It’s really off-putting when a group of disabled people are trying to have a conversation and a caregiver butts in with “you’re wrong. I know, because I care for someone with such and such a disability”. This makes me squirm. Even worse are those disability organisations or charities that have only parents and caregivers on their boards. “Oh, but it’s all right, my brother has this condition. In fact, we all have family members with this condition!”
It’s troubling enough that there are so many such organisations out there that just don’t have anyone who actually has the disability concerned on their boards – it’s as though we can’t speak for ourselves or have unique experiences people who don’t have our disabilities can’t relate to or advocate about! – but that’s not directly what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about who gets to run conversations about disability and who gets to run the narratives. All too frequently, abled caregivers and family members are centered in conversations that really ought to be run by and focus on disabled people.
The thing is, abled caregivers and family members, while pretty involved in the lives of those they are caring for, have their own perspectives, which is great. But treating those perspectives like substitutes for those of disabled people themselves makes me really uneasy. So when the perspectives of disabled people get pushed out because carers are brought to the forefront – in legislating, in daily conversation, in interviews – for me, that’s a clear example of ableism run rampant. Because it seems like those in charge think that disabled people aren’t worth listening to or are incapable of informing their own opinions. The dominant narrative is that abled people are better worth listening to, and I get sad when abled carers and parents just don’t seem to realise that they’re dominating conversations at the expense of disabled people. (It reminds me of those times when men start talking loudly about feminism and everyone else in the room has to keep quiet, is denied a chance to speak.) And “advocacy” of disabled people shouldn’t be at the expense of disabled people.
Of course, it’s usually particular kinds of caregivers who get centred – who centre themselves – in these conversations: abled ones. As ever, it is those with multiple roles who are pushed to the margins, because their existence is held to be just too complicated to deal with. I think acknowledging disabled people who are also caregivers would be a really good start to decentralising the place of abled caregivers in these conversations. Moreover, acknowledging the multifaceted nature of experience brings out the nuance: we really have to engage with the dynamics of different people’s situations here – what are the power dynamics like when you’re both in a position of power and disabled? how do these conversations apply to you? – rather than defaulting to listening to abled parents and caregivers.
Now, I’m not saying that abled caregivers and such should have no place in conversations about disability and ableism, you understand: I’m saying that such folk have dominated conversations about these matters. There is a place, it just shouldn’t be a place that replicates the hierarchies present in society already: hierarchies around who gets to speak, who gets to do the representing. The effect of this – and you can look at a range of newspaper articles or documentaries or whatever you please – is that disabled people get silenced. The effect is that, more often than not, it becomes all about portraying the caregiver as angelic and the person cared for as a burden they have kindly taken on.
And that’s not on.