Tag Archives: Human Rights

“You’re an Adult.”

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.

Excusing or Accepting

Many of the people who commented on my previous post, most of them likely unfamiliar with disability rights, commented on a particular part of it: that in which I talked about disabled people being carelessly excused from meeting normal expectations. While it is true that a disabiity in itself should not be a reason to excuse people, in the sense that people think of the disabled as pitifu and therefre to be excused, disability equality goes far beyond equal expectations. Actually, unless a disabled person commits a crime, they are entitled to the same civil rights and inclusion that abled people are. “Normal”, that is, non-disabled standards of performance should not be relevant here.

People have a right to acceptance, and, while this means they should be expected to behave in an acceptable manner, what this means is really up for debate. Is an autistic not acceptable because they scream? An effort should of course be made to help the autistic unlearn this behavior, but if they can’t, that doesn’t make them less acceptable as a person.

We need to make the distinction here between the behavior and the person. All people have some annoying behaviors that are unacceptable to at least a number of others. We can disapprove of this behavior, but we shouldn’t be excluding the person for this. Note, please, that my comment about annoying behavior goes for disabled as well as non-disabled people. Once a person has a disability, however, accepting them in spite of inappropriate behavior is often seen as excusing.

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?