Every day involves a calculation. I walk in a world that sees me as broken, less than. Whether I like it or not, the world is more dangerous for me because I have a developmental disability. When the public discourse is full of words like combat and warrior, and the real results of that discourse are poverty, abuse, discrimination, and institutions, we need to be prepared for battle. It’s not that we’re hostile or unreasonably angry, but the consequence of letting down our guard is too high. So we armor up. We pile on the pieces of objective truth as dictated by an able world. We are quick to mention, repeatedly, our degrees and career accomplishments in a way that is often mistaken for bragging. Rarely is this a prideful act. It’s a Faustian bid rife with internalized ableism. I can show you my credentials, so that you will give weight to my thoughts. I can’t help but notice amongst my educated able friends, they often don’t even know what degrees if any their friends and coworkers have earned because they value each other’s thoughts without question. No cognitive litmus tests are prerequisite.
This is not to say my degreed friends have pursued higher education in order to separate themselves from their disabled comrades. They deserve to not have the purity of their pursuits diluted by pressure to prove their worth. This is an unfair compromise imposed by an able world. No one should have to prove they are not like ‘those others’ in order to stand up and say I am just like those others.
For those of us, myself included, who lack the tools, supports, and serendipitous fortune to have careers or degrees, armor is harder to come by. We need to matter to someone or to fill a need lest our freedom crumble in front of us. We must remain hyper vigilant. We learn the danger signs, the buzz words. We gauge every interaction based on an algorithm of mistrust. There is a crushing emotional and physical toll of this state of alert, but the cost of letting our guard down is worse.
A few days ago , I watched a valued member of the disability community defend use of the word stupid. Many people did not agree with him, and as I started to join those who wished to express their disagreement, I saw two words that stopped me in my tracks.
Right there, in all caps, in comment after comment, he insisted the word stupid could simply mean POOR JUDGEMENT. He was right, one definition of stupid is poor judgement, but that does nothing to lessen the word’s impact. There is nothing simple about the phrase POOR JUDGEMENT.
For those of you who have the luxury of not being viewed as the owners of defective brains, poor judgement is a transitory event. For the rest of us, it’s an identifying factor. For you, a mistake is an anomaly. For us, it’s evidence of our incompetence.
I have been conditioned by years of experience to associate the word JUDGEMENT with danger. If I didn’t, I’d be dead. Not metaphor dead, not hyperbole dead, real dead.
People with power, doctors, psychiatrists, social workers, and the like, know better than to say the words retard or even stupid so they use the dog whistle of judgement, and just like a real dog whistle, my reaction is immediate and intense. Because I know judgement is the word they use
when they lock us in psychiatric facilities
when they deem our rapes too murky to prosecute
when they take our money and our independence
when they try to take away our children
when they deny us critical medical care, or force us to receive that care only in return for being treated like a side show attraction
While I only describe my own experiences, there is nothing particularly unique about them. These words are still too dangerous to me. I do not have the luxury at this juncture to reclaim them.
I cannot tell you what words to use. I will not police your speech. I lack both the power and inclination to do so. However, I need you to know these words are not just words to me. I can not idly stand by and assume best intentions. That may well be the kindest course, but it is also the most dangerous assumption.