Almost all of us want to do the right thing. We have been told to be respectful, courteous, and understanding towards others. And, for most of our day-to-day encounters, this task is accomplished without too much drama. Sure, once in a while, we run across a difficult person who makes us angry—and provokes a knee-jerk response. However, sooner or later, we return to our natural emotional state because being perpetually pissed off is unsustainable and unhealthy.
When encountering a child, our body language tries to appear open and our voice softens. The overlying reason we act this way towards a youngster is because we have the presumption that they haven’t been hardened by the world yet. Furthermore, due to their naivety of how the world works, and its dangers, children have parents who are supposed to be their guides to adulthood.
With all that being said however, I need to discuss my number one pet peeve—infantilization. The dictionary defines infantilization as: treating someone as a child in a way which denies their maturity in age or experience. In other words, thismeans that even after a person has attained adulthood, some people still look upon that person as a child. Now, I used to believe that I was the only one who experienced this form of disrespect. But, as I speak about this subject to people in the disabled community, I’ve discovered that infantilization of people with disabilities is all too common.
I’ll give you a typical example from my daily life. One day, my friend and I were at a steakhouse and we called the food server over to take our orders. The server was a college aged young woman. Anyway, she took my friend’s order first without much fanfare. Then, the theatrics began! She turned to me with a goofy look on her face—giggled like an idiot—and oozed, “What does the little guy want to eat?”
Now, when I was a kid, this kind of treatment still bothered me. But, I rationalized that it would stop happening when I grew up. However, much to my chagrin, I was wrong. Sometimes when I’m a social function, there are scattered conversations going on and I observe how people interact with each other. Everyone seems relaxed during their various chit chat sessions. The verbal exchanges sound very natural and fluid. But, when a person from one of these conversations comes over to talk to me, the whole dynamic changes.
Usually, they’ll bend their knees, ever so slightly, and significantly alter the tone of voice. Then, invariably their opening line doesn’t involve what’s happening at the function. And, it isn’t a standard ice-breaker such as inquiring about my occupation or other interests. No, unfortunately, more times than not, they want to know who takes care of me. Or, do I need help finding the person who brought me?
While I could give you a myriad of other examples where I’ve been subjugated to unintentional disrespect, I don’t want to turn this post into another anti-ableist rant. There is a plethora of good bloggers who are tackling that issue. But, if you’ll indulge me, what I’ll try to do is deconstruct the mindset of someone who may have unfounded predeterminations about disabled people.
Before continuing, let me be very clear about essential point. In no way, shape, or form do I excuse bigotry or ignorance. Moreover, these two unsavory ingredients are key to making ableist stew. But, in my half-century’s worth of experience dealing with many iterations of this topic, I believe that the best way to solve social or cultural misperceptions is by trying to figure out why people hold certain beliefs.
Within this context however, we must make a delineation between bigotry and ignorance. Bigotry is having an unfounded, irrational, and sometimes hateful prejudice against a given subculture. Ignorance involves making erroneous innocent assumptions about a given subculture due to a lack of experience with them. For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll focus upon ignorance about disabled people. Because I’ve only met two individuals who actually expressed vitriol towards me based solely on my cerebral palsy.
Various forms of the entertainment industry are complicit in promoting the “Tiny Tim” archetype to the public. Going all the way back to the classic black and white movie, “A Christmas Carol,” to present day flicks such as the flaming piece of dung—“Me Before You.” Movies with disabled characters in them advance the same false narrative. The message is that it’s better to be dead than in a wheelchair.
News Media also fans the flames of ignorance towards people with disabilities through their reporting. When I see a news story—or feature—that centers upon a person with a disability, terms such as: “Confined to a wheelchair,” “Cerebral palsy victim,” “Courageous,” are often used to describe them. What this type of language does is pre-condition viewers into believing that people with disabilities are less equal to everybody else. And, it plants a seed in the overall cultural consciousness that people with disabilities should be thought of as innocent children who are incapable of acting responsibly or fending for themselves.
Unfortunately, the average non-disabled person is inundated with misinformation from these two types of media outlets. Therefore, if the misinformation goes unchallenged, people begin to accept it as fact. So, if they don’t have any prior personal experience with person with a disability, they are likely to accept media portrayals and apply them in broad strokes. The entertainment industry and news media like to purport themselves as being on the cutting edge of social righteousness. But, both conservative and progressive platforms continue to encourage the infantilization of people with disabilities.
One way to at least curtail this problem is to encourage young adults with disabilities to go into entertainment industry. By becoming actors, producers, directors, or screenwriters the next generation of disabled pioneers can help flip the script by presenting more realistic stories and portrayals of people with disabilities.