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Thursday, April 16, 2015

Ableism, Part 1

I read a blog post a couple of months back on "ableist language," specifically, using disability metaphors like "crippled by debt" or "you'd have to be insane." In the post, the author takes issue with people using words like crazy, insane, lunatic, and psycho.
As a person with a mental illness, I don't object to the first three words at all; to me, those words are so far removed from the words we use to describe mental illness. And my objection to psycho is covered here (and also kind of here).  
But I want to talk about some terms people don't think they're using in an insulting way. These are clinical terms that people use to describe harmless personality quirks, unintentionally trivializing diseases that are anything but trivial. 

OCD: People use this to mean fastidious or even clean as if, the desire to wipe down your kitchen counters is somehow the same as suffering from a debilitating disease. OCD is, in the words of this Cracked article, "an incapacitating, isolating disease that makes you afraid of your own mind." Just like it would be horribly inappropriate and insensitive to say "I'm so stage-4 lung cancer" every time you have a little cough, it's inappropriate and insensitive to say "I'm so OCD" when you feel compelled to wash your hands before dinner. And yes, I have totally been guilty of this one in the past (although in my defense, I was once diagnosed with OCD when some god-awful school shrink decided crippling anxiety and suicidal depression weren't interesting enough).
This scene makes me instantly burst into tears.
Anyone who has ever lived with a serious chronic illness
understands this moment far too well. 
Bipolar: People use this to mean prone to mood swings and man, I'd give anything to just be prone to mood swings. And actually, the whole mood swing thing isn't particularly accurate -while people with bipolar sometimes shift between mania and depression rapidly, it's very common for manic or depressive episodes to last months. Mischaracterizing the disease that way makes it seem like bipolar disorder is way less serious than it is. If we habitually trivialize bipolar disorder by equating it with a tendency to get emotional, then we start to trivialize people with bipolar disorder too, seeing their behavior as drama rather than as a really serious and very life-threatening disease.
ADD: People use it to mean having trouble paying attention sometimes when it's actually way more serious than that. How often do you hear people gripe about how in their day, the nuns just beat the crap out of children who didn't pay attention and now we just give them zombie pills. But as this article does a great job of illustrating, ADD is about way more than inability to concentrate. In fact, people with ADD can be really good at concentrating... just not necessarily on the thing they're trying desperately to concentrate on. 

Every single thing that comes in the front door gets written directly on the whiteboard in bold, underlined red letters, no matter what it is, and no matter what has to be erased in order for it to fit. 
As such, if we're in the middle of some particularly important mental task, and our eye should happen to light upon... a doorknob, for instance, it's like someone burst into the room, clad in pink feathers and heralded by trumpets, screaming HEY LOOK EVERYONE, IT'S A DOORKNOB! LOOK AT IT! LOOK! IT OPENS THE DOOR IF YOU TURN IT! ...It's like living in a soft rain of post-it notes. 
People with ADD don't have the filters needed to learn and focus, and diagnosing them is the first step toward helping them to develop filters, learn coping strategies. Early intervention can lead to greater achievement in school and life. So while the kid who got the crap beat out of him by nuns for misbehaving maybe learned to sit still but maybe also grew up to do a crappy menial job when, with maybe therapy and medication, she could have grown up to be a doctor. So characterizing it as just an inability to pay attention can rob kids of a way brighter future. 

Taking pictures of doorknobs is for crazies.
Taking 8 pictures of this same drawer knob - totally sane.
Man, it's not even a good picture. Or a particularly interesting knob.

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