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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