Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Saying it doesn't matter, when it does

I was reading Dave's post today about his experiences in a book store. He asked a clerk to get him a copy of a book, which happened to be available with two very different covers. When she handed him one with a blue cover, he thanked her, but asked for a book with the other cover. In his words:

She took the book back quickly - not violently but almost - and slid it with a thump back into place. Then she grabbed the other book and handed it to me, turning immediately to avoid any further conversation. I did call to her receding back, 'Thanks.'

...

and he goes on to write that:

Every time I picked the book up and admired the cover, it really is pretty, I thought about the anger it caused and wondered if the amount of pleasure I got from the cover was enough to justify the upset it caused. I would sometimes think, maybe even wish, that the clerk - at the same time was wondering if her momentary display of anger was worth the effect it was having on her sense of self.


Now imagine this being repeated over and over in the course of a number of hours, days, weeks, months, even years, when a resentful, angry person responds like this when you as a person with a disability make a choice. Maybe it's a store clerk, a healthcare aide, a teacher, a gas station attendant, a waiter, a friend, a lover, or a parent.

Your choice - or even initial request- is seen as extra work. It's an inconvenience. So when you make a choice, you're left feeling as if you've done something wrong. If you express a preference, someone acts out. Ironically, because they have a title or power, they may even label you as acting out- just for making a choice.

Their reaction may be passive or outright anger. Sighing. Heaving. Verbal retorts. Arguing. Complaining. Or worse.

Makes me wonder if "learned helplessness" is really that or an intelligent choice in the face of these situations.

"Any color is fine." "Doesn't matter which flavor it is." No, don't rock the boat. Just don't say anything. This can even lead to not asking in the first place.

The funny thing with this, I've found, is that it doesn't matter , for example, whether the help is paid or volunteer if a negative attitude is present. Doesn't matter if your choice- or request- was unreasonable or not. Doesn't even matter if it was an important choice- or request, as in letting someone know you have a serious food allergy or they may break your equipment if they don't handle it a certain way or if you're going to be left hungry or cold.

This may not seem like a big deal to someone who doesn't have to ask for assistance with many physical tasks. But for those who do, it leads to real problems when you get into a care situation, where this attitude can run rampant. Take Elizabeth's situation, where she says because it's the night shift, the aides apparently feel they should sleep too. So expecting an aide to work the hours they're paid for, means they won't work for you any more? Kind of a frightening consequence when there's a shortage of aides.

Even in those situations where the consequences aren't as dire as going without basic help, as Dave writes, it can be an unpleasant experience to be treated this way:

But as I drove up to the counter I began to wonder if I had been over-selective, if it really made a difference to have the one cover, not the other, if I had been an annoying and pushy cripple. As much as I try, when others are mean to me, I always assume I deserve it. I analyze all the ways that I 'set off' or caused the other's attitude or distress.



Not saying anything may, at times, be a reasonable decision. People get tired. They have their own stuff to take care of. They may be overworked. All of this is true.

But when people with disabilities have to say it doesn't matter, when it does, all or most of the time, it's a sign of a bigger problem. And when they experience such negative reactions that not even asking for help in the first place becomes the most intelligent choice, that's the result of attitudes in our society toward those with disabilities.

It's called ableism.

4 comments:

FridaWrites said...

I think you're right--it's a survival mechanism to defer one's needs. There's nothing wrong with avoiding abuse though ideally there's not abuse or there's a better long-term situation.

Arno said...

"Now imagine this being repeated over and over in the course of a number of hours, days, weeks, months, even years, when a resentful, angry person responds like this when you as a person with a disability make a choice. Maybe it's a store clerk, a healthcare aide, a teacher, a gas station attendant, a waiter, a friend, a lover, or a parent."

...That's a big part of why so many non-disabled don't get it. It's the day-to-day-to-day-to-day relentlessness of (what should be) mundane, everyday situations like this that is tiresome, and they don't experience it.
Makes one grow a litlle callus around one's self, but the balm of conscience keeps the callus from getting too tough.

Matthew Smith said...

A number of years ago, my mother told me of something she witnessed while shopping in a street market somewhere in south London. An elderly lady wanted to buy a couple of onions or apples or something, and the market owner insisted on selling her a larger quantity, which she couldn't afford and didn't need because she lived on her own, for his own convenience. She begged and begged and eventually the stallholder gave in, but she said, "well you can stuff 'em!". The other customers waiting, including my Mum, applauded.

More recently there was a dispute in one of the communities I belong to, and an old friend cut me off. I was rather upset about this because this was someone I had known (online and occasionally over the phone) for years and I couldn't understand what had turned her against me. Eventually I asked her and she gave me a list of things others had said about me, all of which I could identify as either lies or exaggerations. She accepted my explanation and accepted me as a friend again. But it crossed my mind to refuse it anyway because of how much all this had upset me; victory won, now let it go. But I did accept her although I'm not sure we're as close now as before all this happened.

liz said...

" So when you make a choice, you're left feeling as if you've done something wrong. If you express a preference, someone acts out. Ironically, because they have a title or power, they may even label you as acting out- just for making a choice."

This is so true. I'm still learning how to deal with it and there doesn't seem to be any good way. But it fills me with rage... and with fear... when I encounter it.