Patience for ‘the ignorant’

We are aware of other people’s small-mindedness, but blissfully unaware of our own.

by Quynh Nguyen

Last week, I published a column titled, “Disability: A social construct.” I received responses from all over the nation, from people with various disabilities. Many appreciated the message delivered about perceiving people with disabilities. And then there was the angry horde.

This angry horde was seriously disgusted and cynical about the column that I wrote. Their responses ranged from declaring the column “self-serving pap” to wagging fingers at the generalizations I had made about the disabled community as a whole. What I thought was a very positive column for people with disabilities ended up being intensely offensive and a disservice to them.

In that column I made the statement that people with disabilities do not want a cure -not true. I had forgotten about Christopher Reeves’ legacy of hope for a cure for spinal cord injuries. I was unaware of a vast number of disabilities that have researchers vigorously searching for a cure. So, yet again, I found my ableist foot in my mouth.

These angry readers were quick to point out that I was still ableist, in spite of the epiphany I had. In retrospect, it makes sense to be certified “not ableist” by people who are really qualified to declare it, rather than stating it myself.

My intention with writing a column about ableism and disability was to share a personal discovery and be a sort of bridge for understanding between the disabled and non-disabled. If anything, the column became a drawbridge for me that I had let down to allow new ideas into my head.

Yes, there are some pretty angry people with disabilities out there. Yes, I had spoken only for those with physical disabilities. Yes, there were a lot of shortcomings in the column itself and with the ideas and paternalistic tone behind it.

Only after making more mistakes did I learn more about disability beyond the experience of Lance, the guy I care for on Wednesdays and Sundays. I learned how to be more sensitive and tactful when writing about people with disability.

I also learned that anyone who dares to publicly reveal their ignorance of a minority’s struggle finds themselves with their foot in their mouth, a foot up their rear, and other feet kicking them around for being ignorant. They’ll also find hands that help them up and encourage them to keep going on with what they learned. It’s a harsh but effective way to outgrow ignorance.

What we want in society is paradoxical. We want a society free of “isms” and discrimination, but do not know how to make that happen. We are aware of other people’s small-mindedness, but unaware of our own. It’s easier to accuse others of being bigoted, yet very difficult to recognize it and address it within us.

Many of us are quiet about our ignorance, avoid groups we fear offending and stick to groups we are comfortable with. We avoid the backlash against ignorance by effectively hiding it.

As a foaming-at-the-mouth activist, I have gotten in people’s faces for their ignorance. I know now that doing so only creates walls and hurt feelings, and not understanding or compassion.

It’s hard to give patience to someone who is hurtful and ignorant, but only in doing so can one change that ignorant person’s mind. Extending an olive branch does not compromise the strength of any given movement, but reinforces the goal of understanding and compassion.

Quynh Nguyen welcomes comments at [email protected]