“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” George Orwell

Monday, March 14, 2005

Patronizing Good Will

Oftentimes when describing work with persons with disabilities, or even in introducing persons with cognitive disability to those without disability, I have the feeling that I am the recipient of a kind of patronizing good will. Whether it is based on some notion of political correctness in relation to the particular enviornment one is in, or a reflection of some general social etiquete of how one is to act or speak when the question of mental retardation arises, people move into this sentimental seriousness about persons with disability. Their speech belies good will of language on their part, but there is also a laziness about it. It's like they reverence the challenges of the families of those persons and what they suspect is the experience of the persons with disabilities themselves, however, they speak out of ignorance; a kind of lazy ignorance at that. Its like the response many special educators joke about that they receive when they say they are special educators. Without fail, others will respond, "You must have a lot of patience." Ask any special educator and he will report that he has heard that response.

It seems when confronted with disability, the general public is often so unfamiliar with persons with disability and their experiences that they respond with the pat answers, the patronizing replies which have been used over and over again. It is good will, but it is patronizing and unreflective of knowledge. But apparently they have heard others use those mindless replies and they appeared to sound heartfelt, kind and maybe even intelligent. So they repeat them as well. And so on and so on. In the end, we have social constructions reflected in the trite language used in response to the unknown of disability.

Now it is obviously better that the mindless responses of the general public should be patronizing good will over something negative, however, oftentimes the pat answers convey negativity which is just below the surface. I use positive speak in public environments about persons with disability, however, in private speak or when challenged to put the positive into practice (drop a group home in the neighborhood, for example) the positive is quickly replaced because the "due diligence" has not been done to actually support the positive.

So when confronted with trite, good speech about persons with disability, ask the questions that will cause the speaker to either back up the speech with actions, or at least go a bit deeper in his understanding of disability.



irdolphin said...

I have found that many individuals use such language because of what they have been taught since childhood. Fear is a driving force behind many comments. One can not blame the individual. How many times have you heard a parent, responding to a child's natural questions about a person's differences, hush the child and say, "We don't talk of such things." As a sister to a brother who spends much time in a wheelchair I heard this response over and over again. If such questions are hushed then great fear builds in the mystery of the differences.

However, the parents giving this response are also products of such misinformation since childhood. As a teacher, when I discuss the issues the students I teach are dealing with, I explain that anyone may ask me questions and I will not shy away. When I ask the children how many are afraid they can contract what is different about the children in my class, one or two raise their hands. With a simple praise to those that raised their hands and acknowledging how brave they were for answering honestly, more than one third to fifty percent raise their hands in relief of not being judged "bad" for having those feelings.

Once this issue has been discussed, many children are much more open to interacting with students in my class. Fear needs to be addresssed openly in the community as well. Did anyone get to choose their natural color of eyes? Parents? If you have brown eyes and touch someone with blue eyes, will you have blue eyes instead....no. It is the same for those with disabilities. They did not get to choose these issues. It's just a part of who they are. Dealing with the fears is one giant leap towards deepening societies understandings of disability.

e.hunt said...

Your thoughts on this topic are all too familiar, and I really appreciate that you’ve challenged people on this. It seems that “dealing with” this taboo situation of conversing or interacting with those affected by a disability in some way is a topic that no one dares bring up, possibly out of fear of admittance of guilt. I have grown up surrounded by family members with various disabilities, which has become sort of a norm to me. I have also seen over and over again the change in people when someone with a disability approaches them. Awkwardness takes over in a ridiculous attempt to engage in “conversation,” as the patronizing continues. In my gut I have always been frustrated with this all too common reaction, yet have never really voiced my opinion until now. I also have never really heard anyone bring this up…possibly out of fear of admittance of guilt or whatever that may be. Sometimes I think, if only we could have had the opportunity to watch Christ interact with people affected by disability…which is so rare today…but to see Him respond to them with nothing but love…what an lasting example and constant reminder that would be to us, to simply view people as people...despite illness or appearance or whatever it is that makes people uncomfortable.
Concerning the issue of flat out ignorance when it comes to interacting with people with disabilities or, as you mentioned, those who work with the disabled, I’m not quite sure what the answer is to the fact that people have grown up in a society that is fearful of the “uncomfortable,” yet puts up a front of politeness when confronted with it. On my part, all I can do it be the best example I can and try to inform those who are uninformed…while trying not to be rude in my frustration with the adults…with children, especially my own, I will teach them to be compassionate about people and view everyone as simply that…people.

e.hunt said...
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