Most people with a disability (or more than one of) probably have heard the “but you don’t look like (you would have that specific disability)”. What are the disabled supposed to look like? There seem to be apparently some invisible style guides somewhere that dictate how we should look, dress and act. Are there?
Is there even one disability that doesn’t have the image in people’s mind about the look? Except, of course, when the disability isn’t perceived as such. When it’s too common, or you’ve lived with it in your family for decades. Yet even then it still does often have those old stereotypes… let’s start with the common ones.
Dyslexia affects apparently 1 in 5 of English speakers (readers) in USA, 1 in 10 in UK. (Wait, what? Do they teach the language so much more efficiently in UK? I don’t think they can use any genetic excuse for the discrepancy) So what do the dyslexic look like? Clumsy, insecure children or teenagers that can’t spell and suck in sports? Or when we grow up, we just avoid reading print books or typing, have a horrendous handwriting, and end up all successful like Richard Branson or Neil Milliken? Or if born with a wrong skintone, we’ll end up in the school to prison feed? Stop. If it’s one in five, think of the people around you. How many dyslexics do you know? For most people that you don’t know that well, you won’t know, because there is often still too much stigma, so the print disability stays hidden and unsaid.
Clinically bad hearing, including being hard of hearing or D/deaf, affects 1 in 6 Americans. What kind of mental imagery do hearing difficulties sprout in your mind? Od people with those skin tone colored plastic earpieces and funny voice? The super expressive facial expressions owning Deaf person with very deaf voice? Those won’t count to that 16% of the population. So think again. All those people that look at you(r lips) when you talk or they get lost. Those who complain about your accent or facial hair, or sound like they have some minor speech issue or (gasp) a foreign accent. Those who use closed captions or subtitles when watching movies. And many master the skills so stealthily that you won’t know. I’ve heard of deaf people who’ve passed oral job interviews in person, without having to admit anyone they can’t hear a thing. I’ve heard many deaf voices that don’t sound deaf because the person could hear when they learned their first language and so on. If someone asks you to write something on paper or on their phone because they seem to have difficulties getting your message otherwise, that could be a good clue. But is there a general look? Not even the talkativeness with hands and expressive face, as very few people have grown up in signed environment.
One in four or five have criteria for being stamped with some psychiatric issue as listed in the psychiatrists’ diagnostic “bible”. ADD would probably give the image of a male child under the age of high school, not concentrating on anything and running amok when they are supposed to study…. yet grown up people have attention issues too, and *cough* 4 year old children aren’t supposed to sit on their butt all day doing adult-lead “play” or study; they should be allowed to be children and play. And for depression related issues, kill your mental imagery of drama queen young women and middle-aged women. I’ve read even 25% of US women aged 40 to 60 are on antidepressant prescription drugs. That sounds like a heck of a pandemic. Or maybe the society’s marketed ideals for happiness and medical doctors’ attitudes towards patients who have a female body might play a bit bigger role than you’d expect. If you want to try to imagine what the so called mentally ill might look like, think more the likes of Carrie Fisher, George Bush, Elton John and Stefani Germanotta than just the nameless, homeless folks.
Mobility issues should at least be more visibly easy to detect, right? Like when someone uses a wheelchair… yes and no perhaps. Not all wheelchair using population are paralyzed or totally unable to move their legs. Not all people using a cane or any other mobility improving device use it for the same exact reason.
And not all people who don’t see the world like you look like you’d imagine. The colorblind person isn’t a white guy and doesn’t dress in red and green clown outfits. The blind or low vision person, no matter how they dress, will fail to some of the weird blindy look epectations. Too young. Or they don’t dress like they got their clothes thirty years ago when they could still see around. Or they went blind later in life and by looking at them you don’t notice they don’t see a thing any more. Or you think they should be dressed in black and be covered in guide dog fur, and then if they are dressed in black, then it’s the why are you dressed in black if you’re blind… Why would they have a trendy haircut, wear makeup, have tattoos, wear fashionable clothing etc that everyone else would? Because why wouldn’t they perhaps… a pretty outfit, a nice hair and a face or makeup that makes you feel pretty feels good and gives confidence. Not all wear sunglasses (some even wear regular prescription glasses, even with a cane), not all read braille, and not all use a cane or a dog or get out of their home in winter. It’s like… people with sight related issues came from all walks of life. (Insert a blind giggly face here)
If autistic people have an image you think they should confirm to, erase those images from your mind. Most autistic people are adults, and many are not male, so the upper middleclass male child under the age of 10, being a nonspeaking math genius and rocking to soothe self don’t apply to all of us. Yes, autistics are also composed of women (and other not-men type people), come from all cultures and economic backgrounds, and come with a variety of skintones. So please cease to use the “but you are nothing like my child” when you are met by an autistic adult. Because your comment will make as little sense as if it was the other way around: “wow, you are not-autistic? Are you sure? You are nothing like this other not-autistic person I know (then adding a long list of comparisons for how they differ from a 60 year old woman who’s just an average European)”. Because just like someone who might share one disability with someone else does not make automatically much of a connection, just equally the lack of disability isn’t an automatic connection.
“When you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person” sums it up, and also for other disabilities AND other features in life. Just like when you’ve met ONE person from a specific country or culture, you probably shouldn’t do detailed generalizations about those groups of people, so don’t do it for the disabilities either. If you’ve met for instance one person from Sweden, he or she might have skin the tone of milk chocolate and be into basketball, yet neither feature is common in Sweden. Or if you live in Europe and meet one American, maybe that one person happens to own a crocodile farm in Louisiana, or be a vegan wheelchair using priest, or be anything like one random person living in a huge country might look like.
If or when I’d have a service dog, I’d expect to get the enquiring questions quite a bit. Is he mine, and which things is he for…
What comments or questions do you get for your “wrong looks”?