Not an Isolated Event

I don’t believe in isolated events, much. We’re all interconnected, we all operate on the same universal system. We perceive, we process, we develop thoughts, we act on those thoughts. We might do that in different ways, but we all do it. The choices people make are never made in isolation. They’re informed by past experiences, which can easily be warped by internal biases. Internal biases can come about from past experiences, or they can be part of a wider social system of biases. I don’t believe in isolated events. We’re too interconnected.

That’s why the abduction (yes, abduction, a woman has been taken away against her will) worries me so much. Kerima Cevik writes about the abduction of non-verbal autistic adult Sharisa Joy Kochmeister, who was judged to be incompetent by authorities. She had her communication device taken from her, was relocated to live in a group home for the elderly with dementia, denied access to friends and family and even her doctor, and declared to have an IQ of 47.

Given a keyboard to communicate with, this is a woman who has an IQ in the genius range, completed a university degree in Sociology and Psychology, and has variously served as president, editor in chief and writer for various autism groups and conventions.

This goes to show the danger of assuming that just because someone can’t communicate the way you’d prefer, that they’re not competent.

It can happen to anyone, no matter what your IQ, your achievements, someone can take away your independence, your self determination, pretty much any of your human rights they fancy. As Kerima says, all it takes is one wrong move, one person in a position of power who has those aforementioned biases. I very much doubt that these biases are purely the result of experience. There are so many fantastically capable, witty, independent nonverbal people out there, it’s almost impossible to believe that the belief in their incompetence is the result of repeated experience.

It’s likely, then, that this attitude towards non-verbal people is a matter of society’s bias, not that of the individual. We as a society devalue and dehumanise the disabled. We hold articulate, spoken communication to be the ideal, we value apparent intelligence above anything else. We use disabilities as insults. How then, can we possibly avoid internalising these views? Most of us can’t. Almost everyone I know who isn’t disabled (and even some who are) frequently use ableist language. It’s so deeply ingrained in our culture. Stupid, lame, r-tarded, these are the go-to words for anything that doesn’t work the way we think it should.

“Oh”, they say, “but it doesn’t mean actually lame”. Let’s play a game for a moment. A thought experiment. Take your name, it’s a word you identify with, it’s a word that means you. Now let’s pretend that your name is an insult.

“That’s so Katie” people say, rolling their eyes at an idea they find ridiculous. “That’s pretty Stuart“, when they mean it’s rubbish. You might see how, after a few thousand times of hearing this in everyday conversation, it might start to get you down. “But it doesn’t mean you,” they emphasise, “it’s just another word for crap”. A word that identifies you being used regularly as an insult, a descriptor of things that aren’t good. You could, of course, change your name. We, the disabled, don’t get to pop down to an office, fill in a form and not be disabled anymore. Many of us with conditions that are unlikely to ever be cured will hear “stop being so Olivia” for the rest of our lives.

Then there’s what other people think. They hear you’re a Josh and subconsciously, it creeps into their mind that being a Josh means you’re incapable, that you’re not deserving of kindness, only pity. Regardless of the facts, they start to treat you like you can’t do anything for yourself, like you don’t feel, like you’re not human. Only people get human rights, and Joshes aren’t really people, are they?

It’s a cruel society that continues to shame people for characteristics outside their control. It’s an uncaring society that allows those subconscious ideas to shape how people are treated. It’s a truly sick society that defends those views. We don’t just need to get Sharisa released, we need to change the way we view and treat disabled people.

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