Tuesday, 19 March 2013

The Downside of Assumptions

Disability advocate Dave Hingsburger wrote a great post the other day on the assumptions that people make when you're disabled (which I've blogged about before). He talked about how, when he was watching a St. Patrick's Day Parade in Toronto, sitting on the sidewalk in his wheelchair, the people on the floats singled him out to waved at the same way they did the kids on the sidewalk.  Now, of course, correlation does not imply causality, but Dave Hingsburger has worked with disabled people in communities a long time (as have I) and I agree with his assessment of what went on: the people on his floats made an assumption that his physical disability also meant the presence of an intellectual disability, and started treating him like a child based on that assumption. I've seen it happen it before.

Hell, I've had it happen to me. At a conference of service providers for intellectually disabled people, actually.

Assumptions: Story Time

I attended the conference just a couple of years after my stroke. It was an honour to be asked to go. After a busy day of workshops, I was very tired and looking forward to relaxing in my room in sweat pants and a tee shirt for the evening.

Before I got settled in, I went to the vending machines to get a Diet Coke, and then I realized something frightening: while I had a room key, I couldn't remember my room number (my short-term memory was never great to begin with, and the stroke really did a number on it for the first couple of years). I knew approximately what area of the floor I was on. Feeling very foolish, I started knocking on doors, looking for the woman with whom I was rooming to answer the door.

I only had to knock on two doors before I found my room. But the combination of the cane, the sweat pants, and the story about not remembering where my room was definitely (I believe) had one woman making the assumption that I was a "client", perhaps one of the self-advocates there for the conference, as opposed to staff, because her tone changed dramatically after I explained why I was knocking on her door. She started to talk to me like I was a child.

Not that there's anything wrong with being mistaken for a person that I support. But I found myself thinking, once I realized what was (likely) going on, "Do we really talk to them like that? Do *I* talk to them like that? How insulting."

Treating Intellectually Disabled Adults Like Children

I think that there are two issues that need awareness here:

  1. There is a tendency (and I've observed this happening to other physically disabled people as well) to assume that if a person is physically disabled, they're also intellectually disabled. While there's nothing implicitly wrong with being mistaken for an intellectually disabled person, this tends to get annoying because....

  2. People tend to treat intellectually people like they're children. They speak to them like they're toddlers, they talk "around" them instead of to them, and tend to ask to ask others questions about them ("What would he like to eat?")

The second tendency is dangerous because it reflects a belief about intellectually disabled people that's potentially very dangerous. If someone talks about an adult like they're a child, it's because there's something in them that believes that the adult in question is a child - and, depending on the relationship between the two people and what sorts of life circumstances are at play, that creates a power differential in which all sorts of abuse can thrive, even if it's unintentional.

But, Even More Fundamentally

We shouldn't be treating adults - any adults - like they're children.

Disabled adults have adult rights and adult responsibilities - they deserve the courtesy of being spoken to and treated like adults - whether they're physically disabled, intellectually disabled, or both, or whether you're just not sure.

There's no need to make any assumptions, really. The truth that all people deserve respect isn't an assumption.

Dave's post: http://www.davehingsburger.blogspot.co.uk/


  1. This whole phenomena gets worse when you add aphasia into the mix. When my husband and I go out to eat, he likes me to order for him. He's embarrassed by the way he speaks (or, rather, by the way he cannot speak) and so he'll let me know what he wants while the waiter is away (usually by pointing at the menu and I'll ask him yes/no questions about sides, changes, etc.), and I'll order for him. Not a big deal.

    So, the waiter will come back, but instead of looking to my husband when he/she asks for his order, they look to me. They don't know that I was already planning on ordering for him - all they see is a guy in a wheelchair. Every once and a while someone will ask him, and he'll gesture to me and I'll speak for him, but most of the time I'm the default communicator.

    I'm worried that this discourages my husband from attempting to communicate with others, because they obviously don't think he is capable of speaking for himself, but I'm not sure what I could do about it. Telling a waiter to ask him would be silly, because then he would just point to me anyway to speak for him. I don't want to reinforce stereotypes about the physically disabled, but putting my husband on the spot to speak in public seems just as bad.

    I guess I lose either way.

  2. Hi Kels

    In my work with intellectually disabled people, I sometimes saw what you've observed with your husband - people would automatically look to me to be the communicator and not even assume that the other person was capable of expressing their wishes. However, in my situation, the people that I've been with have usually been happy to have the opportunity to try to communicate passed back to them - if we're in a restaurant and the server asks, "What would they like?", I look at the other person and ask, "What would you like?" and only offer to help if it looks like communication is really breaking down.

    But if your husband wants you to be the one to communicate to begin with...yeah, that makes it more complicated. Don't feel bad about reinforcing stereotypes - you aren't the one making that choice. Your husband is. The only thing you can really do is decide how easy you're going to make it for him, by deciding to what degree you're going to facilitate communication for him in public. But that's a question involving a number of variables, and is one that only you can answer.

    In any case, be gentle with yourself...caregiving is difficult work, and it's important to make sure that you take good care of yourself while you're doing it. Thank you for reading, and for commenting.

  3. That happens to me all the time.

  4. It can be demoralizing. But insist on your right to be treated like an adult. There's no reason why you should expect anything less, and you treat people how to teach you. (I know that's not as easy as it sounds...I needed a therapist's help to get through a lot of this stuff!)

  5. TheGlassIsEmpty25 June 2013 at 15:10

    It's a little crazy - I worked as a caregiver for over 20 years - as a home health aide and as a direct care staff, and most recently as a home manager. I had repeated injuries to my knee, and the last time, 2 years ago did me in - I have no cartilage or meniscus left in my left knee and severe deterioration in my right knee, and I was eventually forced to leave my job. I now walk with a cane, and it wont be long until I need a wheelchair. I've noticed that people automatically try doing things for me- I had a woman walk up and start unloading my groceries into my trunk - or if they see me reaching for something with my grabber - they just figure I am helpless. It's frustrating. But when I think about it - there were times I was the same way to the people I cared for - I would do it myself because it was taking too long, or I would talk to them in that syrup voice that I find condescending. It's sad that it took being injured to get that kind of wake up call.

  6. It is a wake-up call, isn't it? I found it very humbling - I was supposed to be the one who knew all this stuff about working with disabled people, and then I discovered that I had been doing some of things in my work that annoyed me most as a disabled person.

    Actually, becoming disabled myself has made me better at my work in many ways, I think - I can empathize with some of the things that my clients face on a daily basis much more deeply that I used to be able to. Not that you have to be disabled to support disabled people, but I think that you catch some of the more nuanced aspects of the experience if you've been there yourself.

    Thank you for commenting!