Us v.s. Them

Us v.s. Them

This post is part of the Blogging Against Disablism Day (BADD) hosted by Diary of a Goldfish. Find more posts here and follow tweets @BADDtweets

Treading into the land of disability is a dangerous proposition. You’ll encounter many unexpected things. From the outside I think people expect that disability is one experience, one thing, and that every disabled person loves every other disabled person, that the experience of disability has brought them together in a shared experience.

To me the strangest thing about getting involved in disability rights is the sharp lines that I see drawn.

I’m a very hippy, new-age, live and let live, we are all equal kind of person. That’s the filter through which I see the world.

Now, I’m well aware that every disability is unique and every person who has one is unique, so I don’t expect people to come together and sing kumbaya just because they both have spinal cord injuries or are both blind or whatever it is. The thing that really jumps out at me is the US v.s. THEM attitude coming from both sides of disability.

I hear non-disabled people talking about people who have disabilities and it’s as though they are talking about a different species! Like that experience is so “other,” so far removed, that they cannot relate or understand it. Whether they’re joking about sensitivity to politically correct language or complaining about wasteful social security or praising the bravery of someone going grocery shopping in a wheelchair, there seems to be a complete lack of humanity. They really do not seem to see that this other person is a person.

How does that happen? I just don’t know.

It happens on the other side too. I hear people with disabilities making it into an exclusive club. Having had too many experiences of non-disabled people trying to dictate how they live and getting angry at them for not being more grateful, people who have disabilities might stay in their own niche and shut up anyone non-disabled who tries to enter the discourse.

Some people see their disability status as a political identity and others might disatance themselves from labeling themselves as disabled for fear that they will no longer be considered part of the same species as their peers and coworkers and friends and family. (Though I believe it is wrong to say that one is not disabled because you see disability as a thing that makes you lesser or weak or unfortunate).

I wonder what side of this line I belong on.

I spend a lot of time and passion on equal rights for people who have physical disabilities. Sometimes I am not welcome because I do not have a physical disability.

I spend very little time talking about the disability I do have, which is Asperger’s syndrome.

Am I welcome at the disability discourse or not? Depends whom you ask.

Something that’s interesting to me as someone with a mostly invisible disability is how I get categorized on one side of this line or the other. When I got diagnosed, for some people I shifted into a new place in their minds. Even though I had not changed. Nothing about me was different. Just my label. And suddenly, I was “other.” I imagine this happens with people who sustain a traumatic injury or a stroke. They are still themselves, so why are they suddenly forced across this line into the territory of DISABILITY, its own world?

The divide is an illusion. There is no divide. We are all humans.

My position has always been that we are all on one side in this battle. Everyone is disabled in some way. I have yet to meet a person who has never struggled with some impairment either physical or mental or some combination. When you think about the variety of things that are disabilities from dyslexia to dwarfism to cerebral palsy to chronic fatigue…you’re bound to fall into one of these categories, I suspect. Severe nearsightedness or lactose intolerance, I could go on and on. Can anyone honestly tell me that they struggle with NONE of these things? It isn’t about disability, it’s about humanity. Being physically and mentally vulnerable is a part of being human.

So if you think you are someone who is not disabled, don’t get all “white man’s burden” and think you should be charitable and help the poor disabled people whose lives are so much worse than yours. That attitude will never lead to anything good. They are not some project for you to make yourself feel like a good person with. They are you.

There is no fence. There is no divide. The stories of disability are the stories of humanity and they are our stories. All of us.



  1. Maija Haavisto
    May 1, 2012

    This is something that I discuss quite a lot in my novels, especially my newest one. What is disability/illness? For example in my first novel there is a character who is an “alcoholic”, but she doesn’t see it as an illness, more like a hobby or a lifestyle. It doesn’t bother her.

    Then in my newest novel there is a person who has a mild speech defect, which most people won’t even notice, but it has had a profound effect on his self-esteem and even his choice of career. Disability? Sure.

    It’s true that almost everyone has some sort of a illness or condition that could be classified as a disability. It depends on the language too: e.g. in Finnish the word for “disabled” has very negative connotations and generally associates strongly to physical, visible handicap, like wheelchair users, amputees, visible deformations etc. Very few Finns with e.g. mental health issues or even a physically debilitating illness like CFS/ME consider themselves “disabled”, because they have a hard time identifying with the word.

    I feel like autists in particular often divide the world into autists and the neurotypical. Many seem to feel like if you aren’t an autist, you won’t have trouble communicating with others or fitting into the world. Of course it isn’t that clear-cut, many non-autists have such problems too.

    • RuthMadison
      May 1, 2012

      So true! And perhaps for me being diagnosed later in life with AS, I’m less quick to draw that line. I know that everyone has trouble communicating what they mean sometimes!

      I think I need to read your books! Sound like my kind of stories 🙂

      • Maija Haavisto
        May 2, 2012

        If you know any publisher that might want to purchase the translation rights, please let me know! :->

        • RuthMadison
          May 2, 2012

          I self-publish my work, so I don’t (at least currently) have access to any info like that :-/

  2. The Goldfish
    May 1, 2012

    This is great, Ruth. Thanks for taking part today.

    I think that in all groups of oppressed people, because people feel cornered by the rest of the world, there can be divisions which amount to little more than social cliques. Other communities I belong to, like the LGBT community – let alone feminists! – have similar nonsense swirling about within them.

    The irony is that it’s often people with the most power and independence who get to exclude others. ..

    • RuthMadison
      May 1, 2012

      That’s a good insight. I think you’re right that it’s something about feeling cornered that leads to the cliques! Thank you for hosting the BADD. It’s always a pleasure to read everyone’s entries.

  3. NTE
    May 2, 2012

    I was thinking about this in terms of intersectionality as well – as The Goldfish was saying, even within social justice circles, there’s a whole lot of us vs them, and it seems so counterproductive.

    • RuthMadison
      May 3, 2012

      Yes. I see it too in the spiritual writing that I do under another name. To me, all of humanity is one family and unity is what I see in the world, yet every where people seem to love to divide. I don’t think I’ll ever understand it.

  4. Beverly Diehl
    May 3, 2012

    I belong to many different special interest groups, and may spend more time in one or another, depending on my mood. I think what makes disability (and race/skin color) a little different is people pretty much ARE on one side or another (whether they’re in the mood or not). People who are living without a major disability take for granted they will always be able-bodied (unless they have a ski accident or cataract surgery and realize how precarious the dividing line is). Paraplegics don’t imagine they’re going to stop needing a wheelchair ramp anytime soon.

    We’re all the norm, to ourselves, and people who are differently colored or differently religious or differently abled than ourselves, are usually going to be “the other” in our heads. Until we talk to “the other” and find out, actually, we share an interest in Beanie Babies or growing roses or anime or whatever.

    • RuthMadison
      May 10, 2012

      There really must be something in human nature that needs to create these lines, I guess. I find it so discouraging!

  5. GirlWithTheCane
    May 10, 2012

    I’m a little late getting here, Ruth (obviously)…sorry.

    I love what you’re saying in this post. I’ve often thought that if I write another book, it will be about how my work with people with developmental disabilities has shown me that regardless of the disability’s nature, there are so many commonalities in how those that have a disability experience the world and feel about what they experience that drawing the lines you talk about is…just not constructive. Living with disability is such a deeply human experience…why create division when there doesn’t need to be any?

    (I’m still waking up. I hope that made sense.)

    • RuthMadison
      May 10, 2012

      Makes perfect sense! “Why create division?” That’s exactly my thought. Maybe there is some purpose for it that I just can’t see.


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