Stereotypes, disability, and teaching moral problems

Wireless Philosophy recently released a video – written and narrated by Molly Gardner (UNC) – on the nonidentity problem. Before I say anything else, I’d like to make very clear that this post isn’t a criticism of Gardner – her explanation of the problem is beautifully clear, and she didn’t do the illustrations, which are what I’m going to criticize. While I’m not the biggest fan of setting up the nonidentity problem in terms of maternal responsibility – given how much everyone already loves to heap judgement on pregnant women – it’s definitely the standard way of presenting the issue, and the narration does a wonderful job of clearly articulating the basic points.

What bugged me about the video wasn’t the narration, but rather the illustration. Gardner describes two women who desire to have children with poor health (notice she never mentions disability at all). The illustration of these two children is this:

Screenshot 2015-04-09 10.41.35

The mothers are modern women in business suits. The doctors are modern doctors in white coats. What is this picture of a disabled Victorian street urchin doing in the middle of this video? (Although, to be fair, this could also be a picture of a disabled hipster. It can be hard to tell the difference.)

The answer, of course, is that this isn’t just any Victorian urchin. This is a readily identifiable disability trope – one that will instantly set many disabled peoples’ teeth on edge. This is Tiny Tim! Tiny Tim has a distinctive look:

He is even instantly recognizable in mouse or frog form:

Okay, so what’s so bad about Tiny Tim? He was a sweet kid, right? The problem with Tiny Tim is both the way he’s presented – the sweet, tragic disabled child who exists to teach a moral lesson (by dying, obviously) to the non-disabled main character – and how archetypal he has become in non-disabled peoples’ minds. Tiny Tim is the cheerful overcomer – his life is sad, but he will make the most of it, so that, e.g.:

“He hoped the people saw him in church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant for them to remember on Christmas Day who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.”

An image of Tiny Tim isn’t the image of normal, happy, well-adjusted disabled person. It’s the image of everyone’s favorite maudlin stereotype of disability.

But why does it matter? It’s just a cartoon, right? It matters, in part, because the way we see Tiny Tim affects the way we see normal, everyday, often fully grown up and very much non-Victorian-urchin disabled people. (So much so, indeed, that in a video filled with otherwise modern illustrations, to the go-to depiction of a disabled child was Tiny Tim.) And the way the Tiny Tim stereotype permeates peoples’ perceptions of disability drives disabled people up the goddamn wall. Here, for example, is what disability blogger stothers has to say on the matter:

I hate Tiny Tim.
TT is on the ropes in Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol. Sickly and dependent, TT is getting shakier and shakier on that homemade little crutch. But he is saved from death by old Ebeneezer Scrooge, who sees the light in the nick of time.
Now, before you go apoplectic at my assault on wee Tim, think about how he helps shape some of society’s most cherished attitudes — charity, pity (for poor little TT), for example. Tiny Tim, plucky, sweet and inspirational, tugs at the public heart.
TT has become Disabled Everyone in popular culture. TT is Jerry’s Kid.
Society idealizes this sentimental image of disability as a pitiful child in desperate need of help. People feel better when they give a few bucks or a little toy for a kid with a disability.
As an enduring symbol of modern Christmas time, Tiny Tim resonates with a deeper, darker meaning for people with disabilities. The problem is that not all people with disabilities are children, but we all tend to be treated as if we are Tiny Tims.
When I’m in the stores and malls this time of year I get a lot of smiles meant for TT. How do I know? Well, I am a middle-aged bearded and balding adult in a power-driven wheelchair. People, mostly women but some men also, flash smiles at me. Not the kind of smiles most men would hope for from a woman, nor the neutral courtesy smile exchanged by strangers passing on the sidewalk, but that particular precious smile that mixes compassion, condescension and pity. It’s withering to the person on the receiving end.
I hate it.

But all too often when we talk about disability in ethics – and especially when we teach ethics – we fall back on the most hackneyed stereotypes and cliches about disability, precisely as this video does. And no wonder – those stereotypes are powerful, and they produce powerful moral reactions. But some of the reactions they provoke are harmful, especially – as is more and more likely to be the case, given the widening access for mainstream eduction that disabled people are achieving – there’s a disabled student in the class.

18 thoughts on “Stereotypes, disability, and teaching moral problems

  1. I certainly agree with the general point made. We all need many images of powerful people with disabilities, and fewer of ‘disabled people’ or ‘the disabled’.

    However, I don’t support the final point made by the person quoted about condescending glances. All people have attention on themselves, and a tendency to bias when reading the minds of others. Yes, the writer feels that others are seeing him as TT. Yes, some may be. Others may, as the background story suggests, be feeling a bit more open and generous because of the holiday season. Others till may simply have all sorts of things in their minds about which we do not have a clue. Taking offense from a friendly smile because of some message picked up by reading minds is simply not a wise approach to life. As philosophers we have to make that clear, not encourage it.

  2. Leonard, first of all, I’m not sure why you want to contrast powerful people with disabilities with ‘disabled people’. Disabled people can be powerful, happy, strong, flourishing – and not just ‘in spite of’ their disabilities.

    As for your second point about ‘taking offense from a friendly smile’, the lived experience of many disabled people is a lot more complicated than that. What the author of that quote is describing is an incredibly familiar experience for many disabled people. And remember that many visibly disabled people who experience such reactions have transitioned from being non-disabled, or from being invisibly disabled. Those of us who have made such transitions often notice a palpable – indeed, often quite extreme – change in how people treat us, and in the amount of condescension and well-meaning but obnoxious pity we receive. Maybe this is all just coincidence, but I seriously doubt it.

  3. I think we should hold most anyone to the standard suggested by Magical Ersatz on a different thread: without knowing experiential information about someone that is hard and maybe impossible for us to know, and maybe inappropriate to seek, it is hard to judge that person blameworthy (well it is easy to do so on the internet…I am wondering whether we ought to judge them blameworthy.) I realize “blameworthy” is a sticky concept and my comment should be seen for what it is: a short internet post.

    Notice what Leonard Waks and Magical Ersatz are both saying on this thread is consistent with such a principle. The difference is both want to exclude certain people apriori from application of the principle (Leonard Waks distills this writer’s life experience down to “simply not a wise approach to life” and then ME points out how much more complicated the situation is. And ME distills the experiences of the people in her example down to “condescension and well-meaning but obnoxious pity.”

    So maybe the question for both of you is how far you are willing to extend an idea you both seem to endorse. For my part, I personally find it unlikely we will ever find a good reason to exclude any one person from aforementioned principle (and exclude them based on what? a few facts or labels about them?) I also think it will be hard, maybe impossible, to make any practical changes in the world if we choose to see some people’s behavior determined by this complex web of important experiences and other people’s behavior as just being a singular choice to be wrong.

  4. I always find it rather problematic when we talk about disabled people as a hetergeneous group with similar feelings, responses, etc. this might be because I grew up with a father who is blind, and I spent a significant time in childhood around visually impaired people. Most of the blind people I know take what some of you may see as pity (re the post and comments) as well intentioned people offering compassion or assistance. Sure, it can be annoying bc blind peoe don’t need help corossing the street. But…let’s be real. If offers of help or assistance or compassion piss you off, you have bigger problems.

  5. Hi Grad Student,

    I don’t think it matters all that much whether individual people who behave condescendingly or pityingly toward disabled people are blameworthy for doing so, nor do I think that’s the conversation we should be having. What matters is that this behavior is harmful to disabled people, and helps to perpetuate many of the harmful effects of being disabled. What I objected to in Leonard’s comment wasn’t that he was suggesting we might not know whether individuals are blameworthy, but rather that he was suggesting that what disabled people perceive as harmful isn’t in fact harmful, and disabled people are being ‘over sensitive’ if they react badly. It’s entirely possible that disabled people misattribute individual instances of behavior as condescension or pity which are instead just someone being genuinely friendly. But it’s not at all plausible that all the perceived condescension and pity that disabled people experience – the repeated, endless pattern of it – is likewise just as series of unfortunate miscommunication. Again, saying that doesn’t need to involve having any conversations about who is or isn’t blameworthy.

  6. Anon, I’ve been careful to say ‘many disabled people’ throughout. I have never said that all disabled people are bothered by any of this (though I think it’s possible that all disabled people are harmed, even if they aren’t bothered.)

    Psychologists often distinguish between ‘benign’ and ‘hostile’ sexism. Hostile sexism is what we might associate with open misogyny. Benevolent sexism is, in contrast, often rooted in good intentions – the desire to ‘treat your woman like a queen’, be protective of women, make them feel cared for and special, etc. But benign sexism can still be really harmful. (This editorial does a nice job of discussing some of the reasons why: http://www.forbes.com/sites/dailymuse/2014/02/24/women-are-kind-and-men-are-strong-how-benevolent-sexism-hurts-us-all/) If a man I don’t know yells something profane at me, I get annoyed. But I also get annoyed if some (often well-meaning!) man I don’t know tells me to “Smile, sweetheart!”

    I think a similar distinction is helpful for ableism. Hostile ableism is a real part of many disabled peoples’ lives. But benign ableism is maybe the more insidious problem. When I am walking around, people very often attempt to do things for me that I am manifestly not having any difficulty doing, they smile and tell me ‘hang in there, honey’ (complete strangers say this kind of thing to me), and they constantly pat me on the shoulder in an encouraging way. I’m sure most of this is incredibly well-meaning. But it’s also unbelievably insulting and the endlessness of it is wearying.

    You’re right, though, when you say “If offers of help or assistance or compassion piss you off, you have bigger problems.” I do have bigger problems, like the fact that its considered common ground that disabled people are the kind of people we should feel sorry for, and consider accommodations for as acts of personal charity rather than corrective acts of justice.

  7. Magical, I disagree with that well-intentioned offers of help, encouragement, or assistance are harmful. When people see someon they perceive as struggling in the moment (or generally), and they give someone a pat on the shoulder and say atta girl–I can see how it might be irritating if that kind of thing irritates you. But harmful to you? No. It’s painful to watch someone struggle. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cringed while watching my father try to perform some ordinary task–like finding the tv remote once he’s dropped it. Frankly I do feel sorry for some disabled people. I feel sorry for my father who has to rely on other people to perform many tasks that he would like to do himself. It makes me sad, for instance, that my father won’t order certain foods in restaurants bc he simply can’t manage to eat it without making a mess. I feel very sorry for the 18 y/o son of a dear friend who’s son is paralyzed from the nipples down from a diving accident. Those are sad and unfortunate things. Sympathy is an appropriate response.
    As for benign ableism (and I’m familiar with the Forbes article), I’m not sure what that looks like. Is it like when I board the plane and being barely over 5ft tall some man offers to help me secure my luggage in the overhead compartment? Obv he’s making the assumption I may struggle with that task. He may be right depending on the weight of my carry on and the size of the plane. Or perhaps I can manage that on my own–if that’s the case a simple, thanks–I’ve got it usually suffices. It doesn’t piss me off that someone has yet again assumed I needed assistance bf I happen to be a diminutive woman. It does piss me off when I clearly need help, however, and no one offers. My thought then is what a bunch of ass holes.

  8. This is interesting to read, thanks to you all for willingness to share your thoughts and disagreements. Like anon, I’m pained (and I think of the pain as including pity) when I see my disabled loved ones suffer. I believe I’m right to call it pity, but I have to think more about the differences (if any?) between pity and sympathy. Sometimes the kind of heart-wrench I feel isn’t sympathy, which seems presumptuous to lay claim to, like I experience what they experience.

    But I suggest commenters move along off of this point, since the quoted writer was specifically deploring “that particular precious smile that mixes compassion, condescension and pity,” with emphasis on the ‘and’. The conjunction matters. It’s not pity simpliciter he’s objecting to, or all smiles. It’s a particular look he gets which *includes* condescension. And he didn’t say he blames the person for giving it. He said he hates it. So conversations about blame are beside the point. One can hate something that another is not to be blamed for doing, and as we all seem to agree, we don’t know who’s to blame and who’s not.

    To the main point, Magical, I had another thought: Is it possible that the cartoon-cliche was the fall-back because using a particular living child’s image is risky, with respect to consent for reproducing the image? This is not to excuse the fallback cliche, but it did occur to me it was used in order to avoid something involving difficulties that a shutterstock image of a businesswoman and/or doctor doesn’t involve.

  9. “But harmful to you? No.”

    I’m not sure why you think you’re a better judge of whether such a thing could be harmful than the person who is recounting their experience of this stuff happening over and over again.

    Many things have effects that only become discernible in large amounts over time. And some emotional harm isn’t apparent to outside observers. Why have you ignored these possibilities (really plausibilities) in your comment?

    Why do you insist that people, such as the quoted blogger in the post, are failing to correctly parse a social encounter that they experience all the time? The blogger says certain smiles are withering. You suggest it’s merely irritating instead. What evidence do you have that he’s wrong and you’re right? You don’t bring forward any evidence, besides just claiming it’s appropriate for you to feel pity (and I guess you think it’s therefore impossible for such pity to do harm? It’s unclear if you’re implying that.)

  10. Hi Kate,

    Thanks! Fwiw, I wonder if the feeling you’re describing is maybe better describing as compassion or empathy – though maybe it doesn’t matter much. It’s of course perfectly natural and good to feel compassion for loved ones we see struggling. But that’s not to feel compassion for some *just because* they’re disabled, it’s too feel compassion for them in the moment of their struggle – lots of people struggle with lots of things. The more pernicious thing is when disabled people are offered pity just for being disabled – when they are manifestly not struggling, not in any difficulty, etc. It’s as though the very fact of their being disabled is something pitiable – which is wearying.

    Regarding the cartoon – and *thank you* for redirecting the conversation back to that! – part of the issue here is that all the images are just cartoon illustrations (none of which are drawn to look like any actual person). But the rest of the drawings are modern, contrasted to good old Tiny Tim. So I don’t think it’s just an issue of using a particular disabled child’s image, or something like that. They’re all cartoons – but the disabled child cartoon really stands out.

  11. Stacy, I find it hard to believe that words or actions of encouragement (as I classified them) are harmful. And, just because someone perceives something as harmful does not, in fact, mean it is. Here’s a very simple example of the principle (and I’m not equating the two instances): When my daughter was still at home and was asked to do something–like clean her room–she thought the request was harmful to her in some way and it was often met with tears and indignation. People perceive harms all the time that are not actually caused by harms. Here’s another example, my daughter, now 20, will often say to me when we’re out and about, “Those people are staring at me.” My daughter, feeling self-conscious about this or that, is predisposed to see this behavior, when I can plainly see no one is staring at her–perhaps they glanced in her direction or looked around the room and their eyes fell to her briefly. Is it legitimate to say those people are harming her or that she is caused harm by their behavior?

    As for “pity” that’s not the word I used. I used sympathy. Here’s what I mean by using the term sympathy…I’ve seen first hand how a disability can rob a person of their dignity. For example, since my father is blind, he runs in to walls, talks to empty chairs, has to have things read to him–in many ways my father is dependent upon others, much as a child would be. Those are rather mild examples, but I have a friend confined to a wheelchair who must have his diaper changed several times a day, who must be rolled over every two hours during sleep, and has to have his breathing tube suctioned. Simple things like drinking or eating are dependent upon another person feeding him. So, yeah. I have sympathy for people who are robbed of dignity by an unlucky lottery.

  12. I assume participants here are all well-intentioned. That is in part why I find anonymous’s comments a vivid reminder of why, as the cliche has it, you may not understand another’s experience until you have walked in their shoes. My favorite example is far from the current topic. If you haven’t had your house broken into and had stuff stolen, you may not understand at all how incredibly traumatic that can be. People who lose a small amount may strongly desire to sell their house and move somewhere else.

    I strongly recommend that people not tell disabled people whether words are or are not harmful. I think this holds whether people are disabled or not. To revert to my previous analogy: Not everyone who is robbed need feel deeply violated. That fact does not take aware from the legimacy of the feelings of those who are deeply traumatised.

  13. “I find it hard to believe that words or actions of encouragement (as I classified them) are harmful.” This probably says more about you than it does about the credibility or competence of the blogger who claims that such things have been hurtful to him.

    “So, yeah. I have sympathy for people who are robbed of dignity by an unlucky lottery.” If your emotional attitude towards people with impairments largely revolves around on you focusing on how horrible and undignified their existence must be, them having been “robbed of dignity by an unlucky lottery”, that’s pity, i.e. feeling sorry for someone because of their misfortunes, especially in comparison to your own fortunes.

    I’m know other people have argued for this claim better than I can here, but the gist is, it can be unfair and harmful to frame someone’s whole life and their body as them having lost a lottery and being sentenced to an undignified life. That might be a possible aspect of their life and their experience, but that’s not the whole of it.

    You might likely agree, and weren’t meaning to suggest their life is nothing but undignified. However, your comment doesn’t exist in a social vacuum. Our existing common narratives involving people with a disability already too often focus on how disability is either (a) something horrible that sucks meaning and dignity from a person’s life or (b) something like the Tiny Tim character–“inspiration porn,” as it’s been dubbed. Again, there’s a whole literature that has made and analyzed these sorts of claims better than I have here. I don’t have good citations handy, but I know they’re out there and can probably be found with a few google searches.

    For instance, a quick search got me this definition of ableism:
    “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.”
    (http://disabledfeminists.com/2010/11/19/what-is-ableism-five-things-about-ableism-you-should-know/)

    I.e., it’s unfair to frame the lives of people with a disability as being dependent on others “much as a child would be”, instead of framing them as requiring different sorts of inter-dependencies than what other adults need or experience. It’s biased to say that an able-bodied, neuro-typical adult is by default dignified and autonomous, even given all the ways we depend on other people for survival and support, but that a person with an uncommon way of needing dependence–note: in a society that doesn’t do a great job of accommodating uncommon dependencies–isn’t thought of as (by default) living a dignified or autonomous life.

  14. Stacy and Anne,

    You’ve missed my point. My point was two-fold:

    1. The simple belief that a harm has occurred, does not mean that a harm HAS occurred. I refer you to my simple example re my daughter cleaning her room and feeling harmed by it. If you think that a FEELING of harm is sufficient for harm to have occurred, then we won’t agree on this point.

    2, In no way does my talking about some people with disabilities being robbed of dignity imply that their lives have no dignity. That’s an important distinction that I assumed (wrongly, I suppose) was implicit. In the instance of my father and friend, both of those men are incredibly successful by any measure–professionally, monetarily, etc. So, my commentary wasn’t a reflection on them personally (another important distinction), but rather on the indignities of the condition or disability.

    You also say, “…note: in a society that doesn’t do a great job of accommodating uncommon dependencies–isn’t thought of as (by default) living a dignified or autonomous life.”

    Many disabled people are not physically autonomous. So, do you wan tot make a distinction here? A person can be an intellectually autonomous being, with no attendant physical autonomy. A quick search on physical autonomy will yield this: Physical autonomy can be described as the experience of one’s own body performing simple or complex actions entirely of its own accord. Depending on the intensity, this results in any required task becoming partially to completely autonomous in nature without the requirement of decision-making skills or attentive conscious input. At lower levels, the effect is partially controllable by commanding the body with simple thoughts. For example, thoughts such as “go to the toilet” or “go drink a glass of water” can result in the body performing these actions flawlessly when the person would otherwise struggle endlessly due to a lack of focus and motor control had they have attempted to perform it manually in their given state. This can often help the person perform necessary physical actions such as tending to bodily functions or avoiding danger when they would otherwise be too incapable, unconscious, or distractable to perform them.

    More specifically, Stacy, you’ve mis-characterized my statement regarding sympathy for the ways people are robbed of dignity as being the lens through which I view disabled people. I view disabled people as I view anyone else. I grew up with a disabled father. I don’t pity him. At all. I have sympathy for all the shitty ways life is difficult. Pity is a pretty pointless emotion when we’re talking about disabled people (well, anything really). So, when I talk about sympathy, I’m talking about being aware and cognizant of the realities of a disease or disability, rather than putting forth an incomplete or inaccurate account. I think I would be doing a great disservice to my friends and family who have disabilities to be oblivious to some harsh realities.

    Your commentary on my “much as a child would be” doesn’t make much sense to me. If someone needs the kinds of assistance that a child requires–changing diapers, being fed, bathed, turned, etc. I think it’s not an unfair or unkind comparison. It’s an ugly reality.

    Regarding this, ““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).”

    I’d wager many disabled people would like to be “fixed” were that possible. My father, I know, would dearly love to have his eyesight (lost at 32) restored. I’m sure, too, that a friend of mine who died at 43 from ALS (and before death became completely dependent on others) would have been happy for a fix. Some people, with schizophrenia for example, cannot function in society without a “fix” or what we would call medication.

    As for the definition of ableism and its assertion, “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.”

    In point of fact, many disabilities ARE genetic abnormalities. See this definition here: A genetic disorder is a genetic problem caused by one or more abnormalities in the genome, especially a condition that is present from birth (congenital).

    I do understand the issues raised here and I do understand the points being made. Having said that, I think my position hinges on two things: (1) What is a necessary and sufficient condition for harm (as opposed to a feeling of harm) and (2) Diseases and Disabilities come with certain unpleasant truths that I’m loathe to shy away from and that have profound impacts on those with the disability or disease and their loved ones.

  15. Anonymous, no one here wants to deny the harsh lived reality of disability – several of us are ourselves disabled, and much of what we are saying is taken from the playbook of the disability rights movement. I get that you don’t find this view of disability adequate, and I respect that. But those that disagree with you are not thereby refusing to deal with the lived realities of disability.

    It’s true that many disabled people are dependent on our caregivers and helpers. Feminist disability studies has long championed the idea that this experience problematizes the focus on autonomy and independence as essential goods (Eva Kittay’s work is particularly excellent on this point), rather than obviously showing the impoverishment of disabled lives. My own experiences of dependence have been rich and rewarding ones, and I refuse to see them as drawbacks or weaknesses.

    It’s also true that many disabled people would prefer to be nondisabled – of course, and no one is disputing that. But it’s definitely true that many disabled people *wouldn’t* prefer to be nondisabled – see especially the work on Harlan Hahn on this point – and that this preference is closely linked with involvement in the disability rights movement (which emphasizes shared community, solidarity, and the social aspects of disability-related disadvantage). Furthermore, these preferences matter to disabled peoples’ lives. There’s substantial empirical evidence that some of the best predictors of quality of life for disabled people – far better than what we might think of as the objective ‘severity’ of their disability – are positive attitude toward disability and feeling a sense of social integration.

    So, again, I don’t think anyway is saying that disabled people are harmed just because they think they are. But insofar as pity for the disabled contributes to negative stereotypes of disability, to disabled peoples’ sense of alienation, to stigma, etc – to all the things that can make it hard to feel positive about your disability or feel social integrated – there’s a very real sense in which its plausible that disabled people are harmed by these attitudes. (And not just because they’re oversensitive and get their feelings hurt!)

    All that being said, I’d like to draw this discussion to a close – it’s derailing, and I doubt any further iterations will be productive. You’ve said your piece, Anon, and I think we all understand your view on the matter. Let’s leave it at that.

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