Last Tuesday, I went to the dentist. I have trouble taking care of myself, including brushing my teeth. I can’t remember to do it regularly, and when I do remember, I find it hard to motivate myself because I’m sensitive to the feel of the toothbrush and the taste of the toothpaste. The dentist gave me a mouthwash with a relatively neutral taste and told me to rinse with that after toothbrushing. I am allowed to brush my teeth without toothpaste for now to get used to the feel of the brush and into the habit of brushing first. The dentist instructed the nurse who was with me, a nurse from another ward, to tell the staff they needed to actively remind me to brush my teeth. The nurses on my ward, however, didn’t feel like this, saying I’m an adult so should take responsibility for my own self-care.
The phrase “you’re an adult” is uttered time and time again when I (or other patients, but I’m speaking for myself now) require help or display a problem that is not normal for a healthy adult. Saying we’re not healthy is not an excuse, because what are we in treatmetn for then? A nurse told me yesterday that if I had a low IQ or had been floridly psychotic, this would’ve been an excuse not to be able to remember my self-care. As if people with an intellectual disability or psychotic disorder are not adults.
The thing is, whether you’re physically or mentally capable of taking care of yourself, does not determine whether you’re an adult, and whether you’re an adult, does not determine your respectability. The idea that an adult should be capable of caring for themself, is ableist. The idea that an adult (at least, one who displays adult abilities) is more respectable than a child, is not just ableist but ageist too.
Honestly, I don’t care whether I’m an adult. I don’t care whether my abilities reflect my age. I care that I’m an individual and have individual needs. In some areas, I’m self-reliant. In other areas, I require practical care. In others, I require guidance. None of this makes me deserve less human dignity. Similarly, children and persons of any age with intellectual disabilities deserve as much human dignity and respect as a healthy adult does. We treat them differently, of course, but that is because they have different abilities, difficulties and needs. A child is different from an adult, and an adult with a disability is different from a non-disabled adult, but that doesn’t make them a child. Everyone is an individual who deserves to be treated like an individual with dignity and human rights.