Make Them Go Away



From Chapter 4: Whiners, victims and the truly disabled.

Haven't you heard someone say, "Oh, I don't consider myself disabled"? How many times have you said it yourself about someone? It's meant as a compliment. What does that mean? It means that saying someone is disabled is in a way an insult.

Disability advocates have known this, at least on an instinctive level, for a long time; it's the real reason behind the push toward what they call "people first" language -- and it's why the Americans with Disabilities Act is called that, rather than, for example, the Disabled Americans Act. (Great Britain's similar law, passed in 1995, is more appropriately called The Disability Discrimination Act.)

It's the reason behind the increasingly silly constructions of "people with" that get mocked so regularly: "people with vision impairments," "people with autism," "people with cerebral palsy," "people with spinal cord injuries." Advocates of "people first" constructions say it is important to realize that the person is not "disabled" but rather that they "have" a disability.

This and a lot of other psychological and linguistic gyrations can't hide the fact that to be disabled is to be considered something bad.

"Don't call me disabled," Nick Ackerman told reporters. The Iowa college senior, who had used prosthetic legs since an accident in early childhood, who won the NCAA Division 3 wrestling championship, told a reporter that "I don't have a disability, I have ability and I'm going to use it" and that "I always thought I was normal."

An admiring New York Times obituary reported that Celeste Tate Harrington, "a quadriplegic street musician whose buoyant personality and unremitting chutzpah brought astounded smiles to everyone who watched her play the keyboard with her lips and tongue on Atlantic City's Boardwalk," "didn't consider herself disabled." Nana Graham was born with "undeveloped legs and feet that curved inward and upside down." Her legs were amputated when she was 13. But her daughter told a reporter Graham was "not handicapped." Hearing-impaired actress Vanessa Vaughan insisted she was not disabled and refused to be interviewed by the Toronto Star for an article about disabled performers. Wheelchair tennis star Dan Bennett, "born with spina bifida, leaving him without use of his legs," did not consider himself disabled. "The more we play, the more words like 'handicapped' and 'disabled' can begin to disappear," wheelchair tennis player Joe Babakanian told a reporter.

Although the ADA had been used successfully in California to win cases in which fat people faced employment discrimination, activists for overweight people considered the cases bad because it put fat people in a "disabled category." "Most fat people do not consider themselves disabled," Laura Eljaiek, head of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, told a reporter.

The obituary for Bob L. Thomas, chief justice of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Waco, Tex., noted that he had achieved "success in law and politics despite total paralysis in all but his left hand," having "contracted polio at the age of 15." He used a wheelchair until his death, yet a colleague remarked that he didn't consider himself disabled. "He had an absolute determination to overcome his disabilities," said another.

When Louisvillian Dan Massie died, a story noting his role as a 1970s disability activist reported that although his wife pushed him everywhere in his chair, he "didn't act as if he was disabled." "He didn't take a penny of Social Security disability money," a friend told a reporter. "He sold jewelry on street corners and at festivals, and earned all his money."

If my grandmother has arthritis, but she isn't "really disabled," what we are saying is that she does not have the attributes we believe those poor schmucks "the disabled" have. Or, if we think she does have those attributes, it's a signal she's left the "us" and moved to the "them" category, and we no longer see her as being like us but as being like "the disabled."

Even people who don't have any real luxury of shifting in or out of the "disabled" category -- people like Christopher Reeve and John Hockenberry who everyone can tell are clearly disabled -- are brought into the "us" camp by the statement that they don't "act disabled." Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, who had multiple sclerosis, did not discuss her disability openly.

People do not want to identify as disabled and will do almost anything to avoid it. If we act normal and don't get involved in that disability rights stuff, then we're not really disabled, we think. If we keep on trying to recover, then, we think, we're not truly disabled. President Roosevelt, even though he could not walk unaided, nevertheless called himself a "cured cripple." It was his way of doing the same thing.

"'Disability' is an ideological term," says political scientist David Pfeiffer. "To name a person as 'disabled' is to give them an inferior position in society."

Everyone who is disabled is "them"; anyone who "happens to have a disability" but doesn't "consider themselves disabled" is "us": what we have done is carve off from "us" certain individuals whom we label as "disabled" in an act of assigning them a lesser status in society.

More than with racial minorities, more than with sexual minorities, more than with women, what we do as a society by this act is to say that people with disabilities are The Other -- by definition not us. Or, more accurately, "they" are the group beyond the pale -- outside the wall -- the scapegoats. Of course we don't want them to have the same rights as us. We have made them "them," not us, because we want to distinguish them from us. If they are equal to us, then we've lost the entire reason we're labeling them as "disabled" in the first place. We want to make them go away and stop bothering us.

Sociologist Erving Goffman in the 1960s got at this in a way that no one has managed to do better: He said in his classic book, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, that disabled people were considered "failed normals" -- people whose identities have been spoiled. They've failed -- and we want them to know it in no uncertain terms. The label "disabled" is in this sense really a punitive term. The disability rights movement's "new paradigm" that sees disability as simply one of many characteristics, has not permeated society. Goffman's view is right on the money. It certainly explains John Stossel's not considering himself disabled, even though he has a stutter. It explains Chief Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's not considering herself disabled either, although she has had breast cancer. Both have removed themselves from "the disabled," ensuring that they are regarded as "us," not "them."

People don't buy the disability rights movement's argument that people who have various disabilities form a minority group, either, even though it says so, right in the ADA's first section, the Findings. | BOOK ORDERING INFO |

This Website produced by Cliffwood Organic Works