My Son’s Swim Coach’s Second Cousin’s Wife has a Student With Cerebral Palsy: The Disability Anecdote

The disability anecdote is something that I’m sure most if not all disabled people have faced.

At its most basic it can simply be someone, having discovered they are in the presence of a disabled person who feels compelled to create some bizarre sense of false common ground.

The scenario generally involves a nondisabled person finding out that you have a particular disability.Perhaps as a result of casual conversation but more likely because they have asked an invasive question. One that has very likely been phrased some thing like this,

“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be rude but what wrong with you/your [insert visible characteristic of disability]”

If the disabled person is cooperative or just doesn’t want to deal with the backlash of refusing to answer and actually obliges the questioner with their diagnosis it is not uncommon for the nondisabled person to then respond with.

“Oh my [insert vague and often several degrees separate aquaintance] with that/some other disability that they perceive to be similar but probably isn’t”

They then look at you expectantly and I for one still have no idea what to do with these interactions. Do people really expect to be congratulated for being able to come up with a single example of another disabled person that they or just as frequently someone they know has encountered at some point?

Are they trying to tell me that I am not alone?

Are they trying to tell me that they are not completely ignorant of disabled people?

If the latter, they are failing just through their approach. Yet, nondisabled people seem to love to share these anecdotes which prove nothing more than how invisible disabled people are to them. Seriously, considering the percentage of the population that is disabled (generally measured around 20%) these anecdotes really just show how far we have to go in terms of visibility and public access.

These instances are troubling but they are also a more benign (on a very malignant spectrum) version of the disability anecdote.

These anecdotes also come up in opposition to disability rights activism. They most often come from nondisabled people but are also offered by disabled people whose disabilities may differ from that of the people doing the advocacy. These anecdotes generally go like this,

Disabled person: “This action/image/policy is particularly harmful to people with X” (often followed by a list of reasons and evidence of that harm)

Nondisabled person/person with different disability: Well I know someone with X and they are perfectly fine with it”

These interactions are infuriating because they are entirely premised on the idea that the opinions of disabled people can be trumped by the mere mention of a possible counter opinion by a different disabled person. This false idea also appears in conflicts that occur between disabled people–“well I’m also disabled and I don’t agree with you so…”–but in those cases, they can be challenged or the detractor can be asked to justify or explain their position. When the hypothetical disabled person (and yes I often doubt they actually exist) is just an anecdote, the argument hinges entirely on the fact that there exists an alternate viewpoint not on whether that viewpoint has merit or can withstand questioning or scrutiny.

The implied rightness of this hypothetical opinion tends to be based entirely on the fact that it continues to allow the maintenance of the status quo. A disabled community asks for change and someone pops up to say that no change is necessary because “they know someone with that disability”.

An absent disabled person whose opinion cannot be challenged or even confirmed and yet is expected to be not only believed and respected but adopted.

It is particularly frustrating when these anecdotes come from parents who use their disabled children as weapons with which to beat disabled adults.

In these cases, I always wonder

Does the child actually think this?

Is the child old enough to think critically about this issue?

Regardless of age, where and from whom is the child learning about disability as a lived experience?

Does the child have access to alternate opinions or is it safe to assume that they may be parroting opinions on disability that they have been presented by their parents and broader social group?

Does that social group include people with disabilities?

I have these questions because as a disabled adult my understanding of disability has changed drastically from what I thought as a child. I fully acknowledge that many of the views I held back then were toxic and built on internalized ableism. I simply did not have the critical thinking skills to do anything but accept the worldview I was offered by the almost exclusively nondisabled people around me.

And yet, disabled children are effective weapons against disabled adults because it is not acceptable to publicly question them. You cannot reasonably ask parents who claim to speak on behalf of their children to produce them for confirmation and clarification.

Even when the anecdotal disabled person is an adult it’s considered inappropriate to question the validity of their argument too closely. This is a direct result of the paternalistic ideas around disability that society holds. You are not supposed to overtly and publicly challenge disabled people even if you yourself are disabled. It is often perceived as an unreasonable attack.

So anecdotal disabled people continue to be an effective weapon against calls for systemic change. They may not be effective at changing the minds of the disabled activists their hypothetical views are used to oppose but they are popular with those who do not want to change. Those people can be comforted that they need take no action. That they need not interrogate the way they think about disability.

I see these anecdotes in all their shades so frequently that I also wonder, how often am I being used as precisely that anecdote (because odds are that I am) and by whom? What views are being attributed to me when I’m just someone’s neighbour’s second cousin’s wife’s former swim student with cerebral palsy/autism?


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5 responses to “My Son’s Swim Coach’s Second Cousin’s Wife has a Student With Cerebral Palsy: The Disability Anecdote

  1. You have a typo “An absent disabled person whose opinion cannot be challenged or even confirmed and yet is expected to be not on believed and respected but adopted.

    I’ve lived through what this post says, and I get it all the time. As I am Deaf, people even go further and show off all the sign language they know to me, which consists of fingerspelling their name for the most part or laboriously signing one phrase they learned. I don’t know what they want from me. I usually feel like patting them on the head and offering a treat, as awful as that sounds. It’s worse than going up to someone who is from France and saying your one sentence you know in French. It’s like these people feel proud that they can communicate with me, which, well, they can’t. Some have actually said that to me, that the conversation is now easier because they spelled their name. Others have said they are doing me a favor/helping me, when 1. they aren’t and 2. I never asked for any help (like writing things on paper) before they do this.

    If they asked if they could do it, and say, can you tell me if this is right or is clear or heck, even “Can I show you the bit of sign that I know?” I’d be fine with it. One staff member at one of my doctor’s just knows fingerspelling and numbers, but he uses it well. He can tell me the date and time of my next appointment and it’s great to not have to ask it to be written down and it’s just a little less stress in my day. Another staff member elsewhere just did the name thing, and I explained to her that it’s not appropriate to do to deaf patients when they come in for their appointments.

    None of this applies to children, I always praise and encourage them because it may make them decide to learn more.


  2. People frequently tell me that someone they know has autism. They might as well tell me that they know someone with brown hair for all the good it does me. What’s really infuriating is when they tell me they know people on the autism spectrum that don’t act like I do so therefore I must be using my disability as an excuse.


  3. depends on type of disability though. i’ve had people tell me about the blind person they knew at university, but if identifying as autistic instead, then either the dismissal of identity or commenting how im nothing like a white male upperclass child under 10y they know. 🙄 (what a surprise)
    maybe if the person coming with the how they know someone seems friendly they might just want to try to smalltalk or talk? “cute wheels/cane” would feel pretty awkward as a starter and depending on the person trying to strt the chat a lot of usual weird topics might feel awkward too. (yes people, you can talk about weather with anyone, dont need to see it to know it)


  4. Anecdotes do not a study make. Even if the disabled person exists, they may not think that (just as you said), they may have access to resources not available to other disabled people in the same situation, they may not (and most likely do not) have the exact same disability that’s being referenced and/or it may not be as severe.

    I detest anecdotes when used in this fashion, because all you’re doing is silencing the person in front of you, and I’m also guilty of internalized ablelism. I have depression, anxiety, and more than likely other mental health issues. I’m able to work a 40 hour a week job that pays me fairly well and isn’t stressful in and of itself. Before I became more woke (I suppose I’ll say), I used to deride others with what I perceived were similar issues about not being able to do so. This frankly is bullshit. Resources need to be available for those who aren’t able to manage in a society that is unmanageable to many (in fact such a thing would make society much more manageable), and the availability of these resources shouldn’t be contingent on those who are best able to navigate through it.


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