The difference slot

There is no doubt that lot of people seem to have a hard time accepting that someone they know has a disability. This is easily proven by the endless amount of hasty, ignorant, misinformed, uncaring and downright malicious things both said and done to people with disabilites every day. Most of the people I spend my time with nowadays for the most part aren’t like that. However, many of them, even though they seem superficially informed about basic disability issues, seem to belive in the difference slot.

The basic idea is that each and every person has their difference, and that it should be respected. Note the singular form, however. When they learn of my autism, which is usually the first major difference to come up in conversation, they seem to think “oh, so that’s her difference”. They then proceed to fill in my difference slot in their mental table, and everything is as it should be.

Or, so they think.

Then, a little while later, I happen to mention some other thing that makes me very different from most other people, and their belief system collides head-on with reality. Usually, it’s another one of my disabilities that triggers it. This is when they almost invariably go ”…” for a while, only to finish with “you have that too?” In other words, “your difference slot is already filled, and you can’t have another one”.

What happens afterwards depends on how open-minded the person is. The more flexible ones realise that their system doesn’t apply to everyone, and adapt accordingly. These people tend to become (or remain) my friends. Then there’s the ones who respond with denial, either trying to question or downplay this newly discovered difference, or in more annoying cases (since they’re less honest) just get very quiet and uncomfortable whenever I mention any difference (especially if it’s a disability) from then on.

I won’t bore you with a list of my ailments, but I do have enough of them that some of them are bound to come up in the course of a normal conversation, simply because so many of them affect my daliy life in a multitude of ways. In fact, the only way I could avoid mentioning any of them would be to either lie about my life, or basically not talk about it at all. I don’t care much for either of those options, as I’m not ashamed of the way I am.

I do, however, sometimes go a bit too far in my attempts to make people I care about comfortable around me, and since one of them is of the annoying-silence-upon-hints-of-disability type, I’ve been going out of my way to keep that subject out of our conversations, mostly because I had no idea why people acted that way. It was just one more peculiarity in a world of very strange and illogical people (i.e. what they call “normal people”).

Then I read some eye-opening words and learned some reasons behind such behaviour, i.e. people projecting their fears and negative beliefs of disability onto my often quite enjoyable life. With some insight into the patterns behind it, I could begin to structure and understand my feelings on the subject, and also put them into these words. It also helped me realise a very important difference, one that I’ve been trying to understand for a very long time; that between speaking of a thing and whining about it.

According to everyone I know, except this one person, I very rarely whine about my difficulties, and yet I’ve been terrified that he might think I do, since I’ve been taught that his behaviour means “your experiences are not valid and I won’t help you”. This is another one of those dysfunctional lessons I learned as a child, as any complaint or request for accomodation that people didn’t belive I needed, didn’t understand, or simply didn’t want to bother about, was dismissed as whining.

But mentioning a problem isn’t the same as whining about it. This may sound obvious, but I only fully realised it this last Friday. I also realised some of the implications of this, one of which being that it’s not my responsibility to censor myself if people are so afraid of hearing anything negative that they cannot tolerate balanced discussions of everyday life.

I have a hard time understanding this unwillningness to discuss anything negative, or even not explicitly positive, but I see it quite often. Most of the people I’ve seen displaying this attitude have done so in defense of beliefs they either know or have begun to suspect are false, so my theory is that it’s a version of the “stop confusing me with the truth”-argument. I’m open to alternative explanations, of course.