Today’s question is a second one from Joyousmenma93:

examples of infantilizing disabled people and the evils of doing so.

Whee! The ideas behind this topic are actually ideas that interest me a great deal.

Since I was just talking about narratives in my last post, it might help to think of infantilization as a narrative. The narrative is called Disabled People Are Children, or more precisely, “disabled adults are still basically children, and should be treated that way.”

To understand why so many people think this way, we need to do a little bit of Developmental Psychology.

From birth to adulthood, most people grow, and part of this growth is learning skills. In any given culture, there is a specific set of skills – intellectual, physical, practical, emotional, social – that almost every abled person learns. And most abled people will learn these skills at about the same rate. For example, there is a certain age at which most babies learn to crawl and then walk.

People developed the concept of IQ by essentially measuring a person’s skills and comparing them to the skills of other people their age. People who had learned more than average for their age had a higher IQ, and people who had learned less than average had a lower one.

Psychologists noticed that some people were behind average for their age in many different skills at once. So they started talking about “mental age”. For example, if someone was answering IQ questions in the way that an average eight-year-old would, psychologists would say they had a “mental age” of eight, even if they were actually six or twelve or some other age.

There is a very, very limited sense in which talking about people in these terms can be useful. For example, if someone reads about as well as an average 10-year-old, and you have important information to write down for them, you’d want to make sure that it is written in a way that an average 10-year-old could understand. As long as ages are only benchmarks of particular skills and nothing else – not value judgements, not statements of the person’s true essence, etc – they can be a useful shorthand for talking about these skills.

In fact, we have a cultural understanding that sometimes people don’t act exactly as we’d expect for their age, and that this can be okay. We use phrases like “He’s young at heart” or “She has an old soul” to say that someone acts in a way we don’t associate with their real age.

The problem with all this, though, is when we start thinking that people with the mental skills of children are actually children. Because in real life, a child is not just a mini person whose skills happen to be less developed. A child is a person who has to be cared for and controlled by others.

As adults, we have to keep children safe, even if that means sometimes doing things that they don’t like. We decide what they should be learning in school, what they should be eating, where and when they can play and whom they can and can’t play with. We decide what it is and isn’t appropriate for them to watch or read. We try to hide information from them about how the world works. When they are sick, we talk to doctors about how they are feeling and make the appropriate medical decisions. It’s possible to make these decisions in a bad or abusive way, but even a good parent has to make them a lot of the time, especially with a young child.

It’s acceptable in our culture (although I wish it wasn’t) to talk to children in a condescending, sing-song voice, to ignore their stated wishes, and to make all sorts of decisions for their own good regardless of how they feel about it.

But it’s not appropriate to treat an adult this way – even if they are a disabled adult. A disabled adult may not have a very high IQ, or they may need help with certain things that abled grown-ups don’t need help with, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay to make decisions for them in the way we would do for a child.

And when people believe that Disabled People Are Children, they do exactly that.

Here is a very lurid example. It’s not okay for children to have sex. Having sex with a child is a terrible crime. So sometimes, when people believe that Disabled People Are Children, they try to stop disabled people from having sex – even when the disabled people are grown-ups who can clearly communicate that they would like to. This has bad consequences, like people in institutions being forcibly separated from the people they fall in love with, or even forcibly sterilized. Disabled people often aren’t given sex education when their abled peers are, because the people caring for them think it’s too icky and too “mature”, and then this results in the disabled people not knowing how to have sex safely when they want to, and not knowing how to recognize and report sexual abuse.

This is not okay. It’s also not okay for people to talk over disabled adults, ignore their stated wishes, make their medical and living decisions for them, stop them from reading or seeing or saying things that might be “inappropriate”, or control their lives in countless other ways. Yet people do these things, all the time, because they believe that Disabled People Are Children and that they have to be cared for as one would for a child.

People who have survived this sort of behaviour are often really, really sensitive about being referred to as children. Even if you talk about their age in a way that would be ok for most abled people – like calling them “young at heart” – some people will be really upset by this, because it’s too close to home, and too many people have hurt them by genuinely treating them like children.

Not everyone who is disabled has been through this specific set of experiences. I haven’t, and so I don’t really mind when people point out things I do that are a little bit childish, or ways in which I seem young. But I’m pretty lucky not to have had those experiences.

Moreover, when you’re writing a story, you have to think not just about who will be upset, but about what narratives you are reinforcing. If you describe disabled characters in a way that could make people think they are really more like children than adults, then you are in danger of reinforcing the Disabled People Are Children narrative.

Ways of doing this include:

  • Directly describing your disabled characters as childish, or as “like children”
  • Describing your disabled characters in ways that are usually only used for children, like by calling them little and cute a lot
  • Uncritically using concepts like “mental age” that are used to reinforce the Disabled People Are Children narrative in real life
  • Showing abled characters treating your disabled characters like children, and not clearly showing why this isn’t okay
  • Drawing excessive attention to childlike, youthful, or immature mannerisms in a disabled character
  • Drawing excessive attention to childlike interests and behaviours, such as playing with toys, and not also showing that the disabled person has grown-up interests, too. (It’s okay for grown-ups to play with toys! And abled grown-ups can do this too! But if it is written carelessly with a disabled character, it can be used as a shorthand for the character being “really a child”, and that’s not okay. If you don’t understand the distinction here, you might want to steer clear of it for now.)
  • Assuming that a disabled character can’t understand their situation well enough to make their own decisions

All of these things can be considered infantilization, and they’re not good ideas.

The bottom line is that disabled grown-ups are grown-ups, and they should be treated that way. If you’re not giving them every bit as much respect as you would give an abled grown-up, you’re probably doing it wrong.

One Reply to “Infantilization”

  1. Substitute the word “older” or the word “elderly” for “disabled,” and you will see how too often adults with gray hair are treated, despite any other attributes we may have. The use of such terms as “dearie,” “sweetie,” and “young lady (or young man)” is infantilizing. Basically, if a person wouldn’t use the term or the form of speech with a peer, he or she shouldn’t use it with another adult, whether that individual is disabled, older, or a member of a minority. I can’t begin to count the times I have been insulted, but I always let the speaker know how I feel. Maybe it is a losing battle, but if I can change the behavior of even a few, I have accomplished something.

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