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?