One of the most important things Greta Thunberg has highlighted is the structural problem with neurotypical discourse. It is acceptable in this discourse to say one thing “we must tackle the climate crisis” and do something totally at odds with that (doing nothing).For me, it is this disconnect that has been the single greatest cause of feeling erased in the world. Every day I am surrounded by people and by institutions that claim they support my needs as a disabled person and yet act in a way that demonstrates they do not. And whenever I point out the dissonance, they
- refuse to acknowledge it, or
- tell me the problem is with me, or
- tell me to stop being so pedantic or demanding.
The ability of neurotypicals and ableds to contradict themselves without feeling cognitive dissonance is, I would argue, a massive cause of trauma and distress to the neurodiverse and disabled communities. It denies our needs their reality. It allows those denying us our needs to claim that they are acting in our interests when they are not. Even more damagingly, it accepts that lying is a natural part of discourse – and that is an issue that, as recent politics has taught us, goes far beyond gaslighting the disabled.
Let me explain.
Almost every institution claims to tick the right boxes with regard to disability. They welcome us, and they promise not to accept behaviour that damages us. Yet I have never seen an institution discipline someone for behaviour that damages disabled folk. Institutions and individuals continually apply the “no rue Scotsman” fallacy without any awareness they are doing so. That is to say, they happily state “we do not accept any harassment of disabled people” but whenever they are asked to act on an incident they will proclaim “ah, but this isn’t an act of harassment”. This is the primary way people allow themselves to hold contradictory opinions without cognitive dissonance.
Of course, the structural support someone requires in order to continue adopting this approach is the denial of the experience of disabled folk. If we are allowed to be the experts on what harasses or damages us, the cognitive dissonance of our institutions will be exposed. and the ableds cannot cope with that, so they have to create systems in which we are stripped of our expertise about our own experience.
This will happen by denying us positions of decision-making power. The structure by which we are “involved” in our institutions is “consultation”. We are asked to speak. And then our responses are sifted according to their consistency with a pre-existing notion. That allows the “we are involving disabled folk” box to be ticked at the same time the “you are not being harassed” box is also ticked.
I have sat on so many meetings where this has happened. “What would you like to see?” I am asked. My answer is always simple “I would like to see behaviour that harms us not accepted, and this can only happen by ensuring it is called out and disciplined.” The response is always “we have a robust harassment policy”. A harassment policy that relies on the decision-making judgment of ableds as to what constitutes harassment.
The two most common responses I get to questioning behaviours and policies that are actively dangerous are “sigh” and “oh come on!” in an angry voice. The message is clear:
“You must allow us to tell the world we take the rights of the disabled seriously. You must not tell us what those rights are. That is for us to decide.”
We have, it seems, no choice but to accept the contradiction between institutions’ words and their actions. We must accept that they want what is good for us, that they have serious policies to protect us, that they want to employ us. And we must also accept that they will force us to act in ways that damage us, that they will hire by methods and using criteria that we cannot access, that they will not accept our account of what harms us. To suggest that there is a cognitive dissonance between these two things is our weakness not theirs.
And yet, when facing crisis, people in these institutions shake their heads and say “what could we do? We didn’t know.”
I am sick of being Cassandra. I am sick of being paid stuck in a low-level position that doesn’t pay enough to support me while providing the answers to their problems to people paid twice as much only to have them ignored, while being passed over for positions far junior to theirs because my CV says I couldn’t possibly contribute.
It is time for the world’s institutions to listen to the Gretas and to all of us pointing out that their actions do not match their words. It is time for us to stop offering sympathy to those who, in times of crisis, say “we couldn’t have done differently”. It is time to say to institutions facing the poor publicity that results from their catastrophic treatment of those in vulnerable situations “we told you. You did not listen.” It is time to withhold our endless emotional and unpaid labour that is met only with gaslighting. It is time for us to say “Listen to us. Better still, put us in the positions of leadership in which you have failed. And if you do not, and when you fail, accept that we will sneer and laugh at your deserved demise.” Except, of course, we will not laugh and sneer because we are not the ones with a compassion gap, and their demise will not affect them half so much as it does us. Which is why their contradictory ways will never really be challenged and they will carry on sleeping comfortably “knowing” they have done their bit and we are ungrateful and mistaken.