Social Secretary Ella Kipling discusses the damaging rhetoric in discussions of disability, arguing that it is ignorant and harmful to treat disabled people like children
Content warning: discussion of ableism
The Collins Dictionary defines the word ‘infantilisation’ as the act of ‘prolonging an infantile state in a person by treating them as an infant.’ Essentially, this means interacting with someone who is perfectly competent as though they were a child. Disabled people experience this every day, and many (including those with physical disabilities, those with Down’s syndrome, and those with autism) have taken to the internet to share their experiences.
TikTok user Erin (@erinadvocates) shares videos where she sheds light on the treatment her brother with Down’s syndrome receives. She explained that she is constantly told that her brother is ‘so cute,’ a comment she finds strange given that he is an ‘adult man.’ Not only do these comments perfectly sum up the sorts of treatment disabled people face, but the fact that the comments were made to Erin, rather than her brother, further exemplifies the idea of people treating him as a child unable to be addressed himself.
Creigh Farinas also experienced several of her acquaintances calling her younger disabled sister ‘cute,’ as well as adjusting their behaviour around her and switching to ‘baby speech.’ It is strange how people see someone different from them and automatically assume they are unable to communicate for themselves, or should be spoken to like an infant. I cannot begin to comprehend how difficult it must be to be going about your day and be confronted with people treating you like a child simply because you are in a wheelchair.
Influencer @wheelierin responded to comments on her page stating they felt ‘so bad’ for her by asking ‘you think that I sit in my room crying all day because I can’t fucking walk? You don’t think I have bigger problems in my life?’ Her reply begs the question: Why do physically abled people feel the need to express sympathy to perfectly content disabled people?
Does it make physically able people feel better about themselves to act this way around disabled people? Is their behaviour stemming from a place of discomfort or pure ignorance, and a sense of superiority? Perhaps it is a combination of all three. Do they genuinely feel as though someone with a physical disability needs to be spoken to like a child in order to understand what they are saying?
The discussion surrounding the infantilisation of disabled people was thrust into mainstream media last year when singer Sia released her movie Music. Sia faced backlash for her portrayal of the autism community, and the stereotyping of the protagonist – a non-verbal teenage girl called Music, played by then 14 year-old Maddie Ziegler. People from the autism community felt that Music, who was played by a neurotypical actress, was presented as a caricature of an autistic person. Sia revealed that Maddie had reservations about her playing the role of an autistic girl as a neurodivergent person, and had reportedly shared her concerns with Sia, stating: ‘I don’t want anyone to think I’m making fun of them.’
Sia also came under fire for the language she used in interviews to describe disabled people, such as referring to them as people with ‘special abilities.’ In an interview, where she was asked about the ‘wide eyed innocence’ of Music, she replied: ‘It’s pure, that’s what I’ve always found with the special abilities people that I’ve fallen in love with is this purity.’ Furthermore, Twitter user Laney explained that calling autistic people ‘pure’ like Sia did ‘isn’t a compliment’ and is actually ‘super infantilizing and patronizing.’ Another user said: ‘“Special abilities” is an incredibly infantilizing and ridiculous way to word this. We don’t have super powers, and we’re not your inspiration. We’re just disabled people trying to get by in an ableist world.’
Sia appeared to use the phrase ‘special abilities’ with pride during the interview, and it seems as though she was practically giving herself a pat on the back. Sia’s dismissal of legitimate concerns from the autism community not only highlights her own self-righteousness with regards to the film, but also plays into the infantilisation of the community. Does Sia feel as though she knows more about disabled and autistic people because she is neurotypical? Does she place her intelligence above the collective knowledge of people from the community she has offended?
Disabled people are being open and vocal about the way they want to – and deserve to be – interacted with and it is time people started to listen. Ignorance is not bliss and treating people like children can be extremely harmful.
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