Poisonous Expectations

Poisonous Expectations

There’s a toxic belief permeating all levels of society: that disabled lives are worth less than able ones. In just the last couple of days there has been a political candidate calling for compulsory abortion of fetuses that test positive for genetic conditions such as cerebral palsy, and a columnist in a national (UK) daily newspaper using the phrase “remedial-level dipshit” to describe children with developmental delays.

I have a daughter. I understand having hopes and dreams of what your child may achieve: that’s only natural. What isn’t natural, or at all healthy, is this cultural obsession with perfection. TV, magazines, newspapers are all full of examples of what is deemed to be “perfect” with public shaming and criticism of those don’t live up to this ideal.

Those with physical or mental disabilities are not spared. Portrayed as objects of pity, a modern-day freak show exhibited so that the able-bodied and those without cognitive differences can feel better about themselves, feel thankful that they are “normal”. And don’t get me started on the patronizing “inspirational” bullshit when a disabled person manages to achieve something that the able take for granted.

There is a high level of disability awareness, for all the good it does. A lot of able people feel uncomfortable around the disabled. It would be nice to think that it stemmed from a sense of guilt over that way they treat us, the way they think about us as lesser people, but I don’t believe that’s the case. I believe it’s because seeing us reminds them that we exist in their “perfect” world, They don’t want to be aware of us; they wish we would just disappear and stop disturbing their comfortable illusions.

The majority of language used in depictions of disability is negative: it’s all about deficits, what we can’t do, how we can’t hope to match the standards set for the able. We don’t need to be told: we’re perfectly aware of the areas where we face limitations and restrictions. The thing is, many of these restrictions in areas such as mobility and communication can be overcome to varying degrees by accommodations.

Yes, it costs a bit more to accommodate people who are outside the statistical normal range of ability. But by failing to provide that assistance the message being sent is that we are not worth it. We don’t matter. We’re not even considered a lot of the time, and when we are it’s grudging.

So it’s no wonder, when we face the constant implication that we’re a burden, a tragedy, that so many expectant parents have a fear that their child will be disabled. It’s their worst nightmare: their expectations dashed, their plans in ruin. They’ve been told time and time again about all the problems faced by families in that situation. The fear is overwhelming and colors their feelings towards the child. It fosters resentment — this disabled child took away their dreams of happily-ever-after.

No. The child isn’t the problem, it is their belief in the lies told by the media and self-interested organizations that led them to think that a “perfect” child would automatically bring happiness. The truth is that happiness comes from love and acceptance, from strong bonds and mutual respect. Society has a sick, twisted, poisonous view of what success looks like, and a long record of destroying those who drink the kool-aid and fall short of the unreachable goals.

Acceptance is the only way to go. Acceptance of people as they are, not how you might want them to be. Acceptance of difference. And just as important, acceptance of self: discarding all the baggage of internalized hatred, shame and guilt. All children have potential, all children take effort to raise, all children are different. Instead of judging them, dismissing them as failures if they don’t meet some arbitrary criteria, help and support them to explore and learn what they can do.

Give them the tools, and see what they can build.