Oh dear. I suspect this is where my whimsical, cheerful little blog may get a teensy bit controversial (again). I’ll try and find a nice, fluffy photo for the end to soothe any tensions raised. So the question is; can you ask a disabled person “What have you got?” Someone I know was asked this question the other day. “EEEEK” “Shit! That’s outrageous!” “WTF??????” Were the sort of responses from other people when they heard (with a bit of swear embellishment). The question asker was an adult.
I’ve been thinking about this and am a bit undecided. Well I sort of do know what I think, but I know what I think flies in the face of a lot of thinking, conceptualising and theorising about disability.
I think people should ask if they want to know. To treat the question as offensive, problematic or unacceptable underlines an interpretation of difference as something to be ashamed of. The discomfort around the question relates more to other people than person being asked. “No, but it’s personal, it’s none of their business,” you cry. Well, it maybe personal to some people, maybe not be to others. Who has the right to decide that? The person being asked can always choose not to answer.
“But it may make them feel bad, that they’ve been singled out as ‘having something'”…. Well possibly, but I can imagine that many disabled people will be used to people sneaking a peek and then quickly looking away, whenever they are out in public. And, as naturally curious social beings, if the person isn’t being asked directly, you can guarantee that people will ask other people about them. Now that really is problematic and creates distance between disabled people and others.
Lots of disability activists and academics argue that the disabled person ain’t got a problem, the problem lies in the barriers created by others. Yep, that is very true to some extent. But they’ve also got something; a form of difference or, to use that crap word, impairment.
I had a letter published in the Guardian a few years ago. A rant about some over-priviliged columnist writing an ill-informed, offensive load of sentimental drivel about her friend’s disabled child. Unfortunately, the letter editor cut a vital sentence from the letter, leaving me to state categorically that disability was socially constructed. I then had a flurry of angry letters including one from some old guy inviting “the terribly earnest doc sarasiobhan to Budleigh Salterton to see for herself that my missing leg is, indeed, missing”.
Bud Salt guy has got a missing leg. Other people have got different things; an extra chromosome, a degenerative condition, a spinal injury, autism, Down’s syndrome and so on. So why are we treating the engagement with the ‘got’ thing as something taboo? Kids always ask and research suggests that disabled people don’t have a problem with that. It is curiosity. If they get the answer, they can make sense of it, learn that everyone is different, (hopefully realise the offensiveness of some of the terms they bandy round the playground) and there is a shift in the way in which difference (impairment) is perceived. Unfortunately, kids are told that these questions are unacceptable, thereby underlining the negativity attached to difference. (Just remember that hoo haa about the one armed children’s BBC presenter…).
Some people would take offence to the ‘got’ question because they would argue they haven’t got something, they are something. For example, autistic. But those people could easily answer the got question by saying that.
I suppose my position comes partly from the approach I’ve taken with LB. When he unexpectedly (for all sorts of reasons, not least we hadn’t realised how well he could read) read that he had an extra chromosome and was on the autism spectrum, he wanted to know more. In explaining it, or trying to explain it, to him, I said that everyone has got something, or if they haven’t got something now, they will at some point in the future. He was quite happy with that and, interestingly, selects out particular people every now and again, like Steve Wright, and asks what they’ve got.
There is problem when people ask “What is wrong with you”. But an understanding that we’ve all ‘got’ something, or will have at some point, makes the question “What have you got?” perfectly reasonable. So I suggest we just crack on and get the gots out there.