ways the disabled themsleves have an “us” vs. “them” mentality towards other disabled people. Today, I want to expand on this by discussing disability hierarchies.

First, there is the hierarchy of severity of one particular disability. For example, at the school for the blind which I went to from fourth until sixth grade, the people with some vision had a lively competition of who could see best. We even used to introduce ourselves as “Johnny who has 20/400”. I only actively competed in my first year at this particular school, because in fifthe grade, the partially sighted children (I was going to write “partials” here) and braille readers were merged and I was in a class with only one other braille reader with some vision, who avoided this competition it seemed.

Similarly, among autistic people there is a competition. If you go to Wrong Planet or another Aspie-dominated site, you’ll see that most people there don’t want to associate with “low-functioning” autistics. As a person who is only “high-functioning” in terms of IQ and who despises this hierarchy, I don’t like this. It’s like those with “low-functioning” autism have no right to the acceptance that the “high-functioning” want.

Then there are disability hierarchies that cross lines between different disabilities. An example is my having bullied an intellectually disabled child when I was at the aforementioned school for the blind. I apparently felt that intellectual disability made someone less of a worthwhile human being than visual impairment. I don’t think I actually thought that deeply, but I did bully this girl because of her intellectul impairment. Adults with physical or sensory impairments do have the ability to actually think about this, and it is reflected in statements like “You may be able-bodied but I am able-minded”.

Conversely, the more visible disabilities tend to be viewed as more “real”by some people than developmental or psychiatric disabilities. As a poignant aexample, my psychologist, when describing my disabilities, only mentioned my visual impairment and my slight motor deficits. Also, when I was still on the locked ward several years ago, there was a partially sighted, hard-of-hearing man on my ward who obviously also had severe mental illness. Because of his limited but existent sight and hearing, he was expected to do a few chores that I, being totally blind, was excused from. At one time, I heard a nurse tell him: “You may be twice-disabled, but you are not thrice-disabled.”

For a long time, disabled people have been “them”. The Black civil rights movement was grounded in the belief that Black people are just as capable as Whites. Then the blind and physically disabled and Deaf movements were grounded on the idea that people with sensory or physical disabilities are, with reasonable accommodations, just as capable as people without disabilities. Now people with developmental and psychiatric disabilities are demanding civil rights, an sometimes this si grounded on the same principles, hence creating a new “them” for those who don’t meet the “just as capable” standard. It is my hope that, at one point, we can live without the “us” vs. “them” mentality, but this hope may be idle. After all, as a human race, are we truly evolved enough to recognize each of us as equal? And if we were, then animal rights activists would say that’s still not good enough. Rights activism always demands a shift from “them” to “us” but will there ever not be “them”? And if so, will we survive?

20 thoughts on “Disability Hierarchies

  1. I grew up with a handicap that kept me on crutches for a lot of my teen years. Not fun to be looked at as different, but that was how it was…. at home though… I was made to do chores just like everyone else. I was not treated any differently from my brothers and sisters. I think it helped me to survive and become a strong person.


  2. Such very deep thoughts. I totally understand the "us" vs. "them" My aunt and cousin were disabled and more often than not did not have to complete chores even though they were capable. My parents and grandparents felt they should not be made to do normal chores since they had to deal with their disabilities. Even though it was known at the time that I had hearing loss it was not seen as a disability so I was considered normal.


  3. Terry and Bonnie,, I wan tyou to know that equality is not just about what the disabled person is required to do. It's also, and more so, about accepting them as huan beings who have human and civil rights.Mariah, yes I did have another blog. That's long gone inactive though.


  4. People definitely judge what they don't understand or haven't experienced themselves. Even as a child I would put myself in someone else's shoes to feel what they feel, that was just me and I still do that today because I never want to be wrong or a hypocrite. But dealing with anxiety issues myself I know that basically no one really understands what I go through every day and how could they if they've never experienced it themselves however it should never be "us vs. them" when we are all human.


  5. I've always been told, having a disability and being disabled aren't necessarily the same thing. My son is 8 and autistic and although there are things that he may not be able to do when he grows up I encourage his strengths. We are all the same just with different capabilities.


  6. Unfortunately, many people judge others based on their ignorance or lack of knowledge. Fear even drives their actions in some cases. I think educating them and exposing them to what and who they don't understand is the first step.


  7. Your certainly have a valid point. I understand exactly what you are saying. I have a physical ailment that some do get disability for however I look normal. My body on the other hand is not normal (on the inside). It is difficult to find people that don't judge.


  8. My daughter has some physical disabilities that aren't always apparent and is sometimes judged on why she is not doing all the work she is "capable of" physically. This is a thought provoking post. Thanks for sharing.


  9. Society has come a long way with this but they still have work to do. I work extensively with disable children in the school system and I do think that things have gotten better over the past 25 years.


  10. There are so many ways people react to disabilities, it's most refreshing when we come across people who just realize it's something a person has, like we all 'have something…even if it's not a disability' and doesn't make them less of a person to value.Thank you for sharing your write up.


  11. It is an amazing post, on such a tough subject. As a mother to a child with an invisible and rare disability, I feel this separation and contest and hierarchy most days. I find it so hard, as it is very though for us to find help and support for him and us as it is, and more so with everyone looking at us as "not disabled enough" or "not autistic enough" or whatever.Thank you for writing this post.* Got here through Love That Max


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