01 May 2011

Whose identity is it?

Blogging Against Disablism Day 2011
What if I don't want to be disabled? What if I don't want to be disabled today? or right this minute? What if I don't want to be "special"? What if I don't want to be any more "different" than you are?

I have tried to describe my sense of "disability" - with great debt to Tom Shakespeare - as "Transactional." That is, disability is the place where who I am, physically, mentally, emotionally, attentionally, dexterity-wise, sensorally, conflicts with how the world is constructed (in every sense of that word).

Thus, we are all "disabled" in some situations, but not in others. If I say you have to communicate via trumpet, or classical ballet, I might "disable" many people. If I said you couldn't graduate from secondary school without swimming 100 meters in under 60 seconds, or without sight-reading a Mozart piece, or without building a rocket which would reach 1500 meters, many "honor roll" students would be left without diplomas. But, as we know, our world is not "constructed" in that fashion.

But that is the reality of disability, and the reality is different than how those who are "disabled" become identified.

Whose identity is it?

The first time I participated in Blogging Against Disablism Day I wrote a post title "Retard Theory." The use of that term upset a number of people, and, of course, I understand that - I had used the term to provoke. In part, I used it/use it, in protest against North America's embrace of "People First Language," a form of description I reject in terms of who I am (see Goldfish's brilliant post On the Language of Disability).

The "Welsh Not" was literally hung around the necks of
students who persisted in speaking Welsh in British
19th Century Schools.
And I'm coming back to the topic because "identity" - how one knows oneself and describes oneself to others, should be a personal decision, something owned by the individual, but for those with "disabilities" - like all oppressed groups - identity is typically something hung around our necks by others.

I meet children every day, children of the most "involved" and "well-meaning" parents, who know that every day their parents are "advocating" for them with their schools because "something is wrong with them."

I see children every day described as "special" and "different" by the adults around them because their "transactional needs" take one form, and not others.

Michigan State University sees those with "disabilities" as so foreign
that they are literally forced to carry "Visas" with them.
I see university students forced to carry identity papers with them in order to use basic tools which support their human needs.

I see adult workers forced to prove they are "sick" in order to change their computers so that they'll work better for them. (I see this especially with the State of Michigan, but that's another post...)

All of this is exactly the same as racial profiling, exactly the same as the idea of fixed identification of race, nationality, religion which certain national regimes engage in. Whatever the intent, which stretches from the furthest left (reverse discrimination opportunities/"affirmative action") to the furthest right (separation laws), it is identity forced on people from above.

What if I don't want to be disabled? or what if I want to describe my own disability?

But what if "I," or "you," or any of us wants to control our own identity? What if I want see myself in terms different than the way the constructed community sees me? What if I want to project a different identity to the world at large?

Are we allowed to do that?

For example, I kind of like "retard," because "retard" is a direct description of how schools create disability. You are "retarded" because you are not keeping up - on an arbitrary list of "achievements" - with your age group. So, to me, if that is why kids are labelled, why not embrace the word?

Or, maybe I prefer just using an ethnic, or religious, or political identity, and would rather not be known first for problems I might have with reading, or sitting still for a long time, or walking.

Or maybe I just want to be who I want to be?

Am I allowed? In schools? On transit? At work?

Universal Design

I'm only allowed to choose my identity, to control my identity, to self-identify, if the society constructed around me is universally designed. Only if we all get to make the decision - by preference - about how to read or how to write, about how to get from one level of a building to another, about whether to watch television with captions or descriptive video, about how our computers work, about whether we can use mass transit or not, about access to health services, do I get left with the right to declare who I am, rather than having a label forced on me.

Every choice you eliminate, every "standardized way of doing things" you adopt, in your classroom, at your university, in your community, in your nation, hangs "disability" labels - specific, unchosen labels - around the necks of one group or another.

And this May Day, this Blogging Against Disablism Day, I ask you to stop doing that.

- Ira Socol


Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this post. As a first grader I was diagnosed with a learning disability in Reading and dyslexic. I was also "labeled" gifted in the sixth grade. Throughout school I was labeled and teachers treated me different. I had no control over the labels and could not get rid of them if I had wanted. When I went into college I preferred not to be labeled so I did not have my disabilities documented. I tried to stray away from the labels. I was able to get away from them because mine were not physical and without me telling people you could not see mine.

The part about the word retarded reminded me of a conversation I had just a few days ago about that word and its use. My friend greatly dislikes the word retarded and can not stand when it is used in any form. He has a mentally handicap nephew and can not stand when someone refers to him as retarded.

Thank you so much for sharing! I have really enjoyed following your blog.

Thank you,
Miranda tidikis
EDM310 student

panel çit said...

thanks for sharing

Paul Hamilton said...

Each individual is uniquely gifted, and at the same time faces challenges that require supports of some kind. Some of us may need more support than others, but that does not define who we are. We categorize for the sake of administrative convenience, and we do incalculable harm in the process.