How Stereotypes of Disabilities are Harmful: An interview with A Blurred Muffle.
Stereotypes surrounding disability affect how disabled people are treated in their communities, at job centres, at the doctor’s office, in education and many other aspects of life.
I spoke to A Blurred Muffle, a British-Pakistani disability blogger and advocate who is DeafBlind, meaning she has dual-sensory loss, about the kind of stereotypes disabled people are faced with and how they are harmful to them.
The “you don’t look disabled comment”
People have invisible disabilities. You probably wouldn’t know that someone was colour-blind unless they told you. The same way you won’t know if someone is deaf, blind or in pain unless they have a mobility aid or tell you. Disabled people are not bound to a wheelchair. Disabilities aren’t always physical. Mental disabilities exist too. A disability is something that impacts a person’s daily life from movements to activities.
Telling a disabled person that they “do not look disabled” invalidates the hardships that they face. It is extremely concerning that people with jobs that involve interacting with disabled people like job centre staff, hold harmful preconceived notions about disabled people. Even the application processes which disabled people have to use in order to receive crucial financial assistance are inaccessible to them.
A Blurred Muffle explained how her faith in the social care and welfare system diminished due to her multiple experiences of ableism. Her application for PIP (personal independence payment) wasn’t accessible for her. “I had to fight for email communication with DWP. I was told that I should be able to use the telephone if I can understand speech in person.” Not being able to complete the application process over the phone meant that the assessor assumed that she could not possibly understand English.
“She was supposed to help me but outright questioned my eligibility for disability benefits. My request for support due to lack of accessibility was denied. When I told citizens advice that I couldn’t navigate to their office alone, I was laughed at and told I am an adult. I was compared to other disabled people and how they manage in their circumstances. I was reduced to tears by having to repeatedly explain what I can and cannot do and why.” A Blurred Muffle explained. The fact that she required support and her life had just changed quite drastically was overlooked completely.
[Image description: A man in a mobility scooter beside a lady with a cane walking on a pavement in the street].
There is a “cure”
A Blurred Muffle explained how perceptions of disabilities in the Pakistani Muslim community are harmful. She told me that when she tries to explain that there is no cure for her disability and asks South Asian people to pray for her strength and patience but instead they dismiss it. “The Desi community has no boundaries. Everyone wants to know your medical history and I am asked whether my sight or pain is better every single time I see some relatives.”
The Desi community are convinced that there is a cure for everything. “They compare my rare progressive genetic disease to the blindness of 70/80 year olds that are diabetic, and how their sight loss journey was stabilised miraculously. Rather than understanding that they were able to stop irreversible damage by controlling their diabetes, they attribute it to the irrelevant remedy. Although these are perhaps well intentioned comments they are mentally damaging.”
She highlights a very important point of needing a balance between spirituality and medicine, something that most of the Desi community fail to understand. “So many members of the local Desi community repeatedly claim that I should have ‘yaqeen’ conviction/faith in my very specific du’as to heal, restore my sight and health. My faith in science and medicine is also constantly attacked because of my reluctance to try countless herbal or spiritual remedies, many of the spiritual remedies are cultural ones that would never be approved by a practicing Islamic scholar.”
[Image description: Someone holding 3 packets of blue tablets in their left hand and placing a box of tablets with their right hand on the shelf filled with tablets in boxes.]
They are exceptional
People with disabilities are often portrayed as super-humans who have the resilience and courage to bounce back in the face of adversity. They are often seen as inspirational for doing day-to-day things. Disabled people can be resilient and brave but are not always this way. Placing this stereotype on them puts a lot of pressure on disabled people to be cheerful and resilient all of the time.
People’s disabilities will come with hardships, but what seems to be more tiring is dealing with the stereotypes about them. A Blurred Muffle told me “disabled people are not vulnerable because they are disabled, our vulnerability is cause by external environmental factors, mainly ableism and lack of accessibility. The same way people are re-evaluating their internalised beliefs on racism, everyone should do the same for their attitudes towards disabilities.”
She explained how the expectation to be resilient also causes others to assume that she can work around any barriers. Having an invisible disability has often been used as an excuse to deny her of an accessible environment. “When I cannot hear or see something I am expected to guess and make the best of it, because that’s just what I do. I’ll get told that ‘I look better’ when I’m in pain because I made an effort with my makeup and outfit” she told me.
The expectation to be resilient affects her mental health too. “If I am having a down day I struggle to show this because there is an unspoken expectation that I am strong and resilient, I question if people will think I am complaining (they do), so I just plod along knowing the mental strain is taking me to bursting point.”
[Image description: A woman with a white t-shirt on that reads "My size? Resilient. Drop the label".]
The assumption that disability impacts someone’s intellect
Someone I knew was dyslexic and she worked really hard on her studies. To avoid being treated differently she only told me and a few others that she was dyslexic. She didn’t want people to force a friendship with her because they have to “be nice to the disabled girl”. She didn’t want people to assume that just because she was dyslexic that she was incapable of doing anything else and most of all she was tired of hearing from those who did find out “you don’t look dyslexic”.
Ableist language also reveals a lot about our unconscious biases. Allilsa Fernandez, a mental health and disability activist, said “When you attack a person’s physical and mental abilities in place of actually expressing an opinion or idea, you further stigmatize people with disabilities” said Fernandez.
Often we hear people say “are you blind?” when they are frustrated that the other person cannot see a situation in the way that they do. The phrase implies that the other person is stupid for not understanding. Tone deaf is another phrase that is consistently used to describe someone whose action or remark was inappropriate for the situation. From a young age it was even common to hear the word “spaz”, short for spastic, being thrown around to insult others at my school. These phrases associate stupidity and ignorance with deafness and blindness. This is harmful to the deaf and blind community because it marginalises them further.
The Cut interviewed people with disabilities to find out what annoys them about stereotyping. One person said that people raise their voices to talk to him, even though he is not hard of hearing, he is blind. People’s disabilities do not always affect the function of the rest of their bodies or mind.
[Image description: A pink background at the bottom of the picture which turns into a sky blue hue at the top of the image. A person wearing blue clothing extends an arm on the right hand side of the image holding a lightbulb].
Undoubtedly the social care and welfare system needs some serious reforms in order to tackle ableism within the system and make application processes accessible to disabled people. However, individuals can also work to create an inclusive environment for disabled people.
I asked A Blurred Muffle what non-disabled people can do to create an inclusive environment for disabled people. She responded “Instead of ignoring us like the unknown other, interact with us, listen to us and support us in creating a society where disability isn’t an unknown taboo.
Follow disabled activists and gain an understanding of what it is like navigating life with a disability, the challenges are not what non-disabled people assume them to be.
It is really important to treat people with disabilities as unique individuals. Not every deaf person has the same needs, as deafness, just like blindness is a spectrum with many causes and coping strategies.”