I wanted my first proper ‘return’ post to be about something meaningful. The way Asperger’s has been (possibly incorrectly) related to the shooting in California, and what that says about the Othering of neurodivergent people, for example. Or the cuts to Disabled Students’ Allowance which are going to further exclude a group of students who are already extremely marginalized in academia. And hopefully I’ll come back to each of those topics.
But instead, today I’m going to talk about myself. (Because nothing has changed in the three years I’ve been away!) And about derailing.
For anyone who doesn’t know, derailing is the undermining, in conversation, of the lived experiences of marginalized people. There are a whole raft of ways in which stories of oppression are undermined in this way. Derailing for Dummies is a great satirical explanation of how to do it. Two of the forms of derailing I meet most are a) derailing from entitlement (“That happens to me too! It’s normal!”) and b) derailing from retaliation (including such creative arguments as “Your experience is not representative of all disabled people! My disabled friend Brian doesn’t deal with that! He’s a supercrip who goes mountain climbing and stuff!”) Both are based on one simple premise: I don’t believe you.
Yes, it’s true. There really are a huge number of people out there who do not believe that disabled people meet oppression on a daily basis. Who do not believe us when we share our experiences of oppression. Who essentially think that we are either lying or delusional.
I think the type of derailing that I meet most often is derailing from entitlement. It regularly happens with my discussions of neurodiversity. It’s very hard to explain many of the effects of neurodiversity in my life (and I assume that’s true for other people, though I can’t be sure). I can say “I am very sensitive to noise when I’m stressed, which can cause sensory overload and panic.” The response will often be “Oh yeah, I can’t study in a noisy environment either. That’s normal.” Or I can say, “I find confrontation so difficult that I will often allow myself to fail at things that I want to do (like PhDs!) so that I don’t have to stand up for myself.” The response will often be, “Oh yeah, I hate having to ask for things I need too. That’s normal.” Then there will inevitably be a long, very difficult conversation in which I attempt to explain the difference between ‘normal’ and ‘neurodivergent’ — that it may sound similar, but it’s not. This will be very difficult for me — as a neurodivergent person! Sometimes people will even say “That doesn’t mean you have Asperger’s. Are you sure you’re really diagnosed with it?” Or “I have that too, so I think a lot of this neurodiversity stuff is a myth made up by people who want attention.” Or “You just need to try harder. Here’s what works for me!” Or “Everyone finds these things difficult, and by talking about neurodiversity, you’re just putting up a wall between yourselves and others. Enjoy how we’re all the same!”
All of these responses involve derailing, dismissing someone’s experiences from a position of privilege.
And on some level, I can understand why people do this. If you benefit from institutional disablism, it’s tough to admit it – to admit that you have privilege. I don’t like admitting that I benefit from insitutional/societal race and class privilege. But I do. I benefit from these things immensely. It may be tough to admit that, but I can admit it. I listen when someone tells me about their experience as a member of a marginalized group. It’s not that bloody hard to do. (If I ever start to reply with “I’m so tired of being told how privileged I am – it’s such hard work,” please just tell me “Nay, you’re drunk, go home.”)
Which is why I find it all the more shocking when I relate my story to people, and get the distinct impression that I am simply not believed.
Institutional disablism in academia has been a topic I’ve become very familar with over the past three years or so. No one is talking about it, either inside or outside of academia, and I suspect this is partly because of how few of us there are. There aren’t many disabled academics, because institutional disablism is absolutely rampant. It’s also almost entirely invisible – unless you’re in the eye of the storm. And so the vicious cycle goes around and around and around. Oppression — derailed and dismissed — disabled people leaving academia, or suffering in silence in the hope that that way they can overcome it by passing and fitting in — the oppression becomes more entrenched, more accepted and more invisible.
So to discuss it, and be derailed through entitlement or retaliation, is deeply frustrating. And it is itself disablism — part of the cycle — part of the problem. I don’t want to be part of the problem. Do you?
I will not be silenced. Only by making the oppression and marginalization visible will we be able to bring it into the light, name it, condemn it, and ask others to do the same. And only then can we begin to dismantle it.
So if you ever catch yourself saying “That’s normal” or “I experience that too,” and you’re not part of the same marginalized group as the person speaking, my advice is to stop. To listen. To consider. And to allow the person to tell you about their lived experience, whether or not you believe it exists. Don’t be part of the problem.