Many people with cognitive disabilities and differences get caught in this position. They identify themselves as having a disability and speak about how it affects their lives, only to have the people they are speaking to dismiss what they say. They will say things like, “This person has this label and he/she/ze can’t do A,B, and C and you can. Therefore, your problems aren’t so bad and you’re not really disabled.” The person’s opinion doesn’t count in these people’s eyes. On the same end, these people will speak about the their opinions about the disability. The person with the disability will bring up points they disagree with or they find inaccurate. The response to that is often: “Your disability precludes you from really understanding what we are trying to say or do.” or “We’re not talking about you, we’re talking about those people.”
Wrong. You are talking about that person.
There are many points I need to address about these scenarios. I’ll first start with the idea that a person is not really disabled if they are able to do A,B, and C. It assumes that all people diagnosed with a certain disability have the same strengths and weaknesses. They do not seem to recognize the individuality of people who are diagnosed with a disability. A common phrase in the autism world is “Once you’ve met one person on the spectrum, you’ve met one person on the spectrum.” People abilities and disabilities are going to be different, regardless of what label they are given. The whole premise is false. I also need to address how the person saying that the person they are talking to can do A,B, and C, when they do not really know if that is the case. In speaking with my advisor at my undergraduate college, I brought up how autism researchers don’t always listen to autistic individuals. She responded by saying that these people are working with people who bite themselves and not really the people who are speaking out. Part of me wanted to say “I bite myself” back, but, I wasn’t willing to be open about my more personal issues, for a multitude of reasons. I’ll say this now: there are times where I do bite myself. It helps me to relieve anxiety. I have never broken the skin, though. I admit to having things easier than most other people who share my label. However, the fact that I do have it easier than other people does nothing to diminish the issues I do face. The facts that I graduated with honors from one of the best colleges in the United States doesn’t inherently make me remember to always make eye contact. You can’t just dismiss me as not being disabled or different enough when I make my opinion heard and then turn around and say I am too disabled or different to question some of your motives. This happens too often to too many people, and it needs to stop.
People need to be aware that high educational achievement and cognitive disability or difference are not entirely mutually exclusive. Temple Grandin is autistic and has a PhD. Einstein was believed to be autistic. John Nash, one of the greatest mathematical minds of our time, has paranoid schizophrenia. People shouldn’t assume that a person’s ability to do one thing easily does not necessarily mean they can do another thing, or that they don’t have certain issues of their own. I say, let’s get rid of the disability catch-22 and start having real conversations about disability.
“If you won’t listen to reason, there’s always…Towanda.”