It is a truth universally acknowledged that a nondisabled person in the company of a disabled stranger wants to know “What is wrong with you?”This tweet was shared in response to someone who had just explained not only that they did not want to answer people’s random questions about their disability but also that they found the practice to be emotionally harmful.
I certainly hope the title of this piece has sufficiently set up the absurdity of the idea that expecting disabled people to act as surprise ambassadors to whoever feels the need to ask probing and personal questions.
As an education model, it is simply unsustainable. Even if you had the entirety of the world’s estimated 1.5 billion disabled people in on the scheme. A single disabled person simply cannot explain the entirety of the disabled experience.
It would require the world to engage in a bizarre version of speed dating where individuals cycled through disabled people to get anything but an individual and monolithic view of disability.
The thing is this “natural curiosity” isn’t actually genuine interest. It’s a voyeurism that comes with an inherent power imbalance.
If a person had a genuine interest in learning about disability, it is something that can be done without accosting random disabled people. Not only does Google exist but so do libraries. Either of those venues is infinitely better suited to genuinely learning about disability.
Libraries even have employees whose entire job it is to help you find information tailored to exactly what it is you want to know.
The thing is that most people who throw up wanting to learn as a defence against the suggestion that disabled people are entitled to privacy don’t really want an education.
Because if they did they would have learned the lesson that the disabled person just tried to teach them. No, is an appropriate and entirely valid response to probing questions.
Or the lesson that sometimes these questions aren’t mere inconvenient invasions of privacy but actually cause people emotional harm.
These are lessons. Expressing them is not hostile.
These people don’t want to learn. They want an emotional payoff. Sometimes this can come with as little information as naming a diagnosis.
Seriously, what can really be learned from what amounts to medical jargon?
It’s less an education and more of a way for a person to categorize how they think you are broken.
True learning takes time, engagement and a respect for the subject. None of which is present in unsolicited questions demanding medical information and prying into only the more graphic aspects of disability.
This tactic does not work as an education tool and it never has.
I challenge you to cite a single major advancement in disability rights that occurred because of it… I’ll wait…
The education excuse, on the other hand, has been used to maintain the exploitation of disabled people.
In the late 19th Century when displaying disabled people in freak shows began to go out of fashion as a direct result of the fact that they were viewed as exploitative. The displaying of disabled people did not stop. They just changed the narrative.
consider Krao Farini
Krao was a supposedly Laotian child (her origins are difficult to ascertain as her background was heavily fictionalized) with hypertrichosis who was exhibited after many freak shows had closed down. She was exhibited not as a freak but as a scientific discovery. A distinction which allowed Guillermo Farini (who adopted her and exhibited her) to escape claims of exploitation. She was marketed as the missing link.
She was a disabled woman of colour whose exhibition reduced her to subhuman. Make no mistake Guillermo Farini was not actually under the impression that she really was the missing link. In spite of the veneer of educational value, Krao was advertized with a fantastical backstory which included heroic white men trudging through the jungle and outsmarting the primitive locals, including royalty. You can read it here *.
Education has been used as a veneer for the exploitation of disabled people for centuries. It wasn’t true then and it isn’t true now.
The expectation that disabled individuals answer any question that they don’t want to is absolutely not a path to greater understanding. It is an expression of dominance.
Hiding behind the idea of some mythical educational value only compounds the oppression.
Learn the lessons we are trying to teach you when we say no. They are much better lessons than getting someone to share a diagnosis or other private medical information.
Or better yet, don’t ask at all. If you are genuinely interested in learning do it in a way that doesn’t demand unpaid labour from disabled people. There are after all many alternatives.
*The images aren’t screenreader friendly so I’m adding a PDF that can be run through an OCR program
**This post is inspired by a twitter thread I did earlier today and can be read here.
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