Through my work at Disability Rights Iowa, I’ve had the opportunity to meet hundreds of my disabled peers. I have meet inspiring, courageous young people with disabilities and I’ve met outright jerks. I’ve heard people with disabilities speak passionately and lovingly about their challenges, and I’ve heard people with disabilities speak from a place of hatred or even prejudice. Unfortunately, the public at large is all too eager to ignore our flaws and allow these missteps to go unchallenged, more comfortable in the assumption that we can do no wrong. Parents allow their children with disabilities to mistreat them, writing off their behavior as an inevitable consequence of their individual needs. Pastors have made similar mistakes, seeing the joy of a disabled child as somehow a miracle, as if a child enjoying life should be impossible inside a disabled body. This toxic mix of reduced expectations and the canonization of the disabled experience is profoundly harmful.
Just as people with disabilities have the right to self-determination, dignity and safety, we also have the right to be seen as fully realized human beings. To be recognized as a full person means facing the consequences of our behavior, or being rightfully called out. We have the right to learn from our mistakes, and that requires peers willing to push back and challenge our flaws. A right to our own measure of imperfection. Anything less is a trap, and just another expression of the dehumanization of people with disabilities.
We must be held to the same social standards as our non-disabled peers, and to be given the feedback all people need to better themselves. Much of what people with disabilities do is admirable and worthy of praise. But when we are perceived as somehow pure, or immune from the flaws all people share, we become irrevocably severed from a key part of the human experience. People with disabilities are pushed into tired, inaccurate clichés, painted as cherub-like pictures of self-sacrifice, perfect pillow angels whose flaws are few and virtues endless.
In eighth grade, I suffered a great deal. I was bullied constantly, in chronic pain, and living with the same social isolation so many young people with disabilities face. My peers kept me at a distance and rarely took the time to get to know me. But one girl in science class was different. Her name was Ashley and we were science partners for the better part of a year. Forced to work together, she really took the time to talk with me, get to know me, and shed the presumptions that my disability carries with it. She saw me as a full, complex person and what she saw, she hated. Ashley made an effort, saw me for me, my talkative, bubbly, smug teenage front on full display and thought I was insufferable. I can never thank her enough for it. It was only after I was seen, and my self-centered perspective really critiqued that I was able to start looking past my own suffering and see how my actions affected those around me.
People with disabilities are not innately warm or joyful, wise, kind or even friendly. We can be petulant little brats, or selfish and cruel. Our experiences can numb us to the suffering of others and stunt our growth as people. We can be intolerable martyrs or manipulative opportunists. Examples are common enough. A dwarf making an unwelcome crude joke, trusting it will be tolerated because of his size. A blind man using his disability and perceptions about his limitations to justify copping a feel, abuse disguised as accommodation. We play the fool, taking advantage of our culture’s reduced expectations, to be the loud mouth at the bar, free to harass knowing no matter what happens we can’t be physically confronted. We can be instigators and we can be the bullies.
Not all assumptions or caricatures of people with disabilities are on their face negative. We face reduced expectations or outright hatred and discrimination, but we also stomach the cloyingly sweet presumptions about our own inherent benign existence. Cast as we are as an inspiration, or an angel, or an adorable sexless cupid, it is all too easy to begin to disbelieve in our own capacity to do harm. We are taught too often to live selfishly, to seek our comfort above the needs of others, or abandon our social responsibilities. Disability becomes in itself a virtue, and simply enduring the experience is seen as an accomplishment, where even subjecting us to justified ridicule is treated as taboo. The impact of our immunity can be seen in spaces made up primarily of the disabled or neuro-divergent. In spaces created to welcome and organize the autistic community, autistic women frequently experience constant pressure from their male peers. Enduring either incessant flirtation to outright harassment. Women and non-binary young adults looking for community find an aggressive, unwelcoming dating service. To complicate matters, the line between disability and personal failing is rarely distinct.
Disabilities can create barriers that present at first glance as moral flaws. A well-organized person can be made absent-minded by medication, an active adult made to appear a couch potato by the limitations of their chronic fatigue. It is an important part of inclusivity to acknowledge these experiences. But the inverse can be true as well. People with mental illness can still be abusers, and people with depression can be cruel. Those with developmental disabilities can cause discomfort by unintentionally missing a social cue, but sometimes it is due to misogyny, or by discounting of the feelings of others. Every person with a disability has used it to excuse their mistakes, guilt-trip their peers or cashed in the world’s greatest rain check. Sometimes we use it as a cudgel simply to get our way. Sometimes despite all appearances to the contrary, we are doing our very best. As a naturally lazy person, even I can’t always tell where the significant limitations of my disability end and my own personal flaws begin. Life must allow for these complexities, these muddled lines. It has to be possible to see a person within a broader context, and still expect better of them.
Criticism is not always a negative, nor is protecting the disabled from that criticism to our benefit. It can serve a valuable purpose, ridicule not of a person’s identity but of their actions and choices. Criticism is an opportunity to do better, if we miss out on being criticized, how can we improve? Part of human dignity is not just affirmation, but the dignity that comes with being held to account. The dignity to be called a jerk for acting like one, reminded as necessary of the un-kept promise of the person we were meant to be. People with disabilities must do a better job of calling out our peers behaviors in a loving and empathetic way, and the able-bodied community must have the courage to take a step back from their own assumptions, and give all people the same opportunity to change for the better.