02 December 2012

Not a child; don't treat me like one

Trigger Warning: Ableism and infantilization.

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Not a child; don't treat me like one

I spent the last two days in Long Beach, California for the TASH National Conference where I was giving a presentation. This morning, I was sitting in LAX (Los Angeles International Airport) waiting for my plane to begin boarding so I could return to Washington. The terminal was impossibly cacophonous. Scores of people dressed in red Santa hats or green Christmas elf hats jabbered in raucous conversations, competing to be heard over scores of children wearing identical white Fantasy Flight t-shirts and red Santa hats as they occupied four rows of seats at the gate.

I'd never heard of a Fantasy Flight before, so I asked one of the staff what they were doing. She winked as she told me they were taking the children to "the North Pole." Another member of the staff told me that they fly around California and look for snow-covered mountains, and then tell the children that it's the North Pole. "Basically," he said with a light smile, "we lie to them." The children, they said, primarily come from lower socio-economic background. It's a fun holiday tradition that the airline does across the country.

Sounds like a nice experience for the children, many of whom (if not all of them) probably are still young enough to believe in Santa Claus. Some of the staff perform for them during the flight. Others are dressed in costume as characters. And the event concludes with a visit from "Santa." And that's great, because it's always nice to do something fun for children around holidays.

Here's the problem -- not everyone participating in the Fantasy Flight event was a kid. There were maybe ten or fifteen adults with Down Syndrome, some of them middle-aged (and possibly a bit older than that). And that bothered me. There was something inherently, innately problematic with that, and I couldn't quite put my finger on what it was for the longest time.

And I realized what it was as an alarm began to blare in the terminal. (Someone had accidentally opened a door without keying the code first, and it actually took the next several long minutes before someone figured out how to deactivate it. I noticed one of the actual children covering his ears, and was relieved I wasn't the only one with that immediate impulse.)

However well-meaning the event organizers and coordinators and volunteers and staff were -- and I have no doubt that they were nothing less than extremely well-meaning and positively-intentioned -- the fact remains that they were infantilizing disabled adults. For those not familiar with the term, infantilization is when a person is treated or thought of as if they were an infant when they are not. It's an incredibly common occurrence with disabled people, and particularly with developmentally and intellectually disabled people. I wince when I hear service providers or teachers talking to disabled adults in a slow, high-pitched "baby voice." I have sudden, strong urges to bash my head against the nearest wall when I witness non-disabled people in positions of authority or power depriving disabled adults of agency by making decisions for them despite their clear ability to express (however unconventionally) their own choices.

What the people organizing this particular Fantasy Flight were doing was treating disabled adults as if they were children. The underlying ableist presumptions of this type of treatment are that a.) disabled adults are mentally like children or infants, b.) disabled adults should participate in the same activities as children because they're essentially "on the same level," c.) disabled adults, like many young children, won't realize that "Santa" doesn't really exist, or that the plane isn't really going to another destination, d.) disabled adults should be thought of as grown-up children in adult-looking bodies, and e.) disabled adults aren't competent and don't have agency.

Could a disabled adult make a voluntary and fully informed decision to participate in this kind of event? Of course. And while it's entirely possible that that was the case today, the evidence suggested otherwise. The evidence suggested, rather, that the adults with Down Syndrome participating in the Fantasy Flight had been taken along on a bastardized field trip by their service providers or support people as an "activity." I also noticed that none of the children seemed to be talking to the adults with Down Syndrome. And I couldn't help but wonder if any of them knew about organizations like Self Advocates Becoming Empowered (SABE), which is primarily an organization of people with Down Syndrome and other intellectual disabilities, or TASH itself -- at the conference, there had been a large number of folks with Down Syndrome, including a few celebrity actors with the disability.

It was so easy to picture them participating in a local self-advocacy group or a national disability rights conference. And it was so cringe-inducing to see them dressed in the same shirts as what looked like six and seven year olds (or thereabouts), being treated the same way as the children, being shepherded along for the activity.

Disabled adults, regardless of the specific disability group, regardless of the nature and level of an individual's specific impairments, regardless of presumptions about an individual's mental or neurological state, should never, never, never be treated as if they are small children. It's more than insulting, offensive, and patronizing -- it's dangerous and it's dehumanizing.

7 comments:

  1. Excellent article. This is a "must share" piece.

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  2. I agree with you on all of this, Lydia, except that I think it's also insulting, offensive, patronizing, dangerous, and dehumanizing to lie to small children in the way that the organizers of this activity were doing. My non-disabled daughter works so hard - as most children with inquiring minds do - to make sense of the world she lives in. When we travel, she works hard to try to grasp concepts like distance and geography. It's very important to her. To tell her that she was flying over the North Pole, when she wasn't, would be a gross betrayal of her trust, and would undermine her sincere and diligent efforts at learning. That's horribly disrespectful of her. So I regard this "Fantasy Flight" activity as a crime against the dignity of the children subjected to it, just as much as it's a crime against the dignity of the disabled adults.

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  3. I respectfully disagree. This trip is 'theater', for both the disabled adults and the children. In a theater situation you have to be willing, and able, to suspend your disbelief to enjoy the moment. I can remember quite well as a child knowing that my parents were Santa Claus, and wanting to believe in Santa at the same time. I have taken my twin boys, one of whom is autistic, on a steam train that looks like Thomas the Tank Engine. They both knew it wasn't really Thomas, and we certainly didn't tell them it was, but they both got caught up in the moment and enjoyed it. A plane ride like this one may be the only time the children or the adults will ever fly in a plane and see a mountain from the air...North Pole or not. If someone was willing to pay for me to take a plane trip, I'd pretend I believed in Santa too.

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    1. The problem isn't with the trip itself, though, or even with the fact that willing suspension of disbelief is a thing.
      It's with the fact that they were treating the disabled adults like they WERE children, not just like they could enjoy a similar experience to the children, which many of us really could do. It's not "We'll pay if you pretend." It's "We're not asking, we're telling, and we're gonna treat you like a child because you're on a think 'for kids' because we put you there because you're disabled."
      It would be fine for them to choose to go themselves. But "The evidence suggested, rather, that the adults with Down Syndrome participating in the Fantasy Flight had been taken along on a bastardized field trip by their service providers or support people as an "activity."" and that is not fine.

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    2. My older brother is disabled (Klinefelter's Syndrome, IQ of 70), and I act respectfully towards him by simply ASKING what he wants. It's possible the people who were caretakers of Downs' people explained what the trip was to their charges, and that it was designed for children who believed in Santa Claus; and added that it would be a fun chance to see snow on the mountains. Then let them decide.

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  4. Thanks for this blog. I'm an autistic Chinese adult who was bullied by an entire Chinese community only a couple years ago. One of the things people did to me was the infantilization you referred. I'm an engineer who has not only supported myself, but also my wife, my son and my in-laws at that time. Yet still people harassed me at my own home and at work, mocking me, and ridiculed at my disabilities. So your remark really hits home. Thanks for speaking up for us and fight the good fight.

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    1. 您好,我也是自闭的(美国人,学了十年的中文。)看到您的故事让我难过-太多自闭人每天受到这样的欺凌。如果你想跟别的自闭人说一下,写你的故事,有很多人愿意听。(我现在用中文写介绍神经多样性的文章给我的老师。)

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