Misimagining People: Revisiting the Concept

I've written before about the concept of imagining and mis-imagining people - namely, making them fit into the narrative that we think they should fit into - but I'd like to touch on it briefly here again, in discussion of something that came up in talks with a friend tonight.

There are many of you who know me and know my story involving my family, but there are still quite a few of you who don't. For that purpose, I'd like to give you a little background.

This is my brother (in the green shirt):

It should be fairly obvious, but in case you can't tell - he's disabled. Specifically, he has, in technical terms, Trisomy 21, or Down Syndrome. Down's affects development physically and mentally - long story short: he's handicapped.

MJ (short for Matthew Joseph) is 28 years old, and plans to go to Disney World for his 30th birthday in 2 years. He has a part time job doing housekeeping at a hotel in Sioux Falls, and his own apartment that is incredibly messy. He goes to South Dakota Achieve - a post high school center for disabled people in Sioux Falls - in the afternoons, and in the evenings and on weekends, he is active in Special Olympics.

He's also a pretty normal human being. He gets angry - particularly at me - and he can understand when he's being insulted. He worries about things, especially when plans are going to deviate from his normal routine. He'll call my parents just to ask about how their cat is doing in the evening, and then call back again a few minutes later to make sure that Mom knows to pick him up in the morning. He makes incredibly lame jokes, and laughs at the funny things my Dad does. He's a pretty average man.

Growing up, people would ask me "What's it like to have a disabled sibling?" I never knew really how to respond to that question. Being the youngest of three, with MJ as the oldest, my other brother and I have never known anything different. MJ has always been there - it's almost like having a twin. I can't tell you about my experience with him because I don't know what it would be like to have two "normal" siblings.

But what I can tell you is what I've already said: He is a normal human being. He is capable, he understands, and he knows when he's done something wrong or right. He does not spend his entire life uncorrupted from the world in this little hazy bliss of ignorance. He even votes, though I myself had doubts about whether or not he was casting a vote just to please dad. But that may be a place where even I have underestimated him.

There's a pervasive tendency in society to expect total strangers to conform to our preconceived narratives of who people are - as wrong as they may be, we expect certain things when we see certain looks or behaviors, and part of the beauty of human experience is letting people surprise us.

But there seems to be one group that is consistently left out of that recognition and changing of the narrative is that of disabled people. There's a particularly insidious narrative that disabled people are "innocent," they are "angels," they are these "gifts from God who are able to speak clearly to a situation because they don't have a filter." They're our "little buddies," and "like the younger sister we never had." If there's one group we consistently fail to treat as human beings, it's the handicapped.

Even as the sister of a disabled person, it's been a long period of me making the conscious decision to change my attitudes to see MJ as a capable adult. I'm still a little afraid to let him wander about on his own in public, even though he walks to the bus stop and takes the bus by himself almost everyday.

And I have noticed that my coddling him, my refusing to see him as capable, has had a negative effect. When he is around those who see him as this innocent, incorruptible angel who needs help on every little step, he will ask for help on every little step. But left to his own devices, he knows how to do everything we thought him incapable of.

Our narratives about others are not just mental blocks to ourselves and personal hurdles we need to get over in relating to others, but they are narratives that can shape how others perceive themselves.

When MJ is told that he is a capable person and can do what he's trying to do just fine, then he will do it. If I come in and insist that I help him, or that he can't do it, he will internalize that message. It's remarkably clear to see in my own brother, and it's been a remarkable process to work on helping to undo some of that.

When we tell people that they are incapable because of the narratives we see them fitting into, we do them a major disservice of not allowing them to discover on their own whether or not they are capable.

This doesn't just apply to the disabled. This applies to every single person we meet. The narratives we choose to tell ourselves every day can have negative effects on those surrounding us.

When we mis-imagine a person, we also encourage them to mis-imagine themselves. And that is a great tragedy.