Tuesday, July 16, 2013

An Ugly Profile

Scary, Hideous, Negative Me!

As every man, woman and child over the age of six living in the United States must be all too aware, the latest courtroom drama to grip the nation has been the trial of George Zimmerman, which came to its conclusion this past weekend. Unlike many of our previous “trials of the century”, which usually feature lurid sexual misconduct, child murder, or the involvement of a celebrity, the Zimmerman trial focused attention on some of the most troubling fissures that threaten to fracture American society, including racial bias, the prevalence of handguns, and our well-earned paranoia regarding violent crime.

A prominent issue in the Zimmerman case was profiling, specifically racial profiling. But profiling can take many forms, and as a disabled person this aspect really struck home. More on this a bit later, but for the sake of international readers who may not know the specifics of the case, please allow me to provide a quick summary.

In February 2012, black teenager Trayvon Martin was walking back to his father’s fiancĂ©’s townhouse at about 7 PM in the evening, after a trip to a nearby convenience store. The Florida community he was walking through had recently been the scene of several burglaries and home invasions. A white resident of the community, George Zimmerman, a volunteer in the neighborhood’s community watch program, saw Martin walking in the dark through a light drizzle. Mr. Zimmerman, who spotted Martin from his car, thought the recently turned 17-year-old looked suspicious and called local police dispatchers, who told him police were on their way and advised him not to follow Martin on foot, advice which Mr. Zimmerman, who was armed with a concealed handgun, ignored.

After following Martin for several minutes, an altercation broke out between the two subjects, during which Mr. Zimmerman suffered a broken nose and abrasions on the back of his head. According to most accounts of the struggle, including Mr. Zimmerman’s, Martin wound up straddling Zimmerman on the ground and was getting the better of the fight. Zimmerman said that at this point Martin saw the gun holstered on Zimmerman’s hip, and told Zimmerman that he was going to kill him. Zimmerman then unholstered his weapon and shot Martin at point-blank range through the heart. Trayvon Martin died within minutes.

Initially, local police declined to arrest George Zimmerman, saying that his actions were justified on the grounds of self-defense. After the case reached public attention and generated a national outcry, Zimmerman was arrested and charged with second-degree murder. After a trial that lasted approximately 3 weeks, he was found not guilty, a verdict that has ignited heated debate and public protests throughout the nation.

Naturally, I have strong opinions about the Zimmerman case, but as I’ve largely tried to keep politics out of this blog, I’ll refrain from airing my opinions here. Instead, as I mentioned previously, I’d like to use this tragic incident as a catalyst to discuss the issue of profiling, the practice of making assumptions about a person’s character, intelligence, or intentions based solely on their appearance. Perhaps the only thing that seems certain about this case is that Zimmerman profiled Martin, assuming he was “up to no good” based solely on the youth’s appearance. Tragically, it turned out those assumptions were wrong, and ultimately resulted in the death of a 17-year-old who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or, more correctly, in the right place at the wrong time.

Why discuss this on a blog devoted to issues associated with multiple sclerosis and disability? People with MS and other disabling illnesses who show the physical effects of their disease often find themselves the subjects of profiling, whether they walk unsteadily, use canes or walkers, or are reliant on wheelchairs. Assumptions are often made by members of the general public based solely on the appearance of the afflicted, and those assumptions can often multiply the pain and suffering caused by the disease itself.

There has long been stigma attached to physical disability; the severity of this stigma varies from culture to culture but certainly persists to this day even in more enlightened societies. I know many MSers with relatively mild disease who struggle mightily to keep their illness a secret in the workplace, for fear that knowledge of their ailment might derail their careers or even get them fired. Patients with more apparent manifestations of the MS, such as balance and gait issues, have found themselves accused of alcoholism or illicit drug use. Those of us who find ourselves in wheelchairs often also find ourselves ignored by the population at large, subject to ignorant or condescending comments, and sometimes even treated as complete imbeciles. Folks whose disease affects their speech are often automatically assumed to be suffering from mental retardation, the notion that a perfectly fine mind may be hidden behind their inability to enunciate never even occurring to many in the healthy population.

How can I be so sure of all of this? The answer is simple, and embarrassing. Back in my healthy days I was sometimes guilty of just such profiling, unconsciously making assumptions about the disabled based on preconceived notions that had no basis in reality. I clearly remember seething at the wheelchair reliant person who had the audacity to hold up my commute to work while the driver of the public bus I was on took the time to operate the vehicle’s wheelchair lift. How dare they travel during rush hour, didn’t they know that normal people need to get to work! Looking back, I cringe at the memory of my sometimes dumbing down my speech in the presence of people with physical disabilities, as if somebody possessed with faulty limbs was also automatically possessed with a deficient brain. Turns out the one with the deficient brain was me.

Even now, when I’m all too well versed in the trials and tribulations of the disabled, I sometimes find myself falling victim to my own subconscious preconceptions. A few years back I met a man who was active on one of the online MS forums in which I participate. In our written give-and-take on the Internet, I knew him to have a keen intellect – astute, sharp, and witty. When I finally met him in person at a large MS symposium I could barely disguise my shock when I found he could barely get a word out, his speech halting and slurred. Despite the fact that I knew that this man had a fine mind, I automatically found myself simplifying my vocabulary and talking in a louder voice, so strong and ingrained were my mistaken inclinations. I’m ashamed to admit that I was so disquieted by the situation that I cut our interaction short, behaving in a way I regret to this day.

George Zimmerman’s profiling of Trayvon Martin ultimately resulted in an innocent teenage boy’s death, an outcome that all can agree was tragic, whether or not they believe the jury’s verdict to be just. Though the profiling experienced by the sick and disabled isn’t likely to result in physical death, the injuries inflicted to sense of self and ego can at times seem more hurtful than a physical blow. The emotional maelstrom experienced by patients dealing with chronic disabling diseases is and of itself a difficult storm to weather, and the added indignities that are sometimes heaped upon them by an indifferent and ignorant public can multiply the emotional distress of such illnesses exponentially.

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers when it comes to eradicating the problem of profiling, whether that profiling is based on race, gender, religion, or physical condition. As my own experiences illustrate, perhaps the first action we should take to eliminate the poisonous practice of profiling is to look within. An open mind and an open heart are tremendous benefits not only to the person who possesses them, but to all within their sphere of influence as well.

Trayvon Martin, RIP.

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  1. So very true, Marc.
    Everything you said.
    Not unless we walk in the shoes of someone else can we ever know what it's like to experience their circumstances.
    Compassion for one another is what it's all about.

  2. What a wonderful piece. For the first couple of paragraphs, I was going to reply about the Stand Your Ground Law in Florida but my growing rant shut down rapidly as the paragraphs rolled.

    I, too, have cringed at some of the stuff I used to think and do around folks with so-called disabilities. And to stretch that, just the other day I caught myself talking more loudly to a mostly Spanish-speaking person. What was I thinking! It's so much easier to understand people's intentions when I can relate them to my own and most of the time now, when people are bumpkins about my awkward, lurching mobility or me on my scooter, it is more amusing than anything. My partner and I often chuckle about how people will talk to him (about me) while walking behind as I crank my wheels up to 4 mph.

    I've had the chance to do a fair amount of social justice work and it has taught me far more about myself than what to do about others. Besides, a genuinely friendly response allows a person to educate the ignorant and creates the human connections that make my days worth getting up for. Whoever thought I'd get something so personal out of the sad situation in Florida. You nailed it for me again, Marc!

  3. It's so difficult to process all that has happened in this tragic case. It makes me want to turn off NPR and crawl into bed. Thank you for putting all of this argued, angered and analyzed tragedy in to the context of compassion for this young boy and his family. Compassion is truly lost in the shuffle. And the ability to admit in print the profiling that most can only admit internally if at all, is admirable. Finding the parallels in our lives with MS and all of the assumptions and prejudices that come with it, is fascinating. It has brought my attention to another level of profiling. Being able to relate first hand to those who also endure the stereotypes and prejudices of society- as a person wrongly is labeled by appearance- hits so very close to my heart. It takes what is already unending compassion and sadness to a deeper person level of understanding.

    Thanks Marc for adding this layer of understanding to my feelings that are so volatile during this painful time. It touches a place in me, that hadn't been reached prior. I'm sure that can be said for all of the readers of your blog.

    You, my friend, never cease to amaze me with the bravery you bring to life.
    Best, Amy

  4. I think I can safely claim experience on both sides of disability profiling. I too cringe when I remember how embarrassed I would feel in encounters with people in wheelchairs, or those whose speech was affected by disability. I tried very hard not to feel this way and often ended up over compensating in ways that also make me wince. Interestingly I met a very provocative disabled man in my twenties that made me think very hard about this situation. He would often confront people with his disability very directly, and if you ignored him, ducked your face, he would call you out on it. I was shocked at the time but he got me thinking very hard about my own and others attitudes. I realised that not only did I underrate and profile disabled people as less than me in some way or other but I also held a belief that they should be passive and accepting of that prejudice. I have subsequently tried to change my perceptions, and prejudices, its not easy, I still make mistakes its a work in progress after all.
    As a side point related to the subject of profiling disability, as a person with MS I often find myself being judged by others, but not because of my condition, which is primarily invisible, but the reverse ... everyone knows someone with MS so many people will compare my MS to the MS of the person they know and grade me on it! I try to approach this with patience but sometimes, on a bad day, it just pisses me off! I expect people with depression and many other kinds of invisible disability often encounter similar prejudice too. I have sometimes found myself wishing I had a wonky leg just so I didn't have to explain the varying nature of disability to people every time MS comes up, which is rediculous on so many levels.

  5. Thought provoking piece Marc.
    It reminded me of an excellent radio programme which used to be on radio 4 here in the UK.
    It was called "Does he take sugar".
    The title coming from the mistaken assumption that a physical disability automatically implies a mental disability.
    Exactly the profiling you discussed.
    I listened to the programme many times long before I was diagnosed (with MS) and it gave a very insightfull look at the world not only of the disabled but also their carers.
    At the time I had no idea of how relevant it would be to me in future life.
    Your point about how profiling applies to so many aspets of life is so very true.
    Des Green

  6. I grew up in a wealthy, predominantly white town, and never came across anybody with any noticeable physical disabilities. Since becoming disabled myself, I have to wonder where all the disabled people were when I was growing up. Could it be that only 50 years ago disabled people were hidden away in institutions? Now, when I go anywhere, I am acutely aware of the accessibility of the destination. I do feel mildly annoyed and discriminated against when I find a restaurant or public building that is not fully accessible. (And people who design "accessible" restrooms should put themselves into a wheelchair and give them a try.) None of this is even close to the Zimmerman – Martin situation, but your post points out the fact that discrimination comes in all forms and many different degrees.

  7. a good antidote for that, for those who still can, is voluntering in a centre where are people with cognitive disorders. That's what I, m doing, and I found out that caring for, or sometimes just really looking in the eyes, of a such person makes you realize that we're all linked... I wish I could express better in the English language (like you) what I feel.
    But I'm sure you know what i mean.
    Thanks for that post

  8. What a wonderful piece. thank you for writing and making a difference to so many.
    I would love to know your thoughts on an enterprise that is just beginning. www.facebook.com/talkingaboutsexinwheelchairs
    I would love to read a blog or hear your thoughts on this matter.

    thanks again
    Kelley xxx

  9. I'm so embarrassed! And me a Special Ed. teacher! I was once LOUDLY talking to my aunt, older with Maculare Degeneration. "I'm blind, not deaf",she said. She was always a pip, that one.


  10. Have you ever seen the documentary “Happy”? You can get it on Netflix, and it explores research about what creates real happiness in people all over the world. In the end, it is the presence of family and friends and the practice of compassion and service which turn out to be key. Probably the greatest gift disability has given me has been to learn the nature and practice of compassion. I could have substituted myself for you in your example about being impatient when the bus stopped to load someone in a wheelchair. And, I have learned to value compassion not just for the person needing special treatment but also for the person experiencing impatience. Have I mastered the lesson? No, but the path to get there is increasingly an inviting and welcomed one.

  11. I have a cousin who was born with Muscular Dystrophy. From the time all the first cousins were kids, we looked out and accepted her with no thought. It taught all of us compassion and kindness as well as influenced us to not think of her as different, just in need of some extra help. All of us have grown up and lived with or assisted someone in need depending on their challenge. I pity those who have not been given the chance to understand and give of themselves for they have missed the true meaning of living.We learned not to turn our faces or hearts away, for none of us will leave this world untouched.

  12. Bravo Marc and yet another post that moves me to tears. One, for Trayvon's needless death and two, for relating to the feelings of being 'watched' as I drunk walk my way through a parking lot or store. Knowing that people don't know why and thinking that they must be horrified as I get in my car to drive. I want to say - don't worry I just have MS. I have also been thinking quite a bit about how I felt 'pre-diagnosis' when I didn't know.

    Pre-knowing. I acted the same as people do to me now. Giving them advise on what they should eat or do to help themselves get well, or doubting their illness because they didn't look sick. I wish I had educated myself more before making judgements or offering advise. I wish I had listened and asked questions, before thinking I knew better. The only thing I can do now is use that knowledge to act differently in my interactions going forward.

    Thank you once again for writing so well and bring up thought provoking ideas.