Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Stress and stereotypes

I am so stressed by far more than I can handle in the next few days (really, and people expecting even more) that I can't even eat or take a deep breath or cry. It's like there's a black hole in my middle and my spirit collapsing in on itself. My body can't keep up this pace. This is my five--no, ten--minute break.

My son brought home a sheet about what his class is working on in school. In language arts, the students will be reading a biography of Helen Keller. Initial impression: great. Then I read the synopsis:
A biography of the blind and deaf woman who rose above her physical disabilities to international renown and who helped other handicapped persons to live fuller lives.

Placing the adjectives first means that students are learning to define people by their disabilities. And of course the term "handicap" derives from people holding out their caps for charity. Did she really "overcome" or "rise above" her disabilities; didn't she still have them? And why is the implication that people with disabilities don't have full lives, especially before someone else comes to show them the way? Personally, I've found accessibility legislation, conventional and complementary medicine, and individual, nonstereotyping people most help me live a full life, though I consider myself to have a full life anyway.

Why are disabled people only seen as acceptable when they overcome a disability?

I am afraid if I protest, even gently, that I'm just going to taken as the resident bitch mother. But I'm sick of the stereotypes. Any suggestions are welcome. I can certainly phrase things gently, but sometimes saying anything at all upsets people.

As I've learned at work--a gentle reminder, complete with smiley face, asking people to move back furniture when they're done (so I'm not, for example, blocked from getting into a doorway by chairs when I'm the first person in) was thrown away before everyone could see it. This makes me feel like shit. People don't know/don't think about how their laziness creates accessibility problems, but they can be asked to. It should be a habit, anyway, for any really public space. There are lots of people with disabilities, not just me.

Of course, I heard a young person today refer to people with disabilities as "cripples," not intending it in a pejorative way, but apparently not knowing better. There could be a second-language issue at stake, though. Haven't we come any further than this? Don't any grammar handbooks cover this at all, or do they just cover the gender/cultural biases?


Penny L. Richards said...

I agree, I'm cringing for the day my daughter comes home with one of those lessons... sigh. We'll talk about it, of course. If only they could teach the really interesting parts of Keller's biography, eh?

But I can't let this pass: "the term "handicap" derives from people holding out their caps for charity." That's a popular misconception about the word's etymology, reprinted in a lot of places, but that doesn't make it true:

FridaWrites said...

Thanks for the information--I love words and should have looked this up. I just looked up "invalid" in the OED and found there may be a myth there, too. The first use of the term meant "of no power or strength"; that use was then applied to people who were ill. Only after that did the "in-valid" ("not valid") come into use.

What worries me is that my children didn't catch/get the problems with the stereotyping even as I talked about it. My daughter says she doesn't remember learning about Helen Keller's other accomplishments (Braille in five languages, for example), but only about her methods of communication and her disability. I think it's important for children to learn and talk about how different people communicate and ambulate and learn, so that they don't develop prejudices based on those differences, but argh, the stereotypes taught.