Cultural Violence and People with Disabilities

by Kari Pope

When I think about the George Hodgins case, the first thing that springs to mind is something I discovered in peace and conflict studies as, “cultural violence.” Why? Well, as I am someone who supposedly inhabits “the top of the disability food chain,” with few overt accessibility needs and few obvious signs of the physical disability I do have, there seem to be significant parts of a collective disability experience that I don’t share, such as the level of physical assistance with activities of daily living that would necessitate continued, regular, intimate contact with a caregiver or personal attendant. Therefore, I feel the most I can say about the story of George Hodgins is that what happened to him only serves to reinforce, to devastating effect, the culture of violence that confronts people with disabilities on a daily basis and that has wreaked havoc on my mind ever since I learned that a term for it existed.

How, you might ask, can such a thing exist? After all, as Clint Eastwood infamously put it, “Nobody doesn’t want to help the handicapped.” But can that really be true when one considers that modern structures were purpose-built to exclude us? That accessibility measures, when added on at all, were added as an afterthought, in accordance with a law that is considered by many in the disability community, even 20 years on, to be “better than nothing” and by many outside it as too costly to implement?  That too many people, their potential either ignored or disregarded by the rest of society, remain trapped in poverty by a system in which the loss of benefits is a constant threat?

But I won’t try to tackle all the issues in a single post. In fact my intention in posting was to reflect on how the culture of violence I perceive pervades my own disability experience. Whilst reflecting I happened upon an article discussing  the importance and impact of “The Black Male Code” in the aftermath of the murder of Trayvon Martin. In it, the author details, among other things, the lengths to which a Black man must go, even today, so as not to appear threatening or dangerous in public.

That got me thinking. I mean, I’m white. I’m a woman. I’m disabled. And I’m in public all the time; I take public transportation everywhere I go. It dawned on me that I’ve seen, even before I knew what I was looking at, the Black Male Code in action: guys going to unnecessary, yet painful, even sometimes ridiculous lengths to make me feel it ease. Remembered compliments, smiles, even nods took on new meaning as I started to wonder, “What code governs my own interactions with disabled and non-disabled folks alike?” Experience and history have taught me that few things are as threatening to a person’s sense of self as disability. I asked myself, “How often have I stayed seated when I could have stood, paid the full fare on the train or bus, or worn trousers or long skirts instead of shorts or mini’s, all in the name of preserving one’s perceptions–and, I admit, my own feelings–of so-called ‘normalcy’? By the same token, how often have I ‘gimped it up,’ in order to assure my fellow cripples that, yes, I am one of you?”

The answer is, all the time. And every time, I have felt like I was a threat to, and like I was threatened by, each group.

For example, I’ve noticed that folks have a tendency to think it’s perfectly okay to ask personal questions. They don’t seem to understand–probably because they feel threatened–that when you ask about a person’s disability, you are asking about their body. End of story. Inquiring point-blank about my ability to stand for long periods of time is not a way to greet me. Asking the name of my “condition” is not the way to find out my name. Translation: If you want to greet me, just say hello. If you want to learn my name, try telling me yours. We’ll both feel a whole lot less threatened, I’m sure.

Being what is sometimes called a “walkie-talkie” among people with CP, I’ve learned that I’m threatening to other people with disabilities, and their families, for almost the opposite reason. Instead of being a threat through being different, I am a threat for being not different–and therefore not disabled–enough. And I get threatened, as I was during a Cerebral Palsy Family Forum at UCLA several years ago, because of that lack of difference, that lack, ironic though it may seem, of disability. Apparently I was too much for one mother, whom I encountered along with her son at this event in 2006. After watching me approach an information booth where they, too, were waiting, she turned to me after I had greeted her son and said, “Oh, you have cerebral palsy, too–barely.” Nothing more.

I wanted to answer, “Hey, look, lady; I didn’t get to choose. Most days, if it were up to me, I’d rather roll around like your son there with his tray full of Spider-man stickers. Which, by the way, in case you hadn’t noticed, I complimented him on. I hope that at some point you’ll teach him to appreciate that, because so far all I’m getting is that you’re teaching him to hate me for being ‘less disabled’ than he is.”

But I didn’t. Because as my own mom always says, “You can’t expect people to get it. You can’t expect people to know and understand.” Such discouragement from the home front I experience also as violence. It’s the constant threat of no protection, no empathy, no opportunity to express myself or to be heard from the tenuous place I occupy in public, on the “disability food chain,” and everywhere.

And so I find myself, until now, locked into a code of silence. Alone with the threats I face every day, I see them as the seeds of a culture of violence that, if left to grow unabated, will ensure that the murder and abuse of people with disabilities, both like and unlike George Hodgins, will continue. And if we, in turn, continue stratifying our disability experiences rather than pooling them for the greater hope and wisdom of a community that strives to not only recognize but also create a shared disability experience, the infighting that keeps us at each other’s proverbial throats will destroy us from within, while hatred, abuse, and death continue to wrack us from without.

9 thoughts on “Cultural Violence and People with Disabilities

  1. I feel hopeful that as you keep speaking and writing the truth, some people will “get it,” more people will “know and understand.”

  2. I was born with severely clubbed feet and scoliosis. It was during a time in history with few options for black babies. God in His sovereignty healed me so I didn’t have to wear the leg braces and corrective shoes all of my life. Now that I have added years I wear a brace for extra support. I have to constantly be on guard for comments from both sides.

  3. If you are an adult who happens to have a disability, approach parents of others who have disabilities with extreme caution. Some are fine, but others will strike with a venom that’s lethal to you self esteem. Unlike members of the general poplution who, at times, apologize for hurts they inflict or seem to actually learn from an interaction about disability, parents who do strike are likely to respond to any expression of disagreement you might utter with the retort, “I’ve never seen a person with a disability act like this.” At that point, say not another word. Put it out of your mind. Focus your disability related efforts on people who might, possibly someday listen to you. These people won’t.
    The reasons for their attitudes still puzzle me. Do they feel threatened by someone who has a disability but who is more independent then their children? If so, then why don’t they also resent anyone who can do more – disability or not? Are they threatened by someone who doesn’t fit their image of someone with a disability? If so, why is that image so sacred?
    Obviously, I’m not taking my own advice to put it out of mind – I’m just too far down the hole after dealing with these people.

    • Thanks, Leah. The questions you raise are worth a post of their own–indeed, are some of the very same ones I am considering, perhaps from a slightly different angle, for my next post. So please keep reading and keep sharing!

    • Leah,
      I feel the same general attitude is pervasive among people working as personal care assistants. The system is rife with abuses with individuals who feel it is their right to tell us how to be and act, and direct *us* instead of accepting us as their employers. It’s very frustrating. – Erin

    • I know about this all to well. From parents openly encouraging their kids to bully or intimidate me for having sound sensitivity that means I can’t tolerate the sounds kids make, to parents acting out of their mind when I mention it with their child’s well being in mind.

      I stopped after a parent literally acted like by suggesting their child might feel more comfortable away from me, like I held a gun to his head asking why should he live. Manically going on about how he was a good boy, he deserves to sit there! It was disturbing, I had the consideration her child might be upset if I have a startle reaction to a sudden noise, and she acted like the gestapo was looking to see which children were expendable. I realized then that many of these parents seem to get away with behaving in mentally disordered ways.

      Imagine this, I spend my life being told to control my disability, yet a parent responsible for a child, another life is understood when histrionically crying out, “MY BOY WAS A GOOD BOY TODAY! HE DESERVES THIS SEAT! HE GOT GOOD GRADES! HE GOT…GOOD…GRADES. *collapses to the ground arms outstretched to show everyone she and her child had been made martyrs.” That last part didn’t happen, but it might as well have. In fact seems so many parents have a martyr fetish these days, wanting everyone to see them as sacrificing on behalf of their child, like they were condemned to parenthood. Someone like me comes a long unable to control their reaction, and the parent spins into a meltdown as if they were directly challenged to prove their martyr status.

      Parents who have children with disabilities are worse, they have no morals when it comes to emotionally manipulating other disabled children and their parents into being their poor friendless child’s friend. All so they can live the fantasy of having a normal child, while EMOTIONALLY ABUSING another person’s disabled child. You can’t say no, not without them working up a performance and wailing to everyone, “THIS PERSON REJECTED MY DISABLED CCCHHHIIIILLLDDD!” People with invisible disabilities tend to be recruited as babysitters for people more disabled than them. Which wouldn’t you know it, creates a deep resentment towards disabled children and their parents. No it’s not Aspie superiority, it’s establishing boundaries when parents of severely disabled children refuse to. I shouldn’t have been used and abused by parents of disabled children, to spend time with people I had virtually nothing in common with, to a point of feeling suicidal to get away from spending my life feeling obligated to them.

      These parents of disabled kids, only their child suffers. I nearly was punched by a man with a disability. I said well why isn’t he kept in a harness, “That’s so mmmeeaann! What about his disability! It’s not ffffaaaiirrr!” were the responses I got. Perhaps these people missed the part where this man nearly physically assaulted me! Or you know, the idea that disability means you can physically assault people yet still be a victim. I was too kind to use this lid on a serving platform with spikes to defend myself. It was at a special needs dance at a restaurant where the parents of disabled kids LIED to me saying I’d meet a guy there. I regret not having defended myself, and I could’ve I’ve seen plenty of action films. Why didn’t I, because I knew it’d become “UUUUWWWAAHHHH! MY BABY COULDN’T HELP IT, WHY DID YOU HURT MY BBBAAAYYYYBBYYYY!”

      My conclusion, I think for whatever bizarre reason our society has allowed parents to behave in all kinds of mentally disordered ways because having a child is hard. Having a special needs child is harder, so unless you’re naked in the streets howling at the moon you’re free from behaving yourself civilly. These are parents who with a sociopathic nature will use and abuse other less disabled children into being their child’s caretaker. Autism support groups are not for people with Autism, they’re recruitment opportunities for parents looking to pawn their child on someone else.

      There are parents who scream for no reason in grocery stores, parents who glare down other people in a way they’d never want someone to do to their child. Parents who practically do a tribal dance of protection when in the presence of a person with a disability. No one wants to say it, but the reality is with all the praise and little consequence parents in society face, a media environment that feeds into the notion every experience a parent faces is like surviving in a war. Many parents have a pass on behaving in ways that would get people without children sent to the mental ward.

      Just remember when you’re dealing with parents today, you’re dealing with people with the mentality of spoiled 2 year olds. That’s how bad it’s become, and if you dare acknowledge it you’re a child hater, or have an irrational fear of parents. People are still able to express disdain towards disabled people, claiming they have meltdowns. I’ve never seen an Autistic child meltdown like a challenged parent. The parents desperately glance around with the look of a broken child, practically jump and clap when seeing another parent will be a witness to their martyring, then like a vengeful child turns around, hands on their hips, as if to sneer “I’ve been believed! You can’t martyr me now!”

      I avoid parents with small children, they can go act pathetic like they walk everywhere with a cross nailed to their back away from me. There just is no one willing to hold them to any rules, any sense of behaving like adults in public. We live in a world where parents change their children’s diapers on restaurant tables, and make “I I’m gonna cwy!” faces if told it’s filthy. Have a child these days, and you can act as emotionally unstable as you want. Drugs and therapy will just have to sort the kids out, after a new parent has their 10 years of freedom to act like an escaped lunatic.

  4. I can relate to your frustration at being treated like you think you’re superior to those more disabled than you. Those parents don’t know how hard it is to fight for the help your child needs, when they appear normal and are assumed to not need help.

    This has become an issue since Disney theme parks switched their disability service from the Guest Access Card to the Disability Access Service card. CMs have been hostile interrogating people who appear to be without disability assuming them to be trying to cheat the system. The reason the change occurred was because non-disabled people were joining a disability tour service by claiming disability so they could get instant access to rides. I’ve been battling with myself over the ethics of being pressured to as you said, “gimp it up” to get the help I need. There are times I envy the understanding visibly disabled people get. I went on a rant at a site for disabled Disney visitors about how unremarkable it was a visibly disabled person was practically showered with fast passes, while people like myself have to fight for getting the help we need.

    This is ignored by parents with visibly disabled children. Speaking out as someone with what was considered Asperger’s Syndrome, in the US anything related to Autism now falls under the title of Autism due to changes in the DSM 5, isn’t about superiority to visibly disabled people or their parents. It’s about being recognized in a world where people still insist only people who look disabled are disabled.

    In regards to Disney World, I realize how really privileged I am to even go there. The problem is the pass regards neurotypical’s concepts of fairness. There have been lawsuits saying, “No really, there are people who can’t wait 10 minutes to go on a ride due to the severity of their disability.” Disney has been fighting them saying they’ve met the acceptable amount of help they can give to those with disabilities. A special ed teacher who posted somewhere I visited on the net said their saying is fairness does not always mean equal. I suggested to Disney using a stoplight system where people who cannot wait get red cards, people who can wait under ten minutes use yellow cards, and people who can wait ten minutes use a green card. That’s not unreasonable, nor is the idea of bring the GAC back and adding photo ID to it and making the rule the person with the disability must be present to use it to avoid scamming. However Disney wants to appease neurotypicals who threw a tantrum over how it’s not fair those disabled people and their families go first. Those people know nothing of what unfairness truly means, and instead of envy they should be grateful not to have a disability that requires that access.

    Sorry for going off on a ramble there, I just wanted to establish what the controversy about the DAS is for those who weren’t aware of it. Basically I’m saying parents with visibly disabled children have little to complain about when it comes to their child having their ability understood. Those of us who appear normal many times do not get the help we need, run the risk of being called liars or worse for “pretending” to be disabled, it’s a neverending frustration. And with the DAS system and the story I responded to which said the DAS was great because they rolled the red carpet out for their visibly disabled daughter, while I have my anxiety triggered to having an anxiety attack from CMs interrogating me to see if I’m disabled. I don’t want to hear anymore complaining about how wonderful us high-functioning disabled people have it.

    Their child might get called the r-word more often, but their child gets help from others. Those of us who appear fine get called the r-word if we show sensory defensiveness, and have to beg and plead for help. Which sounds better to them? Would they rather have had to deal with me who became Goth as a teen and depressed, all while their child’s school said their daughter is doing too well to need help? That’s what my mom went through. Does that sound like fun?

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