Friday, 21 February 2014

Mindsets on Disability

I had some great comments on my Special Needs in Strange Worlds reading list post, with more books to add to the list.  I also had someone question why I added A Spell for Chameleon to the list, when the character isn't, in point of fact, differently abled.  The book is in a category called 'problems with magic' and there are two books (one of which is Spell) where the protagonist doesn't have magic in a world where having magic is the norm.  You eventually discover that Bink, from Spell, doesn't really fit the category, but that doesn't stop him from being treated differently because people perceive that he's without magic.

Which got me thinking.  To what extent does perception create disability.  Could it be considered a disability to be the one poor kid in a school of rich kids?  Disadvantaged is probably the correct word, since the kid would be able to do everything the other kids could - potentially.  But it's that potentiality that got me questioning.  What if the other kids went horseback riding as a sport (something that was offered - at an extra cost - at my highschool).  Would that lack 'dis' able you?  Could you be perceived as being less because you couldn't do it?

So much of disability is considered so because it calculates what someone can't do - when compared with someone who's "normal".

In discussing this with my husband he said (and then wrote and edited) the following:

When a society has a clearly defined norm then it’s easy for members of that society to perceive any difference from that norm as a reflection of an individual’s ability when, in actuality, the perceived difference may have no correlation with ability at all.
For example, when explorers from western Europe crossed the ocean and met with indigenous people in the americas, they perceived them as less intelligent, and hence less able, due to their different style of living and beliefs.  Yet these same people had learned to tame the land on which they lived, and created thriving societies with complex social structures that had stood the test of time.  Looking back now it is clear to us that peoples, such as the Mayans and the Aztecs, had no lack of ability.  There is plenty of evidence that they had a firm grasp of architecture and mathematics.  Instead they had simply followed a different path and developed a different way of life from the Europeans.
Just as we now know that people from around the world are equally capable of intellectual thought, despite dramatic differences in lifestyle, one should not be so quick to judge the abilities of another based upon a perceived disability.  One person may not be able to walk like others, yet that doesn’t mean they are incapable of getting around.  Humans have an incredible ability to adapt to the circumstances they find themselves in.  Don’t be so quick to discount someone simply because they’ve had to adapt given a different set of capabilities than you.  You may be surprised when you discover that they have other capabilities which exceed yours.

What he said reminded me of a series of videos on youtube by Tommy Edison, a man who's been blind from birth.  He answers questions about what it's like to be blind.  Here's one on some of the perks of blindness, one on colours and one on dreaming.

I've also seen several great Ted Talks on the topic, by some exceptional people who have, what some would call, disabilities.

I tried to embed the videos but it didn't work for some reason, so I'm adding the links instead.  The first video is by Maysoon Zayid.  Her talk is entitled I got 99 Problems... Palsy is just One.

I strongly urge you to watch the entire video, but if you can't here are two of my favourite quotes.

"Disability is as visual as race.  If a wheelchair user can’t play Beyonce, than Beyonce can’t play a wheelchair user.  People with disabilities are the larges minorities in the world and we are the most under represented in entertainment." (11:34 - 11:58)

"I hope that together we can create more positive images of disability in the media and in every day life.  Perhaps if there were more positive images, it would foster less hate on the internet." (12:08 - 12:21) 

The second video is by Sue Austin, on Deep Sea Diving... in a Wheelchair.

In talking about how people's reactions to her changed once she started using a wheelchair she says:

“They seemed to see me in terms of their assumptions of what it must be like to be in a wheelchair.  When I asked people about their associations with the wheelchair, they used words like: limitation, fear, pity and restriction.  I realized I’d internalized these responses and it changed who I was on a core level." (1:02 - 1:35)

She explains that for her, a wheelchair represented mobility and the ability to do things she was otherwise incapable of.  And she wondered why the perception of a wheelchair was the opposite of the reality, and so started using her chair to create artwork, to help people see things differently.

My final example is a talk by Aimee Mullins on My 12 Pairs of Legs.

"From my experience kids are naturally curious about what they don’t know or don’t understand, or is foreign to them.  They only learn to be frightened by those differences when an adult influences them to behave that way, and maybe censors that natural curiosity or reigns in the question asking for them, in the hopes of them being polite little kids." (0:26 - 0:46)

She gives an example of asking a group of kids what legs they would design for her to be able to jump over a building and one asked if she wouldn't like to fly as well, "And just like that I went from being a woman that these kids would have been trained to see as disabled to somebody who had potential that their bodies didn’t have yet." (2:05- 2:13)

Now, these three Ted examples are all exceptional, but I hope I made my point, that so called 'normal' people put restrictions on those considered 'disabled' with preconceived notions of what they can and cannot do.

I don't want to say that some people are incapable of things.  We all are.  I can't paint with my toes, like this remarkable woman - or rather, I could, perhaps.  I've never tried.  Because I don't need to.  People learn new ways of doing things if the 'normal' way doesn't work for them.

And, of course, there's a huge difference between the experiences of these people and what happens when someone is subject to crippling pain, like Cat Valente's current, unfortunate experience with carpal tunnel syndrome.  Her post about her experience is both heartbreaking and enlightening, if you've never experienced something similar.

(Dis)ability is varied and complex.  And it should be just as varied and complex in our entertainment, including our books.  It's why I think Sarah Chorn's Special Needs in Strange Worlds column, first on her own website, Bookworm Blues, and now on SF Signal, is so important.

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