What we think we see

What do you think you see?

Recently, I’ve run across a couple of different articles about people with disabilities and our assumptions about them. These issues feel personal to me because I was born with a limb deficiency–technically a disability.  I am no stranger to assumptions based on what people think they see.

The first link was being tweeted around some by some parenting folks I follow.  A mom of a child with cerebral palsy writes “This is what a child with a disability looks like, right? Wrong.”  You see, her son doesn’t Look Disabled.   That seems like a good thing until you find yourself having to convince people that your child has a disability.  Over and over again.  I should be glad that I have the opposite problem.  When people see me, they think they see a disabled person, and they make the usual assumptions about what I can and can’t do.  I have the task of pleasantly surprising people.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard some version of this: “Oh! You can tie your own shoes! That’s wonderful!”  Their eyebrows mark the exclamation points after every sentence.  It gets old sometimes.  I mean, I’m a grown-ass woman.  You should not be surprised that I can tie my own shoes.  Did you know that I can tie my shoes even without my prosthetic arm?  Now I’ve surprised you!  :)  I understand the surprise.  I really do.  If I weren’t me, I’d probably be surprised too.

The second article was written from a perspective I lived myself: Pregnancy With a Disability.  The woman, a psychologist, writes of situations that were familiar to me (people asking if the disability is genetic) and some that I hadn’t encountered (being labelled as a high risk pregnancy without a good reason).  Particularly interesting to me was her brief mention of learning to breastfeed with one arm. In all the reading and preparing I’d done while pregnant, it had never occurred to me that being down one limb might affect nursing.  And really, my biggest challenge in learning to breastfeed with a limb deficiency was in getting the nurses in the hospital to believe that I could and to help me try.  Once I got past that obstacle, it was about as smooth sailing as learning to breastfeed ever is.

These two articles get at why I talk, blog, and publish about being different.  I understand the assumptions.  I’m not asking that they not occur to people initially. I just don’t want people to be so hard to convince when I tell you I can do something.  I don’t want people to be quite so surprised.  I want to change what you think you see, so that next time you run in to someone who looks like me, you’ll be just a bit more open to what’s really there.

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7 thoughts on “What we think we see

  1. Excellent, Mindy. Your words “I want to change what you think you see, so that next time you run in to someone who looks like me, you’ll be just a bit more open to what’s really there.” Those words need to be spread far and wide.

    I have a minor disability, but it’s a hidden one. I am profoundly deaf in one ear. I can’t imagine what it would be like to hear in stereo, but I think it would be awfully confusing! Over the years, I’m sure many people have thought I was rude or stuck up, when the truth is I simply didn’t hear them, or didn’t realize they were speaking to me. I used to say to people at work, please don’t start asking me a question until you’re sure you have my attention, and I’m looking directly at you. So I don’t respond in the way people expect me to, because they don’t see my disability.

    I can learn so much from you about how to be with others, and how not to be as well. The astonishment at coping with everyday tasks is really demeaning, now that I think about it. Thank you for heightening my perception. (And sorry I’ve gone on at such length!)

  2. I worked at a daycare a long time ago (when James and I were dating). One of the little girls in my room had only one hand. Her other arm ended at the wrist, which she called her “stubby”. It did not inhibit her whatsoever and she could do everything the other kids in the class could do. She never needed any extra help or accommodations from us. I always thought the way she worked around not having two hands was so creative and interesting. It always surprised people who didn’t notice at first. I remember when she potty trained I thought she would need some help pulling up her pants, but she just jumped off the toilet and pulled them right up faster than a lot of the other kids would. I would try to the help the kids along sometimes if we needed to hurry and I remember how she always hated that. We could not help her at all, she wanted to do everything herself. Which is typical toddler behavior, but with her it was a lot more intense a reaction. They didn’t get her a prosthetic because they wanted her to learn to do things without it and at that point she didn’t seem to need one. Anyway, that experience taught me not to make assumptions about what people could do, and not to try to help them unless they asked for it ;-)

    • I have long believed that my lack of an arm has contributed to my creative problem solving ability. But I also have a strong dislike for asking for help. It’s good and bad, I guess. :)

  3. Andrews’ article states: “many women with disabilities receive cesarean sections simply because of anxiety on the provider’s part.”
    …I think she could have left “with disabilities” out and the statement would be just as true.

    On another note: have you ever seen the film “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946 Best Picture winner)? The character Homer Parrish offers his fellow vets cigarettes, and they decline his offer as they seem to think someone with no hands shouldn’t be bothered to pull out cigarettes and light them, but then Harold amazes them by pulling out a smoke for himself and lighting it with no help. He doesn’t appear to have any issues with his disability until he returns home and notices his father is self-conscious using his hands around his amputated son. Homer also worries that his fiance’ doesn’t know when to and when not to assist him.
    Anyway, if you haven’t seen the film, I’ve wrecked it for you now.

  4. Pingback: 2012 in Review « Proper Noun Blog

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