Monday, July 8, 2013

Picking Rocks

"Ableism is so pervasive that it is difficult to identify until one begins to interrogate the governing assumptions of well-intentioned society. Within the space allowed by these rhetorical premises, ableism appears natural, necessary, and ultimately moral discrimination required for the normal functioning of civilization."
[A]bleism is that most insidious form of rhetoric that has become reified and so widely accepted as common sense that it denies its own rhetoricity—it "goes without saying." To fully address it we must name its presence, for cultural assumptions accepted uncritically adopt the mantle of "simple truth" and become extremely difficult to rebut. As the neologism "ableism" itself testifies, we need new words to reveal the places it resides and new language to describe how it feeds. Without doing so, ableist ways of thinking and interpreting will operate as the context for making sense of any acts challenging discrimination, which undermines their impact, reduces their symbolic potential, and can even transform them into superficial measures that give the appearance of change yet elide a recalcitrant ableist system..."
[Excerpts from  James. L. Cherney's "The Rhetoric of Ableism."]
I'm a mother and a nurse, not a scholar.  I'm not going to make any pretensions about that.   I'm also a half-assed gardener and occasionally, I take a pretty picture of something I've grown or of someone to whom I've given birth.  As a "writer" I am one voice in the wilderness of the blogosphere.  I came into this role woefully unprepared and in the process have discovered many things about Down syndrome, our world, our Western society and indeed, myself.  I started this place as a "Mommy blogger" and am slowly growing into a disability advocate.  I started out thinking that I could try to change a few minds and that would help create a world that was more receptive to people like Wyatt.  I wanted to help build a garden where old stereotypes did not linger in people's minds. A world where the phrase "my son has Down syndrome" would not automatically generate uncomfortable looks, apologies or awkward exclamations of sentimental rubbish.

Lately, I've been preoccupied with the subject of ableism and how it impacts my son.  Western culture is rife with it.  It is buried, deep within the rhetoric, deep within the language that we use to share our opinions to one another.  When it comes to the subject of advancement of people with intellectual disabilities such as Down syndrome, the tools that we advocates have chosen to use may appear to advance our goals of inclusion and acceptance. Sadly, those tools, in many cases, do the exact opposite.  How we view disability, how we see each other, how we as parent and friend advocates feel about the the world-at-large all impact our efforts. I've also realized that I shouldn't be planting anything for my son, but rather preparing the soil for him to sow a garden of his own.

It was those two quotes above that finally clarified what I had suspected for some time.  We are overgrown with ableist rhetoric, whether we mean to be or not, no matter how "good" our intentions. On the surface, the very words that we choose shape how others perceive us and how we see the world. The grand daddy of them all, the R word, is a perfect example of this.  However, the dialogue goes deeper than that.  Like rhizomes, negative concepts that shape our entire perception of disability are spread throughout our history, dating back to Aristotle.  As Cherney states, ideas such as "normal is natural", "disability is evil" and the "body is able" are rampant throughout the Western world.  Other rhetoric, including those that incorporate socioeconomic or religious ideals (such as "disability is uneducated", "disability is baseborn", "disability is ethnic") seem to sprout up everywhere.

These are all part of our great post-colonial tradition of "less than".  Our everyday language shows that we see others with disdain.  That able and functioning at optimum physical perfection is what we are all supposed to be and anything else is a failure;  lesser;  unworthy.  Even amongst "disabilities" there is a difference.  We in the Western world commonly refer to those that employ physical assistive devices such as wheelchairs and support animals as "differently abled".  Those that have cognitive impairments however are "developmentally disabled".

There's a fossil in there somewhere...As I've mentioned, I come from a medical background.  For years, I embraced a more mechanical definition of disability, which in its most basic form states "this part isn't working as it should, therefore the patient is disabled". The person is seen as broken, malfunctioning, stunted.  This quickly leads to pity disguised as empathy.  Then to romanticism, as an artistic touch is now given to what is "broken".  A more realistic viewpoint is the social model; this way, disability is described by a series of barriers, exclusions and negative attitudes (that includes language).  An individual may have a physical, cognitive or psychological difference from their neighbours, but it is the lack of societal provision that makes it an actual disability.  Humanity is diverse and flourishing;  it is only when a person runs into a situation where their needs are not met, can they be defined as actually having a disability.  Most can easily relate this model to well known things, such as ramps or closed-captioning. However, when it comes to DS and challenges of communication and interpretation, as a culture we cannot seem to move beyond the medical model.  No one seems to want to say that it is society that has disabled these individuals, not their neurological makeup.  Even within the whole of the disability community itself, those with Down syndrome and related developmental disorders are considered less than.

From the medical tradition you also get the -isms:  Infantilism, where those with DS are seen as adult babies,  "Baby Huey", or 'forever children'.  It is probably the most insidious, as it strips all dignity and sense of self and worth from the individual.  They are forever dependent, in the most basic sense.  There is also Anthropomorphism, where those with Down syndrome are referred to in supernatural or angelic terms or possessing traits that are more like "powers".   Quite possibly the most sneaky of them all (and one that I am guilty of as well) is Paternalism, where all decisions, beyond a point where they should be made by the person themselves, are removed and placed in the hands of those who are deemed--by the same abilist society--as being more qualified, be they parent, school, doctor or organization.   This model often decides "what is best" and assumes as Cherney states, that "it goes without saying", based on old, outdated practices and ideas.  For example, we are told that those with DS do not follow "typical" patterns of growth or development and that these ideals should not be applied.  Yet, we still continue to apply them with the attitude of "how else will we know whether the child is behind?",  instead of just allowing the child to develop at their own pace in a loving, supportive, caring environment.  IQ tests are culturally biased and archaic, yet we still continue to use them to determine 'level of cognition' and therefore predetermine a person's 'functionality' and thereby, worth.  Our organizations, both religious and philanthropic, readily fall into this trap too, as they betray their roots as the charities that they were originally founded as, to help "the poor unfortunates".   Regardless of the origin, regardless of some degree of "good work" having been performed, regardless of intent, the result is the same:  an abilist act grown of an abilist system.  Each and every time it is employed, it undermines those with Down syndrome.  It hampers efforts to become more visible, for those with DS to move out of the world of poverty and neglect.

Rocks Not surprisingly most of the Down syndrome advocacy movement is borne of this ableist system, myself included.  We allow the rhetoric to continue by ignoring demeaning language such as the R-word,  by describing our loved ones in childish terms, by giving them "angelic" or "superhuman" qualities, by romanticizing the medical definition of disability and by continuing to make all decisions for them.  We, the people that are supposed to be helping, are only perpetuating stereotypes.  Pictures of good looking kids with catchy sayings may sound like a good idea (and I won't deny that there was a certain purpose served by this initially), but they are not.  My son's extra chromosome is not kitsch, it is not property, it is not made of love.  He is not an angel and he himself is not perfection incarnate.  I did not design him either, nor do I believe a supreme being handcrafted him for our family... I only had the pleasure of providing half of his genetic material.

I've run into a lot of nationalism too.  Recently I read a Letterman-style "Top 10" list of reasons why one particular country was the best in which to raise a child with complex needs.  The article will no doubt be shared far and wide within the advocacy communities and it saddens me, as the article itself is so rife with inconsistencies, poorly researched half-truths and flat out falsehoods that it actually turned my stomach to read it.  Blogging communities seem to be often divided among these national lines as well.  There also seems to be some kind of hierarchy in the advocacy world;  the more disabled your child/loved one/you are, coupled with the amount of "time served" you have in this community, the more of an "expert" you are. Assuming there is such a thing in the first place. Politics within the movement itself are rapidly threatening its very life;  I don't know whether to laugh or cry when I see those calling for inclusion acting very negatively and exclusive in their practise. 

Finding your niche...But what about the world outside?  Much of what gets published about Down syndrome or special needs in the mainstream these days might as well be misery peddling. Subjects that go well beyond simple anticipatory grieving seem to be de rigueur and are now perpetuating the negative stereotypes that we are fighting so hard against. Initially, I'm sure this trend was meant to be a way for parents to find fellowship in what can be some very long and seemingly isolating days.  But, how much negativity can one person read surrounding a certain condition before they start applying those traits to that condition?  In our sensationalist world, unless a piece about disability keeps things at status quo (ie: 'less than'), it is not publishable.  Full of anger towards your child's diagnosis?  Blame your child's diagnosis for your own personal issues?  STOP THE PRESSES!  Depression, disgust,  having to "force" one's self to play with one's own child... these are are all things that go well beyond the realm of a grief reaction or situational crisis and in the end only feed our detractors and probably belongs in a therapist's office.  In the end, which is worse?  Our own community disparaging those that they claim to represent, or those outside that hate our kids? 

Then there is the stereotypical "Down syndrome superstar", who by having a prom date or scoring a goal or participating in a major life event, allows all to feel misty, paternal feelings.  Add a little more anthropomorphism, in the guise of "angels" and "my child has made me a better person" and you have the  domain of inspiraporn, which is just more ableist rhetoric.  The reality is that not every child will be a superstar and the effects of the extra chromosome will vary from child to child, as well as the resources and supports made available to them.  I'm personally guilty of this one, not realizing that the reason I felt the way I did when Wyatt was diagnosed with his AVSD (and probable chromosomal disorder) in utero, was the ableist society in which I lived.  If my culture had not continued to push the idea of the "hardship" or the "broken child", would I have been as sad as I was initially with his diagnosis?  Would I have grasped blindly for for the first sign of positivity,  the first glimmer of "hope" in the form of staged photo-ops and over the top inspirational motifs?  Let me put it another way:  if one truly accepts people with intellectual disabilities and developmental delays as equals, these stories would not be news.  However, many cling to them desperately, willing to overlook the weeds of ableism and instead renaming it a wildflower of "awareness".

"Bucket of Rocks" shared with
permission from
What this civil rights movement needs is more visibility.  Not from parents or people like me, but from the self-advocates themselves.  That is why I share almost everything from VATTA blog on our Facebook page.  It is the people with Down syndrome who need to create the language that describes them, it will be the self-advocates that create the new rhetoric to promote neurodiversity.  It is happening.  Slowly, seeds are germinating.

As one of my children has Down syndrome, I've had to evaluate my perceptions of disability over and over.  How will this affect Wyatt?  How can we, as his parents, best guide him to adulthood and allow him the freedom to advocate on his own behalf, whatever form that may take?  To reach "his full potential" on his own terms, not our abilist ones? At what point do I stop "parenting" and become "paternalistic"?  For now, I guess, my job is to continue to expose the rhetoric and ableism while nurturing the creation of a new construct, a new set of definitions that not only include neurodiversity but were created within that community.  Despite how disheartening all this can be sometimes, despite how physically and emotionally exhausting it is, I will continue to prepare the soil of this revolution.  My family will continue to explore the world of Intellectual Disability and Developmental Delay the only way we can, through the eyes of others, including our son.  I must persist with preparing this earth for my kids as they grow.  I know, one day, my son will communicate "It's ok, Mom... I've got this" and I will happily put down my bucket and drink a Mojito in the shade.  Until that time however, there is much work to be done.  All are welcome to offer a little sweat equity;  there is a lot of weeds to clear, soil to turn and rocks to pick...

"Picking Rocks.." shared with permission from
Cherney, James L. "The Rhetoric of Ableism." Disability Studies Quarterly 31.3 (2011):  The Rhetoric of Ableism | Cherney | Disability Studies Quarterly. The Society for Disability Studies. Web. 03 July 2013.


  1. This is a fabulous post! I will be sharing it widely!

  2. The picking rocks analogy is such a good one. I loved this. Well, I always love what you write. But I *really* loved this. ;)

  3. We must keep going. We are all party to this struggle. We can't afford to wait for our toddlers to reach adulthood to change things.

    As always, LOVE this!

    1. Always forward, never stopping. Thanks, as always.

  4. Not only will your toddlers change things, but the toddlers your toddlers hang out with in the park and at school will change things. I think that by living your/our lives OUT THERE, makes a statement, makes change, and gathers allies who will repave roads, widen doors, and sing songs loudly and off key ... together. So. Even when you are just hanging at the park, you are making change and if you are lucky enough or tenacious enough or something, you will get to hang out with lot of toddlers and then kids, and then tweens, and then teens, and then, low and behold young adults... all of whom have been touched and have walked with your son or daughter or sister or brother and you will find that when you get tired, they carry on. Remember, is the only thing I can say, remember that its the larger community that you seek to change, and so need to gather and insidiously invite allies to the party!

    1. Yes, we need all the allies we can get. However, allies that are misguided yet "mean well" tend to muddy the waters for everything else. Thanks for the comment.

  5. Very happy to have found you! This is most excellent! Thanks! Love, Ib @tinygracenotes

  6. I'm surprised I didn't post a comment last time I read this. I think because it is *so much.* I am a long time parent, new blogger, really. In the last year I have learned so much and you are one of my teachers.
    Keep rockin'.
    (Get it? Rockin!...sigh, I crack myself up.)
    - Ms


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