Disability advocate Dave Hingsburger wrote a great post the other day on the assumptions that people make when you’re disabled (which I’ve blogged about before). He talked about how, when he was watching a St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Toronto, sitting on the sidewalk in his wheelchair, the people on the floats singled him out to waved at the same way they did the kids on the sidewalk. Now, of course, correlation does not imply causality, but Dave Hingsburger has worked with disabled people in communities a long time (as have I) and I agree with his assessment of what went on: the people on his floats made an assumption that his physical disability also meant the presence of an intellectual disability, and started treating him like a child based on that assumption. I’ve seen it happen it before.
Hell, I’ve had it happen to me. At a conference of service providers for intellectually disabled people, actually.
Assumptions: Story Time
I attended the conference just a couple of years after my stroke. It was an honour to be asked to go. After a busy day of workshops, I was very tired and looking forward to relaxing in my room in sweat pants and a tee shirt for the evening.
Before I got settled in, I went to the vending machines to get a Diet Coke, and then I realized something frightening: while I had a room key, I couldn’t remember my room number (my short-term memory was never great to begin with, and the stroke really did a number on it for the first couple of years). I knew approximately what area of the floor I was on. Feeling very foolish, I started knocking on doors, looking for the woman with whom I was rooming to answer the door.
I only had to knock on two doors before I found my room. But the combination of the cane, the sweat pants, and the story about not remembering where my room was definitely (I believe) had one woman making the assumption that I was a “client”, perhaps one of the self-advocates there for the conference, as opposed to staff, because her tone changed dramatically after I explained why I was knocking on her door. She started to talk to me like I was a child.
Not that there’s anything wrong with being mistaken for a person that I support. But I found myself thinking, once I realized what was (likely) going on, “Do we really talk to them like that? Do *I* talk to them like that? How insulting.”
Treating Intellectually Disabled Adults Like Children
I think that there are two issues that need awareness here:
- There is a tendency (and I’ve observed this happening to other physically disabled people as well) to assume that if a person is physically disabled, they’re also intellectually disabled. While there’s nothing implicitly wrong with being mistaken for an intellectually disabled person, this tends to get annoying because….
- People tend to treat intellectually people like they’re children. They speak to them like they’re toddlers, they talk “around” them instead of to them, and tend to ask to ask others questions about them (“What would he like to eat?”)
The second tendency is dangerous because it reflects a belief about intellectually disabled people that’s potentially very dangerous. If someone talks about an adult like they’re a child, it’s because there’s something in them that believes that the adult in question is a child – and, depending on the relationship between the two people and what sorts of life circumstances are at play, that creates a power differential in which all sorts of abuse can thrive, even if it’s unintentional.
But, Even More Fundamentally
We shouldn’t be treating adults – any adults – like they’re children.
Disabled adults have adult rights and adult responsibilities – they deserve the courtesy of being spoken to and treated like adults – whether they’re physically disabled, intellectually disabled, or both, or whether you’re just not sure.
There’s no need to make any assumptions, really. The truth that all people deserve respect isn’t an assumption.
Dave’s post: http://www.davehingsburger.blogspot.co.uk/