Why We’re The Same, But Different.
By Michelle Botha
When I started my undergraduate studies at the University of Cape Town, I developed a little speech which I would give to each new lecturer that I encountered.
At the end of the class I would approach them and introduce myself like this:
“Hello, I’m Michelle, I’m visually impaired but you don’t have to do anything about it”.
This was not strictly true. There were lots of things they could have done to support me in accessing their material.
They could have provided me with copies of their lecture slides or notes, explained the diagrams and pictures up on the projector and allowed me extensions for assignments.
But I didn’t ask, and they didn’t offer.
I managed, I made a plan, I worked hard, perhaps harder than my peers. I struggled on and scraped through. It’s amazing what you can do with a third of a set novel (because the rest of the cassette tapes, yes, cassette tapes, were faulty) and the three chapters of a politics textbook you managed to read before your exhausted and streaming eyes gave it up as a bad job.
So, why did I announce myself in the first place? Because I wanted my, sometimes peculiar, behavior to be understood for what it was, sight loss.
This was in the days before I had marked myself as blind with a white cane and, later, a guide dog, so I needed my lecturers to understand why I sometimes wrote notes with a large black marker and sometimes took no notes at all, why I sat in front but didn’t seem to have my eyes glued to the projector and why, and this was key for me, I should not be asked to read aloud.
Some years ago, while conducting research about blindness and identity, I met a young woman student who spent many
hours each evening memorizing large sections from a textbook for a class where students were often asked to read aloud so that, if her turn came, she would be able to use her limited vision and her memory to appear to read normally. She said that, for her, the huge investment of time and energy was worth the reward of being viewed as just the same as any other student in the class.
What I have found, through research with people with disabilities over several years, is a deep commitment to, what I call, ‘the disability sameness script’.
By this I mean, a set of words and behaviors performed by people with disabilities, which are meant to show the able-bodied world that we are no different.
For people with so-called ‘invisible disabilities’, these performances can be honed to seamless perfection. In my own life, I found that, as my vision degenerated over time, my passable sighted performance became prone to discovery, Nothing will ‘out you’ faster than apologizing to a pot plant.
Even those of us with easily recognizable, or visible, disabilities are drawn into using the language of sameness. We may have bodies, speech and devices that unambiguously announce disability and yet, we may say, “Please don’t treat me any differently, I just want to be treated the same as anyone else”.
What do we make of this? Is it not a glaring contradiction? How do employers understand a person who says, “treat me the same”, when they embody obvious difference? Surely that difference must make a difference? Surely it must need to be accommodated in some way?
Why do we, as people with disabilities, feel bound to the ‘sameness script’?
I think it’s because we know, and society consistently shows us, that disability is not a valued identity.
Those of us who went to special schools were told, “Don’t expect the world to accommodate you, you must fit in”. The built environment tells those of us with mobility impairments that we were not thought of, that we are not welcome, and we are seldom represented in the media except as objects of either pity or inspiration.
We only have to glance over our shoulder to the recent past to see our society’s complete devaluation of the lives of people with intellectual and physical disabilities, 114 people left to die of exposure. Life Esidimeni was an indictment of our society that is already fading from our collective consciousness.
Some years ago, while working with the Cape Town Society for the Blind, I visited a college where one of our young blind women had just started her studies. When asking one of her lecturers how she was coping I was told, as if it was the most unbelievable achievement, how this young woman had actually used the toilet all by herself. This might seem to be an extreme example, but it is not unusual for people with disabilities to have our capability questioned and underestimated in this way.
In the face of a consistent barrage of devaluing experiences, showing the world that we are not so drastically different seems the only solution. How else are we supposed to get access to education, employment, the right to go to the toilet without a crowd of awestruck onlookers bursting into applause!
It seems that what we, as people with disabilities, have come to understand is that in order to be valued we must show that we are not so very different.
The difference of disability provokes anxiety. When it enters our space we may not know how to manage it. We are burdened by political correctness. What am I allowed to say? What am I allowed to ask? We teach our children not to stare, to look away from difference.
Disability is so much on the fringes, we have made it so that it is always extraordinary. People with disabilities are not our teachers, lawyers, therapists, accountants or financial advisors. They are not usually a part of our everyday lives.
We may be burdened by what disability difference shows us, a picture of human vulnerability, the frailty of the body and the failure of human ingenuity, medicine and science.
People with disabilities often feel compelled to comfort these anxieties. If I assure you that I am mostly just like you, I may be able to bridge the divide and get you to see me as more than my disability.
But the difficulty is that, despite the ‘sameness script’, disability difference is real, and it does make a difference.
This reality leaves people with disabilities in a situation where we are, whether consciously or unconsciously, almost constantly, having to balance sameness and difference.
Once an employer has experienced the “we’re the same” epiphany, that wonderful moment when preconceived notions are shed and fear is put aside as our shared humanity is recognized, it feels impossible to bring the reality of difference back into the conversation.
How can I possibly take you back and remind you that I really am different after all? How can I remind you that my eyes don’t work and that the fact that you can’t see without your contact lenses cannot possibly allow you to identify with my reality and that my reality is not typical, that you are not disabled and I am. In short, that we are not the same.
Catherine McKinnon, a feminist researcher, suggested that, in order to achieve equal rights, women had to show male dominated society that they were the same, that is, worthy of equal standing and value, while continuing to assert their difference from men in order to access specific rights such as maternity benefits and reproductive healthcare. She equates this to a fugue in music (a theme and a counterpoint).
On the one hand, we’re singing “we’re the same; we’re the same”, however the counterpoint is echoing “but we’re different; but we’re different”.
This is where people with disabilities find ourselves as we try to negotiate recognition within a society that has historically devalued us, while still needing access to the accommodations that enable us to participate.
Michelle Botha is the Head: Research & Stakeholder Management at WiNN.
Michelle holds a Masters Degree in Gender and Transformation Studies from UCT. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Disability Studies, at UCT, focusing on the discursive production of blindness within disability sector non-profit organizations. Also, she has long experience working in the disability non-profit sector.