Saturday, June 9, 2007

Depersonalizing Discrimination

One of the biggest disability stressors people talk to me about in my advocacy work is the difficulty they have handling incidents of discrimination. Discrimination ranges from subtle behavior and language to outright exclusion. Somewhere in the middle there is a wide variety of things that happen that you have to decide whether to tolerate, act upon or handle with a sense of humor or other skill.

I've had many people come to me who begin to feel a sense of erosion of their self worth due to repeated incidents of discrimination. They ask "Why is this happening to me?" instead of reframing it to a wider social picture: "Why are people with disabilities being treated this way?"

One of the skills that I emphasize to people with disabiliites is learning how to depersonalize discrimination. Basically it means that you take a step back and remember that the party who is discriminating against you because of your disability would act that way toward the next person who comes along with a disability as well. This helps put the incident into perspective and can keep it from being as damaging to your self esteem.

There is a form of discrimination that happens where it is very difficult not to personalize discrimination. Some people who discriminate against disabled people, particularly in groups, consciously or unconsciously will personally attack characteristics of the disabled person. They rationalize their refusal to accommodate the disabled person or include the disabled person by picking on personal traits of the person unrelated to the disability. In my advocacy work I use the word bullying to describe this behavior.

This kind of exclusion is very hard not to personalize because it is aimed at your perceived faults and the attackers are careful not to say anything about your disability. In fact they are extremely politically correct. However, it is very important to learn to spot it. When a group of people does this to you and it results in social exclusion, it's important to take a step back and assess if it's discriminatory behavior.

Why does this happen? Sadly it's easier for a group to find fault with someone whose presence requires adjustments than to make those adjustments. It's easier to just make them go away. It can be very difficult for a person with a disability to undergo an experience like this. The herd mentality of groups, bullying behaviors and negative attitudes toward disability combine to create a toxic atomosphere.

For example, I had someone come to me who was attending a women's social group for several years. The meeting place had to be moved because of her wheelchair and she noticed that the label "selfish" and the word "entitlement" started to be tossed around by some of the group members. Over time the labels continued to fly, such as "arrogant" and "difficult". By the time she talked to me, she was in tears. She told me she never had an experience like this in a group before she became disabled. This alerted me to the fact that this might not be a case where the woman really did have social skill issues or personality problems but was being discriminated against. Members of the group had effectively closed her out by labeling her - but never using the disability directly to do it.

I told her that her best option was to depersonalize the discrimination and reach out for objective reality checks, which she already started to do by talking to me. It's important to consult with members of the disability community to get feedback and do a reality check with people you trust and who know you well to see if your assessment of the situation is correct. You then need to consider your options in this situation. A lawsuit may be appropriate , e.g., if it's happening at work and your career is at stake. You also need to assess if it's worth putting yourself through any more of this behavior as well as what you can realistically do about it. Balancing these two considerations is crucial.

Since this group was directly related to her professional career, the woman chose to stand her ground, depersonalize the behavior and hang in there. Once she stopped personalizing the behavior, she reported that it was easier to cope with the group dynamics and shake off much of the negative behavior. By doing this, she not only stayed in the group but noticed that the dynamics improved based on how she reacted to the behavior.

This is not always the outcome in these situations, but knowing how to depersonalize discriminatory behaviors is a good skill for all of us to have. It can be a powerful tool against many forms of subtle (and not so subtle) discrimination.


betterolls said...

I've had this happen but never heard it put like this in words. Once I left a group because it was just impossible to get along after a ringleader (woman) gossiped about me. None of it was true but by the time I found out it was too late to do much about it. It made it hard for me to join other groups for a bit of time. One sign I've learned to spot it is that people hint I'm getting preferential treatment in some way due to my disability and resent doing accommodations even belittle requests and patronize me about it as if I'm naive to expect it.

Anonymous said...

I know what you're talking about here. I can think several groups I tried to join in my life where this happened. At the time I was confused. I was called things no one who knew me well ever said to me. Then a friend told me they don't want you there because you're disabled. I went back to one of the groups with this in my mind and saw they resented it when they had to move a chair for me so I could fit in. I was poked fun at as they were moving chairs people would laugh which was awful. Gossip was really bad. Things like I was selfish to childish etc for expecting a chair to be moved . Of course I stopped going but the insults hurt . It's a relief to know other people go through this not just me.

Name Withheld

Adoro te Devote said...

I'm going to offer a perspective from an unwilling discriminatory person...myself, back in high school.

For dad was an alcoholic, my Mom was born with only one hand and she was bipolar. My parents were divorced, I was always a "daddy's girl", we lived with our mother, and because of her bipolar, the regular teenage angst was emphasized due to her outrageous and ultra-controlling, unpredictable behavior.

I went to a retreat for high school students, secular, having to do with peer outreach. Our facilitators were: a woman who was a recovering alcoholic, and a man who had a spinal injury, rendering one of his arms almost useless to him.

I sincerely liked both of them, but what happened during the retreat was that I identified more with the woman, and somewhat disassociated myself from the man, because I came to associate his disability with my Mom.

He didn't do anything wrong. When we were getting "autographs" from each other, I realized something had happend in our "dynamic" and even though I really liked him, I was unable to reach out to him because every time I saw his "disability", I saw my Mom. You have no idea how agonizing it was for me, and contiues to be. I know he was hurt by my omission of his autograph. That kills me because I respected him so much, but I could not SPEAK to him...every time I wanted to, tears threatened, and the only thing I could do was remain silent. I tried to meet his eyes several times in my internal struggle, and I think he interpreted my own issues as being adverse to him, when they were really anything but. I didn't understand at the time what was going on with me.

I have felt so guilty about this for so long, and I'll never be able to make it up to him, because I've never seen him since nor am I likely to.

So what I have to say is this; some percieved discrimination isn't really what it appears to may result from the "discriminator's" own personal demons, their own family life and dysfunction.

I will never in a thousand years defend true discrimination, but I do want you to realize that we all have our issues, and sometimes they have nothing to do with "you", but with our own internal struggles.

I will be sorry for life for my behavior because I can't reverse it or explain to that wonderful man, who taught me so much that weekend, what was going on. I pray he's forgotten me entirely, but my guilty conscience won't let me go...and maybe that's for the best.

Ruth said...

Adoro thanks for sharing that,it sounds like a very painful experience.

"I will never in a thousand years defend true discrimination, but I do want you to realize that we all have our issues, and sometimes they have nothing to do with "you", but with our own internal struggles. "

Depersonalizing means to understand it may be not about you, but about the "disability" and whatever that represents to various people which can be personal demons . That's why learning this skill is important . However as you point out this is very different from behavior that is truly discriminating, such as bullying and ostracizing.

I just wanted to ask if after all these years you might consider that instead of the man being hurt, maybe he was concerned by your reaction but really couldn't approach you. Just a thought that occurred to me.

We all need to learn to be kind to ourselves for being human as well as each other :)

goldchair said...

First of all Adoro - I just don't think what you describe is discrimination. I think it's a personal experience and encounter you've worried about a lot .

That's different. There's REAL discrimination out there . The problem is the people who are the worst offenders have this habit of telling us we're imagining it, being overly sensitive, etc. You see they do that to disarm us. It's like the guy who steals your wallet then tells you maybe you left it at home.

Part of me resents having to depersonalize it or learning skills to deal with it but I can see how it would help defuse a situation.

Adoro te Devote said...

Ruth ~ Thank you. I hadn't thought of it that way.

Goldchair ~ I absolutely agree with you. I remember my Mom feeling very hurt by people's reactions to her, and when she was pregnant with me, it was around the time of Roe v. Wade, and perfect strangers actually approached her and told her to abort because people like her should not have children!

Yet if she reacted to such things, then she was just being "overly sensitive". and they didn't "mean it that way." Like Hell they didn't.

I don't think I have the ability to depersonalize! Kudos to those of you who can! (Clearly I'm not a candidate for sainthood...)

goldchair said...

It's so great to see a discussion like this in the comments. That's one thing I like about this blog is it draws readers who are disabled and not and we can talk about issues and learn from each other. I say kudos to everyone here!