Throughout my life, I have heard people say the following:
"I don't think he needs (insert accommodation). Why does he need (insert accommodation) since he is normal?"
"I don't see disabilities. I see human beings."
"I don't see her as a deaf person. She is just like everyone else."
"You would not know he is deaf. He speaks so well. I don't see why he needs an interpreter."
"I don't see why he needs to use an FM system. Can't he be treated the same as everyone else?"
"You don't need captions. You have your hearing aid. I'll turn up the volume. This should help with your listening skills."
I am sure some of you reading this have encountered people saying the above and the following about race:
“I don’t see color when I look at people.”
"I don't see him as a [insert race] person."
I was discussing interesting issues with my brother at lunch one day. He is in school studying Sociology. He always has fascinating ideas and theories to share. One of them is called "colorblind racism." This relates to people, usually white people, who claim to not be racists because they don't see color or race. They attempt to ignore the fact that someone is of a different race than them. My brother gave an example of this: When a white woman dating a black man states, "When I first started dating him I saw him as a black man. But now, I don't see him as a black man, he is just George." If race is not an issue for this woman, why did she feel the need to make this statement?
From a Psychology Today article, Colorblind Ideology is a Form of Racism:
"Colorblindness is the racial ideology that posits the best way to end discrimination is by treating individuals as equally as possible, without regard to race, culture, or ethnicity."
The article discusses why this ideology can be perceived as racist or not helping in the least bit when dealing with race issues.
"Colorblindness creates a society that denies their negative racial experiences, rejects their cultural heritage, and invalidates their unique perspectives."
The author of this article discussed how white people, who are unlikely to experience disadvantages due to their race, can effectively ignore racism. It is not a problem for them, so it is easy to ignore it.
As a side note, I personally do not like the term "colorblind" to describe this ideology because colorblind is an actual term used to describe people who have difficulty with perceiving certain colors.
From learning more about this ideology, I can relate it to how some people react to people with disabilities in similar ways. For some able-bodied or "normal" people, it is easier to ignore the fact that someone has a disability since it is not a problem for them. In some ways they intentionally make themselves blind to the disability as someone would become blind to race. Of course ignoring the issue will not make it go away. They unknowingly practice 'ableism' with the intent of not being an 'ableist.' This idea can do more harm than good, especially when it comes to effectively providing accommodations.
Merriam-Webster defines ableism as discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities
From http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/ableist: "Ableism is a form of discrimination or prejudice against individuals with physical, mental, or developmental disabilities that is characterized by the belief that these individuals need to be fixed or cannot function as full members of society (Castañeda &; Peters, 2000). As a result of these assumptions, individuals with disabilities are commonly viewed as being abnormal rather than as members of a distinct minority community (Olkin & Pledger, 2003; Reid & Knight, 2006). Because disability status has been viewed as a defect rather than a dimension of difference, disability has not been widely recognized as a multicultural concern by the general public as well as by counselor educators and practitioners."
I believe the opposite can happen. People can pretend that they don't see disabilities or people with disabilities as abnormal. They may be intent on treating the person as if they are "normal." They may go so far as to not provide certain accommodations for the person with disabilities in order for them to be treated like everyone else. Not providing them the accommodations they need in order to participate or perform certain duties with everyone else is a form of discrimination. When someone refuses to provide certain accommodations because they don't want to acknowledge the disability, they exclude or make it impossible for the person to participate with everyone else. Perhaps there are many people out there who think that by treating people with disabilities the same as everyone else by claiming to not see their disabilities think they are doing good; not discriminatory or ableist.
I have had a few well-meaning teachers tell me that they were concerned about embarrassing or making a deaf or hard of hearing student stand out by putting on closed captions or asking them where they would like to sit to suit their hearing needs. Sometimes, if the student is not comfortable with advocating for him or herself, their teachers would not attempt to accommodate for their hearing needs in order to not make them feel bad. They figured that if they needed the accommodations, the student will ask for them. I have to explain to them that it is in their IEP (Individualized Education Plan; a legal document) and they must follow it. They thought they were helping their student by not pointing out that they are deaf or hard of hearing and making them feel different from everyone else in the class who do not require the same accommodations. One teacher told me, "But, I don't see the student as having a disability. He is like everyone else so why shouldn't we treat him the same? He seems to be doing well without the accommodations."
It seems as if these teachers wanted these students to be "normal" and fit in; so they don't have to feel as if they are different. They were not acknowledging the disability and the student. It was if the disability did not exist. I have to wonder if teachers do this because it makes them feel more comfortable when they don't have to deal with the disability and the awkward situations that come with it. If they see the students as everyone else, why should they bother following the IEP and accommodating the student? It is easier to simply ignore the disability.
I told these teachers that I did not expect them to make an announcement to everyone in the classroom that they will turn on the captions or that John will sit on this side of the classroom because of his hearing loss. There are many discreet ways of dealing with these issues. I have to explain to them why these students have IEPs. Eventually, they understood and worked on following and carrying out the IEPs, especially after we met a few times and talked with the school lead or special education coordinator.
Do I think these teachers are "ableists" or bad people? No. They were trying their best to deal with a situation that they are not familiar with. I think that they honestly thought they were helping the students by ignoring their disabilities.
If it is a sensitive issue for the student and he or she refuses to take advantage of the accommodations, the teachers will need to contact me and we can meet with the student to discuss this. We cannot force students to do things they do not want to do, but we can at least discuss it with them and their parents and come up with solutions to the problems.
If someone were to tell me that they don't see me as hard of hearing and will treat me as if I am hearing, this would make me think that my disability is something I should be ashamed of. This tells me that I should not talk about it and act as if I have typical hearing. This also tells me that being hard of hearing should not be an issue or problem, which is easy for them to say because it is not something they personally have to deal with.
If a parent tells their deaf or hard of hearing child that they are like everyone else and will treat them as so by mainstreaming them with a few inconspicuous accommodations, help hide their hearing aids or devices, and encourage them to not openly talk about being deaf or hard of hearing while at school, what kind of message are they sending them? That it is not okay to be deaf or hard of hearing? That they must do their best to hide their disability and be like everyone else? That they must fit in or risk being treated or seen as an abnormality?
Disability issues can be complicated and uncomfortable. But, ignoring the disability will not make it go away, no matter how hard someone tries. We have to acknowledge it and talk about it.
I believe we all have, at one point, awkwardly tried to figure out how to talk to and act around people with disabilities. We may ask ourselves, "Do I talk to them like I would anyone else?" "Do I acknowledge the fact that they are [insert disability]?" Just because I am hard of hearing, does not mean I will know exactly how to act around others with disabilities different from mine. But, I know better than to not acknowledge the fact that someone has a disability (whether it is obvious or not) and to refuse to ask questions and accommodate their needs.
Before I sign off, I have a question for *Deaf people who predominately use sign language, share a unique culture (Deaf culture), and do not see themselves as having a disability. I understand that this group of people often faces discrimination against their language and culture, largely due to ignorance or lack of awareness. Some may call this act of discrimination 'audism' while others may prefer to use 'linguistic discrimination.' Have any of you encountered people who choose to not acknowledge your culture and language with good intentions (similar to how people choose to not see race)? Would this type of ideology apply to Deaf people?
*"Big D" Deaf people identify themselves as culturally deaf, and have a strong deaf identity (from About.com).