About that “only disability in life” meme

A picture of Oscar Pistorius running alongside a little girl in a yellow dress with prosthetic legs similar to hisYou can’t be on social media for more than a few weeks at a time, especially in any group with any disability connection whatever, without someone posting that infuriating meme that says “The only disability in life is a bad attitude!” at least once. This morning someone posted it on an Asperger’s syndrome page I follow on Facebook, with the caption “like if you agree”. I posted a comment saying I didn’t agree, that some disability was the result of others’ attitudes and barriers placed by society, and of chronic pain and other symptoms which might prevent someone getting out of bed, let alone going to work or to do sports or whatever. Still, it seems I was in the minority, as 216 people, at the time of this writing, have “liked” it.

Why is the meme a load of old rubbish? Typically it appears pasted onto an “inspirational” picture, in this case (not the one accompanying this entry) of a girl with Down’s syndrome with both thumbs up. The girl looks about six, so perhaps she’s not long started school, and has a loving family and goes to a school where she’s got friends (perhaps because children have yet to notice she’s different) and teachers that are helpful. She’s got a few years of school ahead of her and perhaps she’s yet to get to the point where teachers decide her presence is holding back the other children, or maybe the point where the children do notice she’s different and start bullying her about it. Perhaps her parents will be able to protect her. Perhaps she won’t even be able to understand the cruel remarks made by adults — perhaps nobody has mentioned in front of her that the majority of foetuses with Down’s syndrome are aborted, and that maybe it would have been kinder all round if she had been among them.

I don’t know what country the girl lives in. Perhaps it’s the USA. Perhaps she comes from quite a well-off family which will be able to cushion the blows life (and people) typically deliver to a young person with a learning disability. Perhaps her parents will be willing and able to fight to keep her in a local school, rather than sending her away to boarding school, or to a special school miles away that requires a two-hour daily bus commute. Perhaps when she grows up, they will be willing and able to allow her to live at home, and perhaps her family will have friends that can take her out swimming, to sports, to the zoo, maybe even to run a business. Or perhaps the local social services will provide carers to do this, or to help. Perhaps as she gets older, her parents won’t grow old and frail too quickly, and perhaps her brothers and sisters (if she has any) will be able to provide the care her parents do now. Maybe even her nephews and nieces.

I don’t know if she has had to have heart surgery. I don’t know if she required a tracheotomy to breathe for many years. (Her neck is covered by her collar.) I presume she hasn’t yet developed the dementia that people with Down’s syndrome are very prone to. Maybe she will or won’t have a relationship; one hopes she won’t be one of the very large percentage of disabled women who are victims of domestic violence (disabled men don’t fare much better) — though as a white female, she is less likely to be killed by the police for refusing to leave a cinema after one showing of her favourite film or provoked into lashing out at them, resulting in years in jail, or shot at because a medical device is mistaken for a weapon. Perhaps she will have friends, and not people who pretend to be friends so as to exploit or abuse her. Perhaps she’ll be able to live in her own home; will that be in a pleasant neighbourhood where people treat her as one of them, or one with a lot of delinquents who harass her when she steps out? I presume she isn’t also autistic. Perhaps, if she is, she won’t be in and out of the mental health system when she gets older and has one meltdown too many when she’s too big to manage. Perhaps they’ll be kind to her. Perhaps the authorities won’t shunt her from place to place, far from home, full of unfamiliar and unfriendly faces, full of locked doors and staff that don’t understand her and whom she doesn’t understand. Perhaps her family will be able to make the journey of hundreds of miles to see her often. Perhaps they won’t. Perhaps she will be allowed to be visited by her brothers and sisters, and maybe her dog; perhaps people will decide the institution is not safe for the younger ones and that the dog is a health hazard. Perhaps the people running the place will see it’s not the right place; perhaps not. Perhaps they will allow her home for Christmas or her birthday; perhaps they will think it’s too much trouble and she won’t come back. Perhaps her family will be able to fight, and have supporters. Perhaps they won’t. But the people who make all these decisions will put them down to her attitude, not their own.

Perhaps, if her health is fragile, she will be able to spend her last days surrounded by her family, whether at home, or in a hospital or hospice. Or perhaps their last view of her will be in a coma, after suffering a heart attack, with unexplained carpet burns, or having drowned in the bath, or choked on her own vomit in bed, or eaten herself to death because she was locked in a room for years and unstimulated? Of course, nobody will say she has a bad attitude then, but they might fault her parents’ attitude, call them ‘toxic’ and say they were difficult to deal with.

It’s ironic that this appeared on a group that’s meant to spread “awareness” of Asperger’s syndrome (and I’m not even going to get into the discussion of whether that term is still appropriate), because young people with that condition are very likely to be impacted by others’ attitudes — people’s judgements about their stimming, or repetitve habits, or lack of social graces, or failure to appreciate others’ body language, or whatever. Many of us get teased or bullied, and then told it’s our fault or to “just ignore it”. We get blamed for situations that are of others’ making and shunted off somewhere when the teaching profession decides we are too much of a handful. I’m well aware that schools are more aware of autistic spectrum disorders now than they were in the 90s (when children affected were considered naughty, disruptive, or just weird), but some children still get badly bullied (especially in secondary school) and some teachers are still not understanding. I know two families whose daughters suffered mental health crises as a result of this. One of them has been in hospital, on and off, for three years. (Her 16th birthday is tomorrow, and she’ll get three hours at home.) Mental health units are not equipped to deal with autism, even though they see a lot of autistic patients.

And of course, we should consider the barriers that those with physical impairments face: buildings and public transport they cannot access, books they cannot read, conversations they cannot hear, people who refuse to make any accommodations for any of these things because it’s too expensive, or won’t deploy them because it’s too much effort, and they can find someone else to do the job that won’t need any of it, and less obvious barriers such as medical staff who cannot see past their preconceived ideas. None of this has anything to do with the disabled person’s attitude and very much to do with other people’s. As Stella Young put it, in response to this same clické, “no amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp”.

A cartoon showing a person in a wheelchair being pulled up by a hot air balloon, with the words "The only disability in life is a bad attitude" scribbed out, with "Tell that to my body!" and "The greatest barrier to a happy life is a bad attitude" written above and below.Hannah Ensor, the cartoonist who has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, reacted to this meme by scribbling over it and writing “Tell that to my body!”, but adding “the greatest barrier to a happy life is a bad attitude”. She has a point: a bad attitude can stop you seeing the good things in life, of making the best of one’s situation, of finding solutions and ways round barriers. But it’s not the only disability in life, except perhaps if you have an uncomplicated impairment and, crucially, lots of money, as that’s what living with disability requires. You could otherwise be the sweetest, sunniest disabled person around, but if you are forced to exist in miserable conditions or abused again and again, you are not going to have a good life. (Every eventuality I have mentioned in this article has happened, most of them to people I know or their friends and relatives.)

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