Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Wheelchair Dancer on Gender and Disability in Everyday Interactions

One of the posts highlighed in today's Recommended Reading post on FWD/Forward was this little gem from Wheelchair Dancer, describing a conversation she overheard.

It was between a man and a woman, about the rules of bridge. The man is explaining something very authoritatively, to which the woman, for the most part, listens passively, occasionally asking questions which the man cannot always answer. It becomes apparent that he's just as new to the game as she is --- he's just assumed the role of The Authority in this conversation, even though he's no more an authority on bridge than she is.
As far as the negative power relation between men and women goes, this conversation, sadly, would not stand out were it not for the way in which the woman responds to the answers she gets.

For every thing she doesn't understand right off the bat or simply gets wrong, she claims a disability. So far, she has memory issues, is dyslexic, is losing her mind, is "slow ...". As I listen to her, I suppose that any or all of these things could be true. ... Nonetheless, as the stream of different disabilities continues, I begin to wonder if claims of disability function as a cushion between the painful abruptness of her partner and her desire to do better and earn his acceptance. In other words, the woman may be disabled in all those ways, but in the context of the conversation, disability also serves as an excuse/reason for her "stupidity" in the face of her partner's "brilliance."

Wheelchair Dancer doesn't think it's an accident that the woman's (apparent) disability functions like this --- to diminish her presence, shrink her further and further into the background --- she sees this uncomprehending silence, this unquestioning acceptance of the man's greater expertise, this constant deprecation of her own understanding, as part of the way the woman has chosen to "do disability":
She does disability in the old way, a way in which the value of our diverse minds and bodies is not acknowledged. Her disability is a weakness that separates her from an actively feminist goal of being an equal partner in the conversation and the game.
Rather than stop the conversation and ask the man to go slower, repeat something, or rephrase or elaborate on something until she feels she understands what he's trying to say and can either agree with it or challenge it, she stays quiet, unwilling or unable to ask him to adjust his manner of speaking to her needs. She's shrinking herself, subordinating herself to him, taking part in the conversation either on his terms and at his pace or not at all.

A commenter pointed out that, from the way Wheelchair Dancer described him, the male half of this duo could very well have some communication impairments of his own --- on the "sending" rather than the "receiving" end.

I think they might be right, because there are elements of Wheelchair Dancer's description of the man's conversational and interpersonal style --- his rigidity, his lack of eye contact, the apparent effort with which he speaks --- that are in fact features of a disability I have, which does interfere with my ability to communicate via speech.

But even if that's true, and the man, too, has some communication impairment that's making him have to work very hard even to put his thoughts into words at all --- let alone rearranging and streamlining those words so that they are intelligible to the woman, who seems to have receptive language difficulties --- the man would still be using his disability to silence the woman, to shut her out of equal participation in the discussion.

By dominating the conversation, by taking on the role of The Authority, he's still saying that, whatever impairments he may have, he's the one setting the terms for this interaction.

Also, even if they both have disabilities affecting their ability to communicate, she's the only one who ever references them --- and she only references her own disabilities, and that in a self-deprecating way, not in a way that indicates she's asking the man to accommodate her. Whether the man has a disability of his own or not, he's set himself up as the standard against which she has to measure herself. Does she understand his sentences? If she doesn't, there must be something wrong with her, because they're totally clear to him!

So, still working under this assumption that both participants in this conversation have language difficulties (receptive or expressive), we find that both partners have different ways of "doing" disability, and --- surprise! --- both of them involve the woman shutting up and retreating into the background.

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