Adapting Peggy McIntosh’s paper on “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack of privilege” to accommodate and reveal how Neuro-Typicality constructs its own unspoken system of privilege in our society.

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“As a “neuro-typical person”, I realized I had been taught about discrimination as something which puts others at a disadvantage, yet at the same time, I had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, which are that “neuro-typical privilege” puts me at an advantage.

 

 

I think “neuro-typical people” are carefully taught not to recognize their privilege, in much the same way that males are taught not to recognize male privilege.

 

So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have “neuro-typical Privilege.”

 

I have come to view “neuro-typical privilege” as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.

 

“Neuro-typical privilege” is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, code books, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.

 

In a sense it affords those who are “neuro-typical” all of the automatic advantages and access to the world that those who are “non neuro-typical” do not have.

 

Thinking about privilege in this way I began to understand why we are seen as oppressive, even when we don’t see ourselves that way.

 

I began to count the ways in which I enjoy an unearned sense of privilege and of how I have been conditioned into oblivion about its existence.

 

My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person or as a participant in a damaged culture.

 

I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will.

 

My schooling followed the pattern in which “neuro-typicals” are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work which will allow “them“ to be more like “us.”

 

I decided to try to work on myself at least by identifying some of the daily effects of “neuro-typical privilege” on my life.

 

As far as I can see, my “non neuro-typical” co-workers, friends and acquaintances with whom I come into daily or frequent contact in this particular time, place and line of work cannot count on most of these conditions.

 

1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my own “neuro-typical status” most of the time.

 

2. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area, which I can afford and in which I would want to live.

 

3. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.

 

4. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.

 

5. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my “neuro- typical status” widely represented (in positive ways).

 

6. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my ilk made it what it is.

 

7. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their “neuro-typical validity”.

 

8. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.

 

9. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my “neuro-typical behaviour” not to work against the appearance of my financial reliability.

 

10. I can go into a supermarket or into a hairdresser’s without risking “being over whelmed by sensory stimulation”.

 

11. I can swear, or dress in second-hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to bad morals, poverty, or the inadequacies of  “having a non-neuro- typical status”.

 

12. I can speak in public to a powerful group without putting my “neurological status” on trial.

 

13. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my “neuro-typical” class.

 

14. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my “neuro- typical” group.

 

15. I can remain oblivious of the “sensory needs and issues of non-neuro-typical persons” without feeling any cultural penalty for doing so.

 

16. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as an outsider.

 

17. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to “the person in charge,” I will be facing a person of my own “neuro-typical status”

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18. I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people of my own “neuro-typical status”.

 

19. I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared.

 

20. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my “neurological status”.

 

21. I can choose public accommodation without fearing that people of my “neurological status” will be mistreated in the place I have chosen.

 

22. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help my “neurological status” will not work against me.

 

23. If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has “discriminatory” overtones.

 

I repeatedly forgot each of the realizations on this list until I wrote them down.

 

For me, “neuro-typical privilege” has turned out to be an elusive and fugitive subject.

 

The pressure to avoid it is great, for in facing it I must give up the myth of meritocracy, for if these things are true, this is not such a free country; one’s life is not what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own.

 

In unpacking this invisible backpack of privilege, I have listed conditions of daily experience which I once took for granted.

 

I now think that we need a more finely differentiated taxonomy of privilege, for some these varieties are only what one would want for everyone in a just society, and for others give license to be ignorant, oblivious, arrogant and destructive.

 

I see a pattern running through the matrix of “neuro- typical privilege”, a pattern of assumptions which were passed on to me as a “neuro-typical” person.

 

My “neurological status” has been an asset for any move that I’m educated to want to make.

 

I could think of myself as belonging in major ways, and of making social systems work for me.

 

I could freely disparage, fear, neglect, or be oblivious to anything outside of the dominant cultural forms.

 

Being of the main culture, I could also criticize it fairly freely.

 

In proportion, as my “neurological status” made my group confident, comfortable, and oblivious, other groups were likely being made unconfident, uncomfortable, and alienated.

 

My “neurological status” protected me from many kinds of hostility, distress, and violence, which I was being subtly trained to visit in turn upon people of “different neurology”.

 

For this reason, the word “privilege” now seems to be misleading.

 

We usually think of privilege as being a favored state, whether earned or conferred by birth or luck. Yet some of the conditions I have described here work to systematically over empower certain groups.

 

Such privilege simply confers dominance because of one’s “neurological status”.

 

I want, then, to distinguish between earned strength and unearned power conferred systematically.

 

Power from unearned privilege can look like strength when it is in fact permission to escape or to dominate.

 

The expectation that your neighbors will be decent to you, or that your “neurological status” will not count against you in court, should be the norm in a just society.

 

For example, the feeling that one belongs within the human circle, as Native Americans say, should not be seen as a privilege for the few.

 

Ideally it is an unearned entitlement.

 

At present, since only a few have it, it is also an unearned advantage for them.

 

This paper results from a process of coming to see that some of the power which I originally saw as attendant on being a human being in the U.S. consisted in an unearned advantage of conferred dominance.

 

I have met very few “neuro-typical” people who are truly distressed about their systemic, unearned advantage and conferred dominance. And so one question for me and others like me is whether we will be like them or whether we will get truly distressed, even outraged about unearned “neuro-typical” advantage and conferred dominance and if so, what will we do to lessen them.

 

In any case, we need to do more work in identifying how these unearned advantages actually affect our daily lives.

 

Many, perhaps most of our “neuro-typical students”, think that “disablism” doesn’t affect them because they are “neuro-typical”, so they do not see being “non neuro-typical” as an identity.

 

In addition, it is hard to disentangle aspects of unearned advantage which rest more on social class, economic class, race, religion, sex and ethnic identity than on other factors.

 

Still, all of the oppressions are interlocking and one factor that seems clear about all of the interlocking oppressions is that they take both active forms, which we can see, and embedded forms, which as a member of the dominant group one is not taught to see.

 

In my class and place, I did not see myself as “discriminatory” because I was taught to recognize “discrimination” only in individual acts of meanness by members of my group, never in the invisible systems conferring unsought “neurological” dominance on my group from birth.

 

Disapproving of these systems won’t be enough to change them.

 

I was taught to think that “discrimination” could end if individuals changed their attitudes.

 

(But) being “neuro-typical” opens many doors for those who are, whether or not we approve of the way dominance has been conferred on us. Individual acts can palliate, but cannot end, these problems.

 

To redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions.

 

The silences and denials surrounding privilege are the key political tools here.

 

They keep the thinking about equality or equity incomplete, protecting unearned advantage and conferred dominance by making these taboo subjects.

 

Most talk by “neuro-typicals” about equal opportunity seems to me now to be about equal opportunity to try to get into a position of dominance while denying that systems of dominance exist.

 

It seems to me that obliviousness about “neurological advantage” is kept strongly inculturated so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all.

 

Keeping most people unaware that freedom of confident action is there for just a small number of people props up those in power, and serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already.

 

Though systemic change takes many decades there are pressing questions for me and I imagine for some others like me if we raise our daily consciousness on the perquisites of being “neuro-typical.”

 

What we will do with such knowledge is an open question?

 

Whether we will choose to use unearned advantage to weaken hidden systems of advantage or whether we will use any of our arbitrarily awarded power to reconstruct power systems on a broader base, is up to us.”

 

This reworking of the classic article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” By Peggy McIntosh, an Associate Director of the Wellesley College Center for Research for Women, was initially written to challenge racism  by looking at it through the lens of “whiteness” and the unspoken level of privilege that whiteness confers upon those who hold it. The vast majority of her article as represented here, continues to remain the work of Peggy McIntosh almost verbatim. The only changes I have made have been to replace the terms “white privilege” with “neuro-typical privilege”, “whiteness” or ‘white/fair skinned” with the word “neuro-typical’ and “race” or “racism” with terms “discrimination”, “neurological status” or “non neuro-typical status”.

The Law of Provocation

A white ribbon to commemorate the National Day...

An Australian man has been sentenced to 6 years in prison after openly admitting to killing his wife because he did not like what she was saying.

So what was she saying that provoked her husband to kill her?

According to the man his wife had been telling him that she was leaving him.

His apparently ‘legally legitimate’ response to this news was to run into another room, grab a box cutter (AKA Stanley Knife), return to his wife, stab her, slice her throat open and willfully leave her to bleed to death while standing above her and watching her expire.

I don’t know about anybody else, but as far as I’m concerned, this  is an act of murder.

To have this murder ruled as a reasonable attack response to a verbal provocation begs the question:

 Since when does a wife attempting to have a discussion about ending a marriage become  grounds for murder?

Given the husbands Indian heritage one must also ask whether or not this is a case of Australian law turning its back on what would have be seen as an ‘honor killing’ in the husband’s home country?

So how does this happen?

Under the law in Australia there are acts understood as arising out of provocation.

Quite literally the idea is that one person can be provoked , verbally, into losing control of themselves and attacking another.

In the USA I think the equivalent term may be the claim of temporary insanity.

In this case  however, there are clear indications of fore thought. The man had to leave the room in which the ‘offending discussion’ took place to retrieve the box cutter he later used to kill his wife.

Given this, how can his murderous actions  not be seen as providing clear evidence of fore thought, planning and a willfully controlled act of  murder on his part?

 As far as I’m concerned this should never have been a case in which the law of provocation was applied.

It should never be seen that killing another person  because you do not like, or are offended  or hurt by what they are saying, provides an excuse for murder.

Especially if that other person is smaller, weighs less, is defenseless and is a woman.

To me, the ruling in this case sends out a very dangerous message to all would be domestic abusers.

What do you think?

 

“The True Measure of Any Society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members” – Ghandi

The Social Welfare Union blog recently posted a very thought provoking  article highlighting the rising level of “Hatred of those on Benefits” within the UK.

The union made the very powerful statement that English politicians have effectively applied spin to transform the  “crisis of capitalism into a crisis of public spending”.

I think this is an incredibly astute evaluation of the way in which western societies, underpinned by capitalist intent, routinely undervalue and attempt to negate those who are deemed ‘unable’ to participate in the work force.

So perhaps all of us need to be questioning just why it is that we expect  those who are already the most  vulnerable in our society to continuously make  “the biggest sacrifices” in terms of financial cut backs whenever global economic frameworks collapse?

Perhaps we  also need to question just why it is that we, as a society, have  become so enamored  with the ideals of capitalism, that we  routinely view those who are not “earning their own way” in society as some kind of burden?

Surely the quality of a persons life should  be viewed as  more than just a commodity that politicians can choose to “cut back” on whenever they declare the need arises?

Ghandi once said that  “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members”.

Accordingly it would appear that money, in the form of economic assistance, is increasingly becoming the measure by which our society acknowledges or denies the most vulnerable members in our  society.

Is this really the path that we want go down?

The Techniques of Bias

Everything we read and take in has been shaped by a writers own bias.

This is true regardless of whether or not we are reading fiction, an article in a popular magazine or scholarly academic research.

As readers it’s up to us to spot the techniques of bias being applied and to recognize that our views are at times being carefully shaped by the language choices of authors.

For instance, if I were to present an academic article under the guise of being an “objective researcher”, I would still be choosing the language I use to frame certain elements within my article to either reflect, designate, or support both my research hypothesis and quite possibly subconsciously, my own unspoken opinion.

But….. research is meant to be objective…. Isn’t it?

These word tricks are not supposed to be part of the deal in academic papers,  are they?

Well the simple truth is, regardless of whether or its intentional not, writers of academic papers can be just as guilty of employing  the power of language in order  to sway their audiences toward their own perspectives, as any other writers are.

This became apparent to me two years ago when, whilst researching my thesis, I came across a book filled with academic studies on the state of  disability rights  within Australia.

For the most part this book held many outstanding and thought-provoking arguments.

However there was one chapter that stopped me  dead in my tracks.

A chapter concerning the bodily human rights of those with severe disabilities as presented through the linguistic lens of  the authors.

Sounds pretty straight forward right????

Most of us agree that disability or not, there are certain human rights that are, or at the very least should be, considered mandatory.

However this chapter championed the rights of those outside of the families of young adults with severe disabilities, ( basically strangers), to decide what’s best for the young adults concerned.

This point of view means essentially that the families who are providing  their young adults day-to-day care, will in certain instances  literallybe having the conditions under which they live and care for their teenagers, effectively dictated to them by those who hold potentially  little to no general awareness of the realities of their day-to-day life.

One of the issues being “studied” surrounded  the practice of sterilizing  teenage girls with severe disabilities without their express consent.

When phrased liked that, many of us would declare that no one should have the right to have these young women sterilized against their will.

Let alone their families.

But lets take a look at the language being used here.

Firstly, no where within the research was there any evidence provided that the young women discussed were either  cognitively able to give their consent or had indeed refused to do so.

Secondly, they failed to disclose that some of the severe cognitive disabilities experienced by  the young women they were championing  involved being not only entirely non-verbal but also entirely unaware  or scared of their own bodily functions.

Thirdly, the term used by the authors, that of sterilisation not only provided their readers with  a clinical, cold, medical and detached description of  an operation that is, under any other circumstances, and in any other section of the community,  considered a valid  personal right for a female to have her internal reproductive organs altered or removed for either health reasons or in extreme cases for reasons of convenience to prevent conception and menstruation.

Normally we’d call such an operation a hysterectomy.

I’m not sure about you but I can’t recall the last time a friend said to me that she was going in to hospital to be sterilized rather than saying  she was going in “to have hysterectomy”.

So as you can see,  the difference between the imagery that the two words conjure up are quiet  significantly distinct.

Sterilization = bad, enforced,  a violation of human rights.

Hysterectomy= good, personal health choice, a validation of human rights.

As you can see, the chapter concerned stated quiet plainly that the authors were against sterilization,  but not because it may not be the right decision for the person concerned, but rather solely because they felt that parent’s  should not have the right to choose sterilization on behalf of their severely disabled daughters.

Now if I had read this study without applying an analytical eye, if I’d have taken it purely on word value alone,  I would  have whole heartedly agreed with the authors, if not on their initial premise that at least on their argument.

Who wouldn’t?

But….. then they went one step further and used a very particular case study to hammer their message home.

Nothing wrong with that in and of itself as it is often a tactic academic writers apply. It’s done so often that it’s almost formulaic in many academic circles.

It’s pretty simple really, pick one specific case study that expediently allows you to apply all of your theories in one nice neat little package in order to demonstrate  the correctness of you conclusions (AKA- showing how right you are).

And if I didn’t know better, I probably would have bought the whole hypothesis, lock stock and barrel.

Except I did know better.

At least in this case.

It turned out that I personally knew the family being held up and crucified as the epitome of why parents should not be able to decide on a hysterectomy for their daughters.

Only in this instance, I knew that all of  the researchers suppositions were wrong and that the idea of sterilization for sterilization’s sake was the last thing that this family wished to engage in.

Instead, they wanted nothing but the best quality of life for their severely autistic, 6 foot tall and incredibly physically mobile 16-year-old daughter whose level of  cognitive acuity hovered somewhere around that of  a 2-year-old that they could possibly attain for her.

They had told me that she became so highly distressed by her periods that she regularly engaged in acts of self harm whenever she menstruated.

These acts included throwing herself at walls, bashing her head repeatedly against the toilet bowl at the sight of her own menstural blood, and becoming so hysterical that medication was required to calm her down.

Her family, though absolutely exhausted were also completely dedicated to ensuring that all those around their daughter upheld her human rights to be treated with care and dignity at all times.

For them, this included doing their best to alleviate what they considered to be a great  source of both  physical and psychological suffering which their daughter did not medically need to continue to be endure.

They were not asking for a hysterectomy for their daughter for their own convenience or because they believed she didn’t have the right to have children.

They were asking for a hysterectomy for their daughter based purely on her own destructive and distressed state when ever menstruation occurred.

And they had tried other avenues but their daughter had experienced significantly life threatening reactions to some of the  previous medications they had tried to prevent her menstruation.

These parents were stuck between a rock and a hard place and were fighting against the idea of having a stranger, with possibly no prior knowledge and very little understanding of  either their daughters condition or her reaction to her own menstruation, dictate to them what they could and could not do to alleviate their daughters suffering and discomfort.

Not such a straight forward proposition is it anymore? This idea that parents shouldn’t have the right to choose what’s best for their disabled daughters medically.

This case study, as abhorant as I found it to be,  allowed me to fully perceive the disparity that had occurred  between that which  had been academically studied and written about, and that which I knew to be  the true  lived reality for the family.

As a result of this I began to more fully understand just how carefully  my opinions on the entire issue had been shaped by the unique mix of language and specific logic applied by the authors.

The other very clear point this laid out for me was that these authors had an audience who would undoubtedly follow in their potentially logical,  though ignorantly biased, understandings of the complexities involved for such families.

It also struck me as significant that the family concerned in this instance, had no one to speak for them within the academic field.

They were given no voice and no right of reply within the context of either the study or the assertions made about them by its authors.

They weren’t even aware that their personal struggle to choose the best outcome for their daughter had been used in such a publicly disparaging way against them.

I view this situation as not just biased and unfair, but also as being in itself, a violation of the families basic human rights to be treated with honesty, integrity and dignity.

I feel that the researcher’s involved fell down horribly in their responsibility to treat both the issues at hand and the family discussed with the honesty and respect they deserved.

What’s your view on this topic?

Can we really say the women’s movements to blame for the lack of male clarity in today’s society?

One of the symbols of German Women's movement ...

 

I have just read one of the most interesting  and thought provoking posts on Seasons Change, and Change.

 

This bold blogger suggests that the women’s movement is to blame for the fact that men no longer know how to behave like men in today’s society.

 

So is this true?

 

Are strong, independent women really to blame for the overwhelming degree of male lethargy sweeping the nation?

 

Have women stolen from men their ability to behave in a responsible manner, support their families, work decent jobs, and generally be civilized human beings, all by demanding equality?

 

I think not and here’s why….

 

The women’s movement was a response to the high level of female oppression occurring within society at that time.I won’t ramble on about the litany of injustices such as the inability to divorce, the inability to work for anything even resembling a fair wage etc etc….

 

I’m sure that once the rose colored glasses of nostalgia  and the longing for a mystical time when women voluntarily stayed at home in white picketed bliss (yes really they did)  and raised the sort of children that can only ever be found in black and white, G, rated American sitcoms…..have been removed we might fairly quickly see that  no woman in their right mind would want to go back to an era in which they were forced to submit and comply on such disproportionately one sided terms.

 

I’m all for women making the choice to to do this, but I am and will always be, against women being forced to do this.

 

I do however agree with the blogger that the women’s movement created too much change too quickly and that in many ways society can be viewed as still reeling from that sudden change in equilibrium….

 

but…..

 

I don’t so much see the resulting consequences of  societies inability to fully adapt to those changes as being  women’s faults….

 

Individual male power  back  then was much like philosophy’s  proverbial “straw dog”…..A well constructed illusion that created the image of individual men as being all powerful while the real power status lay in the  male collectives control of society.

 

Individual men were, for all intents and purposes,  all straw with no real substance.

 

Why?

 

Because individual men didn’t need to have substance…

 

They had the law on their side, they had religion on their side, they had the powers that be in society on their side.

 

They had no need for individual substance when they had a collective substance.

 

Having established that….

 

It can not be seen as women’s fault that when they scratched beneath the surface of individual male authority all they found were little boys playing dress ups…….

 

Which leads me to question whether or not the true reason that men are perceived as loosing their maleness might be because individually, with out the power of the collective for artificial support, they never really had any to begin with.

 

Could it be that the vast majority of men have never actually been your step up to the plate, take charge types in the first place?

 

Perhaps it is in this misinterpretation of the power of collective maleness as opposed to individual maleness, where the problem lies…..

 

Just a thought….

 

 

 

Ignorance or Arrogance? Altruism or Survival of the Fittest?

“Those who can induce to believe in absurdities can induce you to commit atrocities.” Voltaire

I often ponder over this quote. Why? Because in the most part I think it is so very true.

I look around at the things that are happening in the world today and I wonder just how it is that people can do the things that they do. The answer I keep coming up with is that somewhere in their minds they must believe that it’s OK to harm, oppress and discriminate against others.

I used to think that the only kinds of belief systems that could regularly induce such behaviors were those born out of ignorance. Now I’m not so sure. Now I think that those kinds of belief system might just as easily be born out arrogance.

After all, it takes a very particular kind of willful arrogance to keep denying those with differing forms of ability and different sexual orientations, the right to control and decide their own lives.

It takes a particular kind of arrogance to ignore the homeless, the unemployed, the desperate and the destitute within our communities. Yet this is what people do. This is what governments do.

So what sort of belief system promotes the idea that not having enough money, power or control,  means that you haven’t worked hard enough  for it? What sort of belief system  places the blame for  economic, social or personal hardships squarely on the shoulders of those individuals who must carry them?

Is it capitalism? Is it disablism? Is it classism? Is it racism? Is it sexism?

Is it ignorance or is it  arrogance?

My vote these days goes to arrogance.

It seems our world is being shaped more and more by a “survival of the fittest” mentality. The structure of society is constantly being underpinned by policies that seek to ‘blame’ individuals for their own position within society without taking into account the socially constructed framework in which those individuals exist. Under such policy suppositions incentives to understand minorities and to help those less fortunate within our communities are slowly being whittled away.

Along with this trend we now have non-governmental organisations rallying their followers to sit in judgement en mass over others in our communities in an attempt to define and confine the rights of those deemed ‘different’.

You can see how this might happen under the  mistaken and arrogant ‘survival of the fittest’ belief that ‘other’ people are made poor,powerless or irrelevant,  by their own actions.

The flip side of the ‘survival of the fittest mentality’ also means that if someone is doing more poorly than you in society, they are less likely to provide you with any kind of challenge. Therefore if another person is doing badly they become less competitive.

In an increasingly cut throat society, many people can  now be seen to  have a vested interest in oppressing others for this very reason.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I believe that people are inherently bad. It’s just that I  don’t believe that people are being encouraged to be good either.   Even the way we view  those people who are out there doing  good deeds, in the form of altruism,  has fallen prey to the ‘survival of the fittest’ construction.

Altruism has been given  a modern and somewhat uncomfortable face lift. Many within the realms of philosophy suggest that altruism no longer  exists in its once perceived pure form.  For at the base of altruism, it is argued,  lies the understanding that doing good for others makes the ‘doer’ feel good.

Therefore altruism is merely the act of making oneself feel good. In short altruism has become a sign of unabashed self interest.

So are philosophers who perceive altruism in this way right?

What does it mean for society if, even in doing good for others, we are only trying to do good for ourselves?

What happens when we  seek to deny or do ‘bad’ towards others?

Do we feel bad whilst doing bad?

Given the rise in the number of people trying to oppress each other it would seem not.

 

Autism: Parenting in Public Places – Public Scrutiny and Why it Happens.

Public scrutiny is something that we all would prefer to avoid. Especially negative public scrutiny. But what do you do if  you can’t avoid it? What if every step you take inside the realm of public spaces leaves you open and vulnerable to ‘attack’ in the form of verbal and physical expressions of disapproval, not only your presence, but of your very right to be?

Erving Goffman in his 1968 work “Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity“, defines acts of social non-acceptance as resulting from “the stigmatisation of an individual who is disqualified from full” open participation within society (Goffman, 1968:9). The effects of stigmatisation are most often experienced in social situations and public spaces (Goffman, 1968:11).

“People in public spaces tend to feel that they have a right to approach me and make comments to me that would be entirely inappropriate and unthinkable to do if I were the mother of a ’normal’ child”.

“Was he ‘defective’ from birth?
Woman at the Children’s Playground.

“What’s wrong with him? Why is he dribbling? Don’t you know a child that age should be past all that by now?
 Lady in the supermarket.

“Did you do something wrong when you were pregnant? Is that what caused it? ”
 Mother at  playgroup.

“What’s wrong with you? Can’t you teach your kid how to behave?”
 Man at K-mart

“Ha ha. Look at that kid! He’s drunk! Ha ha. His mum let him get drunk.”
Group of teenage boys in the Mall.

“The above list of comments are just a few of the more polite insults that as a mother of a child with Autism I have had to contend with whilst going about normal daily life in public spaces with my child.”

So why is this happening? Why do complete strangers feel as though they have the right to address me in such ways?

It has been well documented that ‘stigmatised’ people, those who are marked out in some way as being visibly or behaviourly ’different’ or ’abnormal’ suffer from a dissolution of privacy and respect when in  public spaces (Goffman, 1968:28). This means that  the normal rules and conventions of  polite society and social behaviour are either suspended or ignored by others in a way that disadvantages the stigmatised person (Goffman, 1968:28).  In short, being viewed as a ’stigmatised’ person, is the thing that gives strangers the right to both comment on and approach the ’stigmatised’ individual (Goffman, 1968:28).

Goffman (1968) acknowledges the transfer of stigmatisation that may take place from one individual to another by noting that such a transference is made possible through   social structures, such as families, in which the stigmatisation of a child is viewed by the wider society as being also the stigmatisation of the mother (Goffman, 1968:43).

 “ I am aware every time I go out in public that I experience a  heightened level of scrutiny and judgement  as a consequence of my maternal relationship with my son.”

Applying  Goffman’s (1968) theory of transference, mother’s of  disabled children are equally demarcated by others as  ‘discredited’ and ‘stigmatised’ persons (Goffman, 1968:28).  This exposes them to the dissolution of their rights to privacy and respect, alongside their children, when in public spaces (Goffman, 1968:28).

Goffman (1968) suggests that in order to further avoid  public scrutiny stigmatised persons can attempt to mask or conceal those aspects of themselves which expose and make them vulnerable to negative public scrutiny (Goffman, 1968:114).  This is a theoretical way of looking at the world that does not necessarily work for parents in public spaces.

“ How can you conceal that which is in-concealable? How do you conceal the effects of physical and metal difference in a body that is tangibly not your own? A body that is emotionally and physically so reliant on you that it has become an extension of both who you are and how others view you as a mother?  How do you mask a part of yourself  that is 6ft tall, thin and lanky, with an extraordinary capacity to swing his head in a circular motion whilst lunging forward with an ataxic gait to find his latest play station 2 obsession in a DVD store?”    

“The answer is you don’t. You can’t. You simply become aware that your parenting actions are being viewed by a continuously critical outer world.”

“Each step my son and I take into the realm of public spaces can equate to the emotional and physical discipline of climbing a mountain. Mount Public Perception. Unlike real mountain climbers we have  no nifty tools tucked away inside a well organised back pack. No ropes to secure ourselves to each others sides in case one of us loses our footing and tumbles into the void.  The tools we cling too when climbing Mount Public Perception are little more than  nice clean clothes, a brush, makeup, clasped hands and the hope that we can make it out unscathed by the thoughtless words and  stares of people who hold no understanding of what it is like to have to negotiate society with a child whose way of being in the world is constantly being marked out as ‘abnormal‘ “.

“We have only the comfort of hands and the fragility of interlocking fingers when we venture out into public spaces. In this way we make of our bodies a small  but certain guide rope of safety. And in so doing  we assert our bodily boundaries as one.”

What parenting experiences have you had in public places and how have your responded to them?