25 May 2013

Interrogating Competency in the Mentally Disabled Subject

Trigger Warning: Discussion of ableism, use of conventionally ableist terms, mention of drug use, mention of rape, institutions, de-legitimization, and gaslighting.


Interrogating Competency in the Mentally Disabled Subject

Those of us who live with psychiatric, developmental, and neurological disabilities know intimately that our ability to be regarded as competent, reliable, or trustworthy hinge closely on whether we are read as disabled or non-disabled, as mentally divergent or neurotypical, as mentally crippled or able-minded. Our perceptions, our ideas, our knowledge, our beliefs—these are routinely ascribed to feeble, addled minds presumed incapable of reasoned thought or objective belief. Just as marginalized bodies and minds are marked as abnormal, the ideas emanating from marginalized people are marked as incredible and dubious.

There's an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit ("Educated Guess") that surprisingly did quite well in addressing the lived consequences of this reality—not once, but twice.

Educated Guess opens with Detectives Fin and Rollins from the main cast waiting in a park to catch a man who's been groping women. When they see him, he strips naked in front of passerby and then collapses, stating that his girlfriend is physically present and mocking him although the detectives do not see her. The suspect, Darren Bickford, is taken to the psychiatric ward at LaGuardia for assessment, where it is suspected he has been under the influence of drugs. When Darren is left unguarded for a few minutes, he accidentally witnesses someone raping a woman on the ward and calls for help.

During Darren's arraignment, which is held at the hospital, he describes the rape that he witnessed the night before only for Fin and Rollins to immediately disbelieve him and dismiss his story as unlikely and imaginary. The judge instructs them to investigate anyway.

After questioning Darren further about the rape he witnessed, Detectives Benson and Rollins eventually identify the victim, Gia Eskas, who is a patient on the psychiatric ward. Over the course of most of the rest of the episode, they learn that Gia (who is initially reticent to disclose any information or admit to the rape having happened) has been raped repeatedly by her uncle George for ten years since she was fourteen. When she first told her mother, she was dismissed as simply crazy because of her psychiatric disabilities and she recanted. She is dismissed repeatedly over the episode as unbelievable, manipulative, and lying, and presented as having a history of making false rape accusations.

At one point when Benson assures Gia that George will go to prison, Gia replies that that's not how things work in the real world. In the real world, she says, he's sane and I'm not. Even when the detectives arrest George in front of Gia's mother and aunt, all three of them insist that Gia is crazy and lying. The entire episode is predicated on the notion that there is something fundamentally wrong with the presumption of incompetence so frequently hung onto the mentally disabled.

The sad truth is that many in law enforcement and throughout the criminal justice system are all too prone to latch onto these insidious notions of (in)competency, thereby exculpating those responsible for violence against the disabled at the micro-level and reinforcing institutionalized violence against us at the macro-level. Law and Order SVU doesn't always do particularly well with representing disability. I've heard the show uncritically describe disabled adults as mentally toddlers and seen it frequently portray disabled people as using their disabilities as "excuses" for committing crime; in other places, I've seen the show portray disabled subjects in strictly stereotypical, flat roles useful as plot devices and not as subjects worthy of the same consideration in character development as abled subjects. But I was pleasantly surprised by the show's engagement with this question, with the question of competency for those of us who are mentally disabled. Perhaps that means a broader societal reconsideration of what it means to be competent and what the ramifications are of presuming incompetence, as well as the underlying causes of the phenomenon.

After all, understanding the socio-cultural framework that informs the presumption of incompetence attached to disability, and to mental disability in particular, is critically important to any meaningful interrogation of the concept. There's an excellent book called Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia that examines the same phenomenon as experienced by those whose bodies and subjectivities have been racialized, gendered, and classed. Along those lines, Joanna Kadi's paper "Stupidity Deconstructed" turns discourse on competency toward the usage of disability-rhetoric to enforce dominant class narratives that oppress the poor and working class. Yet there is the commonplace assertions of competency and independent agency by disabled people without intellectual or psychiatric disabilities who simultaneously state that they are neither "stupid" nor "mentally ill" in a direct move to sever themselves from a distinct part of the disability community while perpetuating another form of ableism. Works like James Trent's Inventing the Feeble Mind: A History of Mental Retardation in the United States and Michel Foucault's History of Madness seek to respond to such derisive contentions with explicit criticism of the categories of "mental retardation" and "madness" within the context of structural systems of cultural and political power.

The core contention that all people ought to be presumed competent is itself dismissed as untenable by the very same cyclical arguments that posit that disability alone precludes reasoned or self-cognizant thought. Faced with this barrier, impenetrable within its necessitating framework, it is no wonder we encounter those who harp repeatedly that we are out of touch with reality, unaware of ourselves or those around us, incapable of expressing meaningful thought, and unable to make choices for ourselves, much less that we can or ought to be taken seriously or treated as subjective equals. Given this reality, it should hardly be surprising that disabled survivors of violence and abuse are so reticent to seek redress in a system that routinely assigns blame to the victims, dismisses them as incompetent to recognize what actually happened to them, and enacts further violence and brutality against them. After all, those are only the natural consequences of such systemic ableism.


  1. Great post. Thank you.

  2. This post literally brought me to tears. Thank you.

  3. Wasn't sure where to put this but it's a little related to this post- I wondered if you saw the huge front page Washington Post article yesterday: http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/a-mother-helps-son-in-his-struggle-with-schizophrenia/2013/05/25/3c92c63e-c19a-11e2-8bd8-2788030e6b44_story.html

    Just read it and wondered if you had seen it or had any thoughts.

    All the best!


Hi! Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me. I manually approve comments, so sometimes it takes a few weeks, months, or even years to find and approve comments. This delay is normal. (Note that I also don't publish every comment, since this is my personal blog.) Unfortunately, anonymous commenting isn't available anymore since it resulted in over one million spam comments in a short period.