I remember Christy Smith, the contestant on Survivor: The Amazon whose most distinctive trait was that she was deaf. What I remember most was that early on, she expected people in her tribe to “help” her somehow. While proper accommodations were actually being given to her by the show, this seemed a little different. What her cry seemed like to me was that she was saying, “Help me! Pity me! I’m Disabled!” I do not criticize her for this, because I believe it is an effect of the most pervasive and damaging effect of ableism: that of pity. Why did I bring her up? Why, to relate these particular incidents, and their effect on my life:
Incident 1: The Table Manners Fight
When I was a child, my mother insisted on teaching me good table manners. I was especially frustrated one night, and I said “But Mom, I’m autistic!”
Her reply: “Is that any excuse for your behavior?” She did not pity me. She knew what I was capable of. Now, I can see thirty years later that teaching me good table manners was a sort of accommodation. Good courtesy has helped me interact with society better. I still struggle with my limitations (Ask me about “jumping into a conversation” – I don’t know when!!!), but I am much better understood because of the techniques I was taught.
Incident 2: The Pitying Psychology Professor
I was getting into a psychology class, with a good professor…or so I thought. I felt it might be helpful to tell her that I was autistic – that I could be a case study for any research into autism she might like. So I told her, and she went “Awww…” As if to say “You Poor Unfortunate Soul.” I was forever changed about my view of autism, and about myself. It had never dawned on me that there might be something “wrong” with my existence, and it hit me hard. I felt worthless going into any other psychology, in case everyone else thought I was a Poor Unfortunate Soul, and I changed my major to theater…which I was ultimately unsuccessful at because I was too fat to be pretty. It has taken me twenty years to recover from that pitying and shame, and I don’t know if I can be a successful psychologist or social worker now due to this. I am almost forty, and I feel I was robbed of my calling.
What both these incidents have in common was that they dealt with pity. The first incident with my mother is that there was no pity, and that I was raised just like my siblings – raised to have good manners, ambition, and self-reliance. The second incident, however, shamed me. The pity revealed that the psychology professor-and the entire psychology/psychiatry industry, by extension-made me feel inferior to the “normal” people. (Come to think of it, who decides “normal” anyway? What is normal?) I’m beginning to see the faults and the terrifying reality of ableist pity.
It is less hurtful to come up to me yelling “YOU ARE A HORRID EXCUSE FOR A HUMAN BEING! YOU SHOULD BE DRAGGED OUT AND SHOT LIKE THE NAZIS DID TO THE JEWS!” Yes, the person in my imagination is screaming at me. But pitying feels like you’re hateful and lying about it. It’s a double strike against you. So, if you’re going to be a hateful jerk, be an honest hateful jerk. Don’t pity me.