Disabilities and Identity

Yesterday I was in a crowded elevator going to work in the Student Health building, when the boy next to me (who I would guess was about 16) started talking to himself. His mother who was petting his face turned to him and reassured him they were getting off soon and that he had to use his manners. She then proceeded to look around at everyone else standing in the elevator and pronounce, “My son lacks social skills…he has aspergers,” as if she needed to justify and prove something to all of us strangers.  This really struck me as I did not understand why she was announcing this and it reminded me of the concepts of disability and visibility in the article we recently read “My Body, My Closet: Invisible Disability and the Limits of Coming-Out Discourse” by Ellen Jean Samuels.  By simply looking at the physical appearance of this boy, you would have no idea he had aspergers, in fact, you essentially would know nothing about him. The ideas that Samuels discusses all apply to this situation: how do we define disability? Does our appearance partially form our identity? Do you need to tell others about your disability? Maybe, even prove that you have a disability? This boy’s mother is essentially defining him by his supposed “lack of social skills” and his aspergers. Imagine if we all went around announcing what we aren’t good at (not just things defined as disability because I think it is impossible to define “disability”).  Would I walk into a class and announce, “I’m awful at public speaking and it makes me very nervous?” I do not believe we need to define ourselves by our capabilities or lack thereof. If an individual wants others to know about their own disabilities, then I think that is his/her choice. However, I do not believe that anyone should have to pronounce their disabilities in order to justify their actions.  I think it would be a pretty miserable world if everywhere we went we listed everything we aren’t good at, every disability we might have, and everything that sets us outside the norms of society. So my questions to the class are: Was it discriminatory for this mom to announce her son’s aspergers and lack of social skills to complete strangers? Did she have a right to do this? Was she just abiding by societal norms and expectations? Is his identity formed from his aspergers?

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2 Responses to Disabilities and Identity

  1. eliseamitchell says:

    I do not think that that mother was ill-intentioned when she announced that her son had Asperger’s in the elevator. However, I do believe that as soon as she announced it, whether she intended to or not, she robbed him of agency over his identity. After reading that anecdote I’m left with the question, did he want her to make his identity public in that instance?

    In the Samuels reading, coming out to others is on one’s own terms seems to be an act of empowerment for many of the disabled and queer women that are provided as examples. For example, Nomy Lamm is quoted describing her transition form “passing” to announcing that she is a “foxy one-legged dyke, and you will love it, or else” (Samuels, 238). That boy in the elevator was not given that chance for empowerment because his mother was the one announcing his disability rather than him.

    While I agree it may be problematic for people to go about announcing their faults all the time, I believe that celebrating difference can be empowering. For some individuals, like Lamm, coming out can be a very liberating and empowering experience that they should not be denied. Although, I am also wary of being to quick to praise those who out themselves and encourage those who choose to pass to come out. As Samuels mentions, for some people passing is not hiding, and some people may not feel empowered by outing themselves.

    As a point of clarification, I do not agree that identifying oneself with a disability is a defining oneself by what one lacks, but rather defining oneself by one’s difference. Difference is not inherently negative. I think that taking pride an any difference helps to remove the negative stigma that that difference may have.

  2. jadehuynh says:

    I don’t believe the mother’s statement was loaded with any discriminatory intent. While I cannot say whether she had a right to announce that her child is disabled in front of a group of complete strangers or not, it seems she wanted to shield her son from harmful conclusions about his elevator etiquette. Samuels cites Georgina Kleege who faces situations where she feels obliged to identify as blind and others where she doesn’t. She only makes her handicap known when her vision affects her performance or others’ perceptions of her.
    While I also don’t believe we should define ourselves by what we lack, some situations make it hard not to do so. If you were to rework the conditions of your scenario–say you walked into a class to give a graded oral presentation, you would feel more compelled to say that you’re bad at public speaking and that it makes you nervous. If the boy’s actions reflected his “normal” appearance, then the mother would have less incentive to make his Asperger’s known.

    Samuels, Ellen Jean. “My Body, My Closet: Invisible Disability and the Limits of
    Coming-Out Discourse.” A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 9.1-2 (2003):
    n. pag. Project MUSE. Web. 25 Nov. 2012.
    .

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