by Jack Bragen
There is a lot of public intolerance of disabled people, especially toward those with mental health conditions. I live in a building that houses poor seniors and poor disabled people, and for many of us, our disability is neurodivergence. There is a lot of foot traffic near the building because of nearby businesses. I will often go outside to light a smoke, usually in my car, and I have seen people change direction to avoid being close to the building, or to me or some of the other residents.
In all fairness, most of the public where I live has been civil toward us. However, there have been a few times that people driving by will yell insults out their car windows. I can also observe that some passersby are worried about parking and walking where I live.
Psychiatric illness and other disabilities, as well as the poverty that often results, aren’t lifestyle choices—we didn’t manufacture them ourselves or bring them upon ourselves. We are handed this lot, whether we like it or not. And I have never met anyone with any kind of disability who wants to be disabled. The common thread is not liking it, to the extent that some go into denial.
Among some members of the public, in addition to intolerance of disabled people, sometimes classism is part of the mix. And sometimes people become sadistic, which can drive them to mockery and other forms of social unfriendliness.
When I was at a writer’s group years ago, I encountered ableist and classist attitudes. I didn’t last. It was a small group of about four or five members who met at the Barnes and Noble near the freeway in an upscale shopping center in San Ramon. Like many other writer’s groups, the prerequisite of this one was having been published.
There, I encountered the assumption that I was a dumb idiot.
I was asked on what basis I received government benefits—were they from working or were the monthly funds generated otherwise? At the time I couldn’t articulate a good answer. Most of my monthly benefit is Social Security Disability Insurance, generated from ten years of employment in my teens and 20s. I’ve worked both before and following the mandate that I should be medicated. Both are hard, and I became burned out on conventional work following incessant negative experiences.
I think because of the effects of medication and my neurodivergent condition, I often have difficulty speaking up. When I fail to speak, people will fill in the blanks and assume the worst.
Additionally, there is a dichotomy between my physical appearance and my writing persona. No one would figure based on looking at me that I’m a writer. When I was at this writer’s group, I was likely assumed dumb based on appearance. I also can’t afford the most stylish clothes, or a late-model car, or expensive hair styling. And, again, although I’m good at writing, I don’t have a firm grasp of speaking about myself in a convincing manner.
The woman in charge of the group intentionally insulted me, and when I did not react, she made a gesture intended to mean that her insult sailed over my head. In fact, I ignored her because I attributed no merit to her opinion.
Soon after, I was kicked out. It was done possibly by changing the group meeting time and/or location, or my skipping one meeting, and not replying to emails. This happened more than 15 years ago, long before Trump came into office.
In the past few years, I have seen a lot of hate in Americans. Some of it is the growing intolerance that plagues the U.S. and other countries. Some of it is classism, as well as reverse classism. The amount of hate could be an effect of Donald Trump’s influence on the American people. But hate has always been part of human composition, and in this case, it was waiting for a chance to come out of hiding and open up like a gaping wound. It is a chronic disease that perennially infects homo sapiens.
In human evolution the capacity for hate probably came about as a defense mechanism. When someone is abusive toward me, and if it happens enough, I will begin to hate that person. And this tendency of hate based on self-protection might extend to other warm-blooded creatures.
But there is also predatory hate and group hate. And these can’t be explained away or excused as though they are self-protection. When people become antisemitic, anti-Muslim or prejudiced against Black people, or when they hate people of varied sexual identities, this is a symptom of our society being stricken with sickness. It is sick to hate someone just because they seem different, or because they seem to belong to a different group.
When people hate those of us who have a disability, that hate is a sickness. People should be accepting. We didn’t manufacture ourselves as disabled. I have a neurodivergent brain, which means I need to be medicated for life. This sharply limits my capabilities, but sometimes people don’t understand this. They might or might not see that I am a smart man, yet they don’t understand what effects the illness and medication have on me. They might believe that I’m faking disability, and this shows ignorance.
It is a sign of public ignorance to assume that a person with a mental disability is, by definition, stupid. A person with a disability, mental or otherwise, can be smart or not as smart, just like anyone else. Usually a disability will create limits, however. With my neurodivergence, it is hard to do certain things such as long-distance driving, going to an airport, or working in a 9-to-5 job. The first two of those I can do to an extent. Yet, meeting the demands of professional employment is very far out of reach. So far, this writing gig works for me, and I would like to do more of it.
If members of the public were more accepting of poor people with disabilities, it would increase chances that we could find good economic opportunities and get out of the poverty trap. Some of us just need an opportunity in a nonjudgmental situation, and we could do very well. Yet if businesspeople can’t see that we have potential, it becomes hopeless.
But we should not give up after multiple rejections. Sometimes, it is a matter of knocking on enough doors. And this can be done from your computer. People in business almost invariably prefer to be approached that way, and it seems to be the norm. And this is suitable for people with disabilities, especially if we don’t impress people when we meet with them in person. But it applies to people with mobility issues and transportation issues too.
A person with a disability is more likely to be tolerated and accepted through the internet, compared to on the street, in an institution, or in other compromising positions that tilt the perceptual balance against us. I have experienced being accepted and tolerated just fine electronically. But when people see me in person, they don’t get me. They see a mentally ill man, a poor man, an old man, but they don’t see a respectable man.
Jack Bragen lives and writes in Martinez, California.