Monday, August 08, 2011

The Disability Hierarchy 1 - An Introduction

I've touched on the disability hierarchy many times before, but there have been so many things lately that have got me thinking about this again. I began to write one post, but it threatens to extend to at least three. Sorry!

The disability hierarchy describes the way that different disabled people are more acceptable than others in our culture. More acceptable to be seen, to be heard and to be accommodated, as well as effecting the way we are treated every day and things like how, if at all, people like us are represented on television and in culture. Government, the media and even sometimes our own representatives use this hierarchy to differentiate between those of us who are deserving of help and support and those of us who are not.

This doesn't mean that if a disabled person ticks certain boxes, they get a better deal than another disabled person who does not. But there's a reason why a politician can compare (inaccurately) the number of blind people and the number of people with alcoholism in receipt of a disability benefit and make it sound like a scandal. There's a reason why, when arguing against unfair time-limits on incapacity benefits, another politician can talk about the number of people with cancer who will be affected, ignoring thousands of other people with a variety of physical and mental, chronic and terminal conditions who are in exactly the same position. This doesn't mean it is better to be blind than to have alcoholism, or that it is better to have cancer than emphysema, MS, bipolar disorder, autism, back injury etc.. It merely means that society finds some disabled people more acceptable.

As with all matters involving social privilege and disadvantage, the hierarchy is complex and dynamic. This is not a hierarchy of impairment – although the nature of impairment matters a lot. Nor is this hierarchy based on how much sympathy a person is seen to deserve, although this is another important factor given the dominance of a Tragedy Model of Disability. This hierarchy is about what makes people comfortable, as against what makes them uncomfortable, when they consider disability and difference.

So for example, a fit young white male soldier who has lost a single limb in combat is a very acceptable disabled person – a hero, in fact, near the top of the pile. The impairment is entirely physical, easily understood and relatively uncomplicated in its effect. These chaps receive compensation for their injuries and the very best medical care, cutting-edge prosthetics and so on . His injury has been acquired in heroic circumstances and it doesn't interfere too much in his ability to be an attractive young physically-active masculine man.

Young male veteran amputees are a very common image of disabled people. It's possible that they appear on television more than any other group of us, often engaged in some sporting activity "despite" their impairments, reinforcing their hero-status. As with all disabled people in film and fiction, they are sometimes embittered by their injury, but Dr No is the only amputee mega-villain that springs to mind. And on the subject of springing, there's Harold's uncle in the wonderful Harold and Maude, who salutes with his empty sleeve by use of a pull-cord, but his injury did not, like so many other disabled characters, lead him to a desire for world-domination.

The soldier with an amputation is far more acceptable than his colleague who performed the same heroic deeds and acquired severe facial burns. Nobody would stop short of calling the veteran with burns a hero, but he doesn't make such a great picture. Burns are far more medically and socially complicated than amputation. Heroes with burns are much less common on television. They are much less common in fiction and film, and burning as a injury is frequently associated with turning evil (e.g. Darth Vader, too many DC bad-guys to mention, plus at least seven James Bond villains have some kind of scarring) or extreme social isolation. Simon Weston is one famous veteran with burns, but he made himself well-known by offering up his experience to others - he made an impact on my own life when I heard him speak as a disabled teenager. He is currently advising the Downton Abbey crew, since the First World War is about to break out in the drama.

The veteran with burns will, in turn, be more acceptable than his colleague who came home physically unscathed but has persistent Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD can be extremely complicated, painful and dangerous to a person long after the injury is acquired. A person's susceptibility to psychological injury is complex, depending a lot on subtle factors around the individual, the trauma and its direct aftermath, and has no bearing on one's courage or strength of character. Yet there are still some voices who talk about soldiers with PTSD as if they simply weren't cut out to do the job they signed up for. However, even the veteran with PTSD is more acceptable and admirable than a civilian with PTSD following a car crash or a sexual assault. The veteran was at least trying to be a hero when he acquired what is seen by some as an unheroic impairment.

So that's all about impairments, but how these people are treated changes again if say, we change their gender. Mental ill health is perhaps seen as more acceptable in women, but it is more expected and thus seen as less serious – how did she expect to cope with the explosions and the corpses in the first place? When a man has a mental illness, his defenders often point out how very masculine he is, not the kind of person to cause a fuss or cry (like a girl) or generally be a sissy. Meanwhile, physical injury of any kind is seen to compromise a woman's attractiveness to a much greater extent, and her attractiveness is seen as more important in the first place than say, physical strength or independence (in turn, women with conditions that cause physical weakness are more acceptable than men with the same conditions). So our burnt or amputee soldier becomes less acceptable, because she makes people uncomfortable. At the same time, women don't look like soldiers, so you are less likely to see a fit young woman with a missing leg and think she must be a hero. She probably lost it trying to parallel-park.

Similarly, tragically, it is also rare to see wounded black and Asian soldiers represented, as if they aren't proper British soldiers. In fact, it is rare to see disabled people of colour at all on television or in film. Our culture seems to struggle with people who tick more than one “diversity” box; being black or Asian, queer, disabled or female means being under-represented, but being more than one of these things and you might as well not exist. The exceptions I can think of coincide with the catergory "Comic book villains Samuel L. Jackson has played". The vast majority of disabled people represented anywhere are white, straight, cisgender men.

Meanwhile, the relative privilege of being a veteran among disabled people lasts only as long as people know that you were injured serving your country. It fades with time. It fades when, for whatever reason, you stop looking like a soldier. It goes if you stop acting like a hero. For example, alcohol abuse is a significant problem among our current and former military personnel, but an alcoholic is no kind of hero at all. Even when he has other heroic impairments, a young man loses a great deal sympathy and acceptability when he drinks to excess or takes drugs. We expect these men to use alcohol as a coping mechanism, to remain strong and manly, but then we see it as a personal weakness when this gets out of hand. Some of the alcoholics who claim disability benefits will be ex-service personnel.

It's worth noting that all the people I have described here may not actually identify as disabled. Young amputees with very good prosthetics often don't, because their impairments are relatively minor and certainly with prosthetic feet and lower legs, most other people may simply not know about their impairments. In the documentary series about facial disfigurement Katie: My Beautiful Friends, young people with severe facial burns and other disfigurements frequently referred to their gratitude that at least they weren't disabled. Of course, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is not always a long-term condition, but almost every year at Blogging Against Disablism Day, people with chronic mental ill health express doubt about whether they count as disabled.

And alas, refusing to identify as disabled is itself often seen as an admirable stance. When someone who has a same-gender lover says that they're straight, we find that a bit silly, but when someone with a missing limb says they're not disabled, it only adds to their perceived heroism. I think usually people do this because they feel that real disabled people are less fortunate than themselves, but there's also an element of I could call myself disabled but I'm positive and strong and I'm not going to let my misfortune get the better of me by associating myself with that bunch - I speak from guilty experience. It is ironic that this very defiance is part of the dominant disability narrative, and part of what makes an acceptable disabled person acceptable.


Unknown said...

This was a beautiful essay. Having several of these "invisible" disabilities myself, I also wonder if I really count as handicapped, and fall into the mental trap of thinking I can just defy these problems with willpower alone. Defiance is a large part of the struggle for most people.

What's helped is to realize that the defiance isn't so much against physical or cognitive limitations, but the society that stigmatizes them.

kethry said...

very much look forward to reading the rest of the posts on the subject, but the first thing that sprang into my mind was how little has changed since the ancient Greeks, thousands of years ago - Aristotle tells us in the Nicomachean Ethics (3.5) that those with congenital blindness were regarded differently to those who went blind through alcohol abuse (not the terms he used, but you get my meaning). There are other examples but i'm teaching you to suck eggs and I don't want to do that!

Deafness is one of those "invisible" disabilities. The funny thing is, I recently had new digital hearing aids that have a light on the back of the aid when its switched on. if my hair is pulled back, this renders my aids far more visible (especially at night.. two little red glows at head height bouncing up and down as i walk, apparently!) and i get treated quite differently by the general public as a result. Its an interesting process to observe....

look forward to the rest of the series :)

Anonymous said...

Perhaps I can bring a smile to your day with my own situation and "plan" for the next 8 months

Unknown said...

I see the hierarchy every day working as a speech therapist in schools. If the child is small and "cute" - much more acceptable. The "less cute" (more "obvious" physical disabilities) and/or they become, are much less acceptable. In my district (2nd largest in the country) the "less cute" are segregated into seperate "special eduction centers" where they endure all kinds of subtle and overt abuses. I tried to stop the abuse and got moved to another school. I am fighting the move and never stopped fighting the treatment of the students. I created two online petitions to help me. Please sign them and get others to sign them. Thanks

Miss Shuganah said...

I need to compose a fuller response at some point, but I wanted to leave you with this video by A M Baggs, In My Language where she states, Towards the end she states, "Only when the many shapes of personhood are recognized will justice and human rights be possible,"

This hierarchy should not exist. Some disabled are more equal than others. Some people with disabilities are more acceptable than others. Soldiers are tolerable. Children in a wheelchair, not so much. People would sooner cross the street than have to gaze at my daughter.

I look forward to your other posts.

Unknown said...

I received your emailed response. I bet your daughter is beautiful!

Hopefully those folks walking across the street will do so in the path of an on-coming truck. Just kidding...sort of!

I would love to send you the proposal paper for my dissertation. We had to chose a problem at our workplace as a topic. I found out so much and I think you would be interested in the information. If you send me an email address I can send it to you.

Miss Shuganah said...

I do not send email to people who sign themselves as Unknown. That makes me uncomfortable.

If you are legit, you are welcome to follow me on Twitter. We can go from there.

I don't wish any harm to anybody. I prefer compassion over retaliation. And if a person is hit by a truck, does that miraculous give my daughter mobility? Does it give her ability to speak? No. it only makes yet another person disabled either permanently or temporarily.

Ezekiel Reis Burgin said...

Hey, I used to read regularly then you seemed to go on a hiatus and I just noticed you'd started posting again! (woo hoo).
I hope this isn't too weird, I wanted to comment on this post at least partially because it's excellent, but I also wanted to figure out a way to get in touch with you about my new project (which my url links to) that seemed to connect with some of what you were saying about how marginalized identities seem to (to the media and society at large) only be able to come one at a time: like the idea of people with disabilities always being straight white men, or lesbians being white cis* able-bodied women etc....

Anyway, if you'd be willing to email about my project (basically attempting to deal with the "fact" that marginalized identities seem to only be "tackled" one at a time in services for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault), I'd super appreciate it, as I'm trying to get it off the ground and get a bit of community notice so that it really reflects the needs of everyone. My email is e reis burgin (without spaces) at google's email doohickey. (I tried finding a contact here on the site but I seem particularly bad at finding those things).

Anonymous said...

There is something you haven't commented on in this hierarchy, and it's age discrimination at the latter end of life.

This country is full of people over pension age who are the invisible disabled. "Oh, it's only must expect that at your age....go to the back of the queue....what is someone of your age doing worrying about lack of sex/employment/social isolation?"

And the victims of this discrimination usually compound the problem by agreeing with the judgements; they don't see themselves as "disabled" and all too often don't take up even the miserly help that is available.

And don't even get me started on the dementias....

The Goldfish said...

Thanks everyone.

And yes Charles, I will get to it somehow. It is an utter scandal the way that sometimes very severe impairment is seen as a natural and thus ignorable part of growing older - and that seems to start pretty early.

It's also weird when you see people who have been disabled all their adult lives, who are suddenly regarded quite differently when they reach 65. On the one hand, they can become more "normal" because of this idea that impairment is natural. On the other hand, they can lose access to all kinds of help and support that they were able to take for granted at a younger age.

I will get to this - I really did mean to write just the one post, but I keep thinking of more vitally important aspects of this!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. As a psychiatrically disabled woman, yet able-bodied, I think a lot about the looks I get when I use my food stamps at the supermarket (granted from SSDI). Additionally, as a schizoaffective femme lesbian, there's a whole lot of crazy going on that is less visible. This hierarchy thing your talking about makes a lot of sense.