What Is “Disability Wisdom,” Anyway?

Readers may wonder why this site is called “Disability Wisdom.” I want to address this question in two posts. Today I’ll define what disability wisdom is (and isn’t) and where the concept came from. Next week, I’ll describe concrete things you can do to develop “wise” relationships across ability lines.

On the first day of my ph.D. program, my advisor, Dr. Geoffrey Cohen, gave me a chapter he had written that was titled “a barrier of mistrust.” In it, he described the worries of many ethnic minority students as they wonder if their teachers’ expectations of them are affected by racism. The mistrust that these worries engender can interfere with cross-race mentoring relationships. Dr. Cohen included a quotation from Irving Goffman, a well-known sociologist who wrote about stigma in the 1960’s. Goffman described “wise” people as those people who don’t themselves bear a stigma, but who are connected with someone who does, and who treat the stigmatized person as if he or she had no stigma. He wrote,

Wise persons are the marginal men before whom the individual with a fault need feel no shame nor exert self-control, knowing that in spite of his failing he will be seen as an ordinary other.

As I read the chapter and especially the quote from Irving Goffman, I was mentally transported back to a time in my own life when I began to experience my own barrier of mistrust. Like many people born with a stigma, my awareness of discrimination was gradual. But around the time I started fourth grade, I was socially mature enough to put it all together. Over a period of years, I came to understand that others could see and I could not. I also came to understand that people often treated me differently from others. But it wasn’t until the fourth grade that I put those things together: I awakened to the irrefutable fact that others treated me differently precisely because they could see and I could not. I became strikingly aware of the fact that adults worried about my safety more than they worried about the safety of my peers, spoke to me in a more infantilizing way, and gave me less freedom and independence. My peers, too, seemed to either handle me with too much care, or else used my blindness as an opportunity to pull tricks on me. As my tenth birthday approached, I entered a serious crisis of mistrust. I was unsure when praise from a teacher was genuine and when it merely meant I had exceeded her expectations for a blind child. I questioned whether kindnesses from classmates were real, if they came from pity, or if they were part of a trap. I had trouble identifying who wanted to be my friend, and who merely wanted to be my helper. Although I encountered instances of blatant discrimination and exclusion, mainly from adults, it was the ambiguous interactions that made me most wary, the ones where I couldn’t quite tell if I was inferior in the other person’s eyes.

 Wise interactions include quiet reassurances that can break down the barrier of mistrust. Dr. Cohen described wise interactions as those assuring the stigmatized person of his or her equality. He focused on the situation in which a white teacher is giving constructive criticism to an ethnic minority student. These students may worry that constructive criticism is a sign that their teacher views them as unintelligent because of their ethnicity. However, Dr. Cohen and his colleagues found that teachers can allay this worry by simply stating up front that they have high standards for all of their students and that they believe in the student’s ability to learn and grow. In their research, my advisor and his colleagues repeatedly found that such “wise feedback” was better received by ethnic minority students and motivated them to work harder, compared with criticism given without the “wise” preamble. Further, the encounter with wise feedback increased the students’ trust of the school system and its authority figures, which had far-reaching implications for their academic achievement in the years thereafter.

As I moved into my teens, I started gravitating toward people and relationships that conveyed similar cues of wisdom. For me, I often picked up “wise” vibes from people who challenged me. The teachers who sparingly gave praise or high grades, and the brutally honest friends who told me things I didn’t always want to hear, were people I felt I could trust to regard me as an equal. I trusted people most who either didn’t mention my disability at all, or if they did, who did so in a casual, nonchalant way. Most of all, people struck me as “wise” if I knew they were treating me in the same manner as others around me.

Disability wisdom does not mean jumping to make the disabled person happy. It is neither talking down to the disabled person nor putting them up on a pedestal. It does not mean treating the disabled person with kid gloves. Instead, disability wisdom is merely the act of treating the disabled person as an “ordinary other” and extending the same human courtesies to that person as to anyone else.

And, there is one more element to disability wisdom that warrants mention. Goffman wrote that in the company of the wise, the stigmatized person need not censor him or herself (“exert self-control”). Goffman further described how the wise can become honorary members of the stigmatized group, and encounter some stigma themselves merely by associating with those people who bear the stigma.

In my preteens and beyond, as I became fully aware of unfair treatment from others, I often became angry, and verbally confronted this treatment. My actions were often met with social sanctions; adults considered me defiant and insubordinate, and some of my peers considered me rude. I began to wonder if I had only two choices: I could either confront discrimination, and risk being disliked, or I could quietly accept discrimination, and risk being disrespected. The wise people in my life have given me a third option. They validate my anger, and lend me their support. They still like me when I choose to be loud, and they still respect me when I choose to be quiet. They join forces with me to challenge discrimination, even if it means that they carry some of my stigma on their shoulders. Part of wisdom, then, means using your talents, your privilege, and your voice to amplify the cries of stigmatized individuals for justice

Importantly, Irving Goffman was writing fifty years ago, when many things were still seen as properties of individuals (and “men”). I don’t believe in a dichotomy between people who are wise and people who are not. Rather, wisdom is a property of the relationships we build. On next week’s post, I want to discuss some concrete things we can do to develop wise relationships, particularly when one person in the relationship has a disability and the other does not.

In the meantime, what are your thoughts? Do you have a particular relationship that bore the hallmarks of disability wisdom? Tell us in the comments!

4 thoughts on “What Is “Disability Wisdom,” Anyway?

  1. a great post! it’s knowing when to pick our battles essentially. If I’m going to confront any discrimination I’m not allowed to confront it there and then. I guess it’s knowing time and place sometimes. anger as far as I’m concerned is a wasted emotion but this is my opinion as I’m taught this way. I myself have a hard time also knowing what is jenuin and what isn’t when it comes to praise I mostly know it’s jenuin but it’s the issue of consent that I either see as jenuin or just given so as not to hurt my feelings.

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