“See the person, not the disability”

“See the person, not the disability” is a phrase I see around sometimes, often said by disability advocates. I believe their intent is to encourage people to not judge a person on their disability, but see them as a whole person. I will admit, there certainly is a problem in our society where many people will see someone with a disability, and simply stop there, failing to see anything else.

That said, I don’t like this phrase.

First of all, and most glaringly, it sets up a false dichotomy. It implies that we must see either the person OR the disability, but we somehow cannot see both, and that if we are seeing the disability we must, therefore, not be seeing the person. How insulting. Now, as I said, I do recognize that there is a problem with just this sort of thing out there. However, I do not believe the solution is to see the person instead of the disability. I believe the solution is to see the person as well as the disability. Disability is real, it’s there. Pretending that it’s not there does not actually help anyone.

Personally, I cannot be separated from my Aspergers. It is simply impossible. So to view me as somehow separate from my Aspergers, seeing me instead of seeing Aspergers, is to, in fact, fail to see me. By this I don’t necessarily mean that I have to go announcing that I’m an aspie to everyone I see (though personally, I do tend to be very open about it), but more that I have a large number of quirks and oddities that can be attributed to my being on the autism spectrum. Whether a person conceptualizes them as part and parcel of my being an aspie, or simply as a bundle of quirks does not matter so much as the fact that they are there, and ignoring them (seeing “me” instead of them) simply means that they are failing to see who I really am. This is especially problematic given that many of my oddities have a not-insignificant impact on how I interact with people.

Random story time! Not long ago I went to a restaurant with a few other people to have some social time. We headed to a table against a wall, but then two of the people I was with slid into the seats by the wall, leaving me to sit with my back both to people and to a flow of traffic (servers, people moving around, etc). For this to make sense you’d have to know that I really hate having people behind me. In a restaurant I make a point to sit with as few people behind me as possible, and tolerating people-flow behind me is more or less impossible. I am embarrassed to admit that at the time, I simply froze and not-quite-panicked as I tried to sort through my options. Sit where I know I won’t handle it? Go somewhere else to sit? Ask if I could please sit where one of them were sitting? One of the two people then noticed that I was looking a bit freaked out and asked if I’d like to sit where they were sitting, and I gratefully accepted. I do very much wish I had managed to handle the situation more gracefully and have since been trying to figure out templates on how to handle that sort of thing if it happens again in the future. However, it does rather illustrate that you can’t really see me without also seeing my strangeness, at least in anything but the most superficial of interactions (and sometimes not even then). It is simply impossible to see some non-existent idea of “me” without also seeing my aspie oddities, so really, don’t even try.

Ok, now I want to talk a bit about that graphic I used at the top. Not only is the wording a problem, but so is the picture. We have an able-bodied person standing (presumably what we are supposed to “see”), with people in wheelchairs as shadows (presumably what we are not supposed to “see”). Here’s the thing – everyone is a person, regardless of their ability to stand. I think they are trying to say person vs. disability with that graphic, but what they are actually saying is able-bodied person vs. person in a wheelchair. Apparently “person” directly means able-bodied/not-disabled. Seriously uncool. Just to hammer it in more (hopefully excessively), imagine if it were another group on that graphic. Such as “see the person, not the color” showing white people with shadows of various ethnicities. That would never be ok, because it would be implying that “person” means “white.” Similarly, implying that “person” means “able-bodied” shows prejudice and is not ok.

People are going to see me. That includes the fact that I am an aspie and all of the ways that makes me who I am, from the frustrating to the wonderful.

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4 Comments

Filed under rant, that's not helping

4 responses to ““See the person, not the disability”

  1. Tricia

    For your side story – use Nathan. I do that all the time for Patty. She also can’t sit with her back to the main area, or a doorway, or any configuration where someone could sneak up behind her (one of KC’s many jobs is to tap Patty’s shoulder when she’s holding him to alert her that someone is behind her).

    So when situations come up like this, Patty also tends to freeze – so I’ve learned to step in. I’ll make a comment about her back, or it’s easier for KC, or if it’s friends I just ask them to move. If we’re led to a table that won’t work, I have them change our table.

    Yes, Patty could do it on her own, and so could you. But I look at it as one more thing I can do to help make her life easier.

  2. Good post. I too have a hard time with the whole ‘see the person, not the disability’ nonsense. I’m guessing you can’t separate yourself from aspergers anymore so than I can from my schizophrenia. I enjoy reading your posts. Keep up the good work.