Benevolent Discrimination

                Soon after becoming blind, I learned the term, “benevolent discrimination,” different from malevolent or hostile prejudice towards a group of people, but still very destructive.  Although positive attitudes or actions are expressed toward a particular group with this kind of discrimination, the responses still have the effect of holding the group or individual member in an inferior position.

                A blind activist had an experience that illustrates this concept.  He stepped on a city bus, and the driver told him the location of an empty seat. The subsequent conversation went something like this:

                “No thanks,” the blind man said.  “I’d rather stand.”

                “But I’d rather you sit,” the driver said.  “I don’t want you falling.”

                The man shook his head.  “I’m holding the pole,” he said.  “I’ll be fine.  There’s little vision involved—just balance and the sense of touch, both of which I have in good supply.”

                “I have to insist,” the driver said, pulling the bus to the side of the street and turning off the engine.

                “I’ll be fine,” the blind man insisted.  “And if I were to fall, it would be my responsibility.  There are all these other riders who can attest to my voicing my wishes, despite your concern.  Thanks.  Please.  Keep on driving.”

                The driver, however, phoned the bus company and a half hour later, another bus arrived.  All the other passengers transferred to the new bus, very angry at the blind man to be sure.  But the man was taking action to press for his equal rights.  Although I support the principle, I wouldn’t have had the heart to inconvenience the many other passengers that way. 

                This is an extreme response.  Most benevolent discrimination is more a “paper cut” than a severed limb.  But the little cuts build and can hurt and infuriate some people with disabilities.

                As with a dear friend who called yesterday in tears over a series of actions by co-workers, all in the name of being helpful and well-intentioned.  Her co-workers actions rob her of respect, adulthood, voice, and equality. 

                I worry that I might have committed some of these actions in my sighted life.  These misguided intentions spring often from stereotypes and attitudes that we hardly know we hold and seldom assess.  Frankllhy, they stem from a sense of superiority, a notion that because we are able-bodied, we know better.

                I don’t think any other minority group suffers from as great a sense of invisibility as those who are disabled.  So-called lookism, discrimination against people on the basis of appearance, targets mostly the obese and the disabled.

                Still, I think the main cause of benevolent discrimination comes because those with disabilities need help physically at times.  It’s not a big jump, then, to think that we also need help with mental decisions.

                The Americans with Disabilities Act has improved lives for many.  But, just as we do not live in a post-racial world despite having an African-American president, we do not live in a post-ADA world.  It is so critical that the TABs, temporarily abled-bodied, listen to the perspective and experiences of those with disabilities.

                For now, here are some good rules of thumb:

1. If we with disabilities need help, we’ll ask for it.

2. If you see someone with a disability struggling or seemingly in trouble, approach and offer help.  If you are turned down, accept it.  Don’t assume you know better.

3. What we with disabilities want is a fair shake.  We don’t want to be viewed as heroic or helpless, just people with challenges who function in different ways. A fair shake often means simply listening to us.  My friend who phoned yesterday has remarkable insights.  Part of her disability is trouble with speaking.  But believe me, she is worth all the patience you can muster; her views are unusual and powerful. 

4. Our behavior may seem bizarre.  I speak to empty store registers and empty chairs, for instance.  I haven’t seen that the clerk or friend has moved away, so continue my conversation.  Sometimes a physically disabled person will find it easier to crawl up and down steps.  Such unusual behavior doesn’t mean you have nothing in common with him.

5. Finally, do not avoid interaction with someone with a disability because you assume she will “take” more than “give.”  We can surprise you. But if the give and take is off-balance, speak up.  Most of us will appreciate the candid interaction.


About Sally Hobart Alexander

Blinded at the age of twenty-six, I left California and elementary school teaching for life in Pittsburgh, Pa. There, I met my husband, got a Masters' degree in social work, had two kids, now 35 and 32, and became a writer. Surprisingly, the writing career led me full-circle to teaching, and I teach in Chatham University's M.F.A. program and lead two writing critique groups. Always, since the age of 26, I have traveled, not in the stereotypic darkness attributed to blindness, but a mist. My blog then, "traveling through the mist" will deal with issues in my culturally different life as a blind writer, teacher, speaker, and human being.
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