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Culture of Prejudice

Posted Jan 26 2011 9:20am
I've been realizing lately that I've been more than a little coddled being part of the online disability community--and, for that matter, the online community in general. Here, we haven't got a problem accepting people who are weird, funny-looking, slower or less coordinated, who need more help than others, or who are just plain different--or else, if someone has got a problem, he's not afraid to say it. Online, reactions to my having autism have tended to be either things like, "Oh, cool, my sister has that," or else something along the lines of, "Ahaha! Ass Burgers! Loser!" It's either obvious acceptance or obvious rejection. So much easier to interpret than the subtler stuff in the non-digital world. Online, people are free to say exactly what they mean--something like what autistics often do in real life--and that, for me, is such a relief!

But it's not so easy offline. When people lose the ability to say exactly what they like through the protection of anonymity, it's much harder to detect prejudice and it's much harder to figure out when somebody is going to mistreat you for being disabled. When children are younger, of course, they lack the social subtlety to pass prejudice under the radar of the socially acceptable; and comments like "ass burger" may easily fly around an elementary or even high-school classroom. But as people get older, the prejudice gets more subtle and, dare I say, politically correct.

Like many engineers-in-training, I'm taking a class that is meant to teach the basics of a concept called Six Sigma. Basically, Six Sigma is a quality-control method that centers around using data-collection and statistical analysis to reduce the error rate in a procedure, whether that procedure involves manufacturing a car or taking care of a post-surgical patient. (Six sigma refers to errors occurring only at six standard deviations or more from the ideal value--a very low error rate.) Six Sigma has become a VERY big thing because people have begun to realize just how much money they lose to errors, and of course, this being business, the bottom line is the bottom line. (I am not at all fond of this philosophy. Shouldn't quality be pursued for its own sake? But then, I am not a natural businesswoman and would much rather work at McDonald's than for the marketing department of a Fortune 500 company, no matter the salary difference.)

In any event (you were wondering where I was going with this random off-topicness, right?), like most students, I paged through the textbook upon first getting it, and in the very first chapter was a quote that warned companies against not being flexible enough: "Learning disabilities are tragic in children, but they are fatal in organizations. Because of them, few corporations live even half as long as a person--most die before they reach the age of forty."

Ouch.

Now, granted, it makes sense: It's bad when a company can't adjust to new circumstances. But learning disabilities aren't tragic; never have been. If there's a tragedy, it's prejudice, not the learning disability itself. For those of us who know about learning disabilities, this is just not a very apt comparison: If there's anything we are good at, it's finding creative ways to work around our weaknesses so that we can do what we want with our lives.

So... like a good little activist, I wrote to the people who had printed the textbook and explained that learning disabilities were not, in fact, a tragedy, and that there were quite a few learning-disabled engineers, including me, looking to learn Six Sigma. And I got a very surprising response.

The author had, it seemed, had no idea that using this quote was even a problem; had, in fact, used it several times; and, apparently, nobody before me had ever brought it to his attention before. So, in the next editions of the books which contain the quote, he plans to change it--a simple solution and all in all, quite a good result--but, given that the author had nothing against people with learning disabilities, and did not intend to imply that we are tragedies, why did this happen in the first place?

The quote is an example of socially acceptable prejudice. Unlike "ass burger" comments and the like, it avoids all the obvious triggers for outrage. It doesn't directly attack people with learning disabilities; it simply takes for granted that "everybody knows learning disabilities are tragic" on the way to using this as an example to demonstrate why companies need to be flexible.

This is the dangerous kind of prejudice--the demure, well-groomed kind that slips into polite society and makes itself at home in the form of ever-so-slight superiority, pity, and the attitude that the disabled should be an object lesson in being thankful for one's blessings.

I would much, much rather be called an "ass burger" or a "retard". At least that sort of prejudice is honest. And at least it's perpetrated by people who know exactly what they are doing--rather than soaked up by well-meaning individuals who then express it unconsciously, almost against their will.

Prejudice like this is embedded in our culture. We grow up breathing it in the air, drinking it in the water. It colors the books we read and the TV shows we watch. And, as though we have been wearing tinted glasses all our lives, we don't realize that the world is actually different from the way we see it. When we have children and those children are diagnosed with a disability, we take it for granted that the disability must be tragic without questioning why. When we ourselves become disabled by age or injury, we mourn a loss rather than simply adjusting to a change. This subtle, cultural prejudice is even adopted by people who have disabilities from birth; and many of us have to deal with it as part of growing up and establishing an independent idea of who we are, apart from what the world tells us we are.

This subtle sort of prejudice is difficult to fight. Unlike the overt sort, you can't even become angry at people who perpetuate it, because most likely they don't even know they are doing it. There's nothing to fight--only people whose viewpoints are skewed so slightly they aren't even aware of it.

But this is where awareness campaigns come in. Rather than using them to explain to people how horrible it is to have a child with autism, why don't we use them to explain to people what autism is like, how we live and how we have fun, how we solve problems, how we interact? Why not show people that autism is not a tragedy simply by giving them a realistic picture of what autism is like--the good, the bad, the everyday people who, like any human being, have problems but yet have the potential for a happy, worthwhile life?

Yes, autism can cause problems. It can be difficult sometimes. Things take longer to learn; things take longer to do; maybe we need more help than most people need. But if we can just explain to the everyday people who have grown up with cultural prejudice that isn't even their fault--if we can induce them to challenge the idea that disability is naturally, obviously tragic--then we'll have won a great victory.
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