Timmy and Jimmy are at the forefront of disability thought. You know, Jimmy and Timmy, the two disabled characters of the foul-mouthed television cartoon, South Park – truly, they’re among our community’s most profound thinkers. As the story goes, Timmy, who uses a wheelchair, and Jimmy, who uses crutches, were upset at Christopher Reeve, whom they didn’t view as a real “crip” because he wasn’t born with disability as they were – disability, according to Timmy and Jimmy, is a culture you’re born into.
This episode hit home with me not only as among the most daring topics – as with mocking Reeve’s struggles – but also as among the most true, bringing to light the common but rarely discussed lines of dissention within the disabled community among those born with disability and those whom received disability later in life. As one born with a disability, and active among all forms of disabilities, I have been acutely aware since a young age of how the disabled community divides itself based on the origin of disability. The standard fallacy of those born with disabilities says that because you received your disability later in life than at birth, you haven’t lived the full disability experience, you’re not a full-fledged member of the disability club. On the flip side, the fallacy is that those whom received disabilities later in life don’t see themselves as “one of them,” those with so-called true disability, because they’ve lived a “normal experience” to a given extent. As a result, you end up with a divided community where our brothers and sisters face each other, stating, “You’re not one of us,” or “I’m not one of you.”
On a similar note, South Park is not the only television show of recent to bring to light division among those with disabilities based on how we view each other. Christy Smith, a hearing-impaired competitor on TV’s Survivor, has undergone a barrage of bashing from the deaf community for not complying with a code of conduct that many of her deaf peers follow regarding using sign language at all times. Smith, a graduate of Gallaudet University, chose to read lips and speak by voice on the show, rather than using sign language and an interpreter. On the web and in the press, many members of the deaf community have labeled Smith as somewhat of a trader for not staying true to her deaf culture’s form of communication. Again, we see the phenomena of segregating each other within the disabled community based on status policies that we create.
Beyond the interpersonal, organizations within the disabled community set up similar fractions, striving to support one particular classification of disabilities over others. If you use a wheelchair due to paralysis, one group will assist in your ADA complaint. However, if you use a wheelchair due to any other disability, you’re not eligible to use their services – you need to go through a cerebral palsy, or muscular dystrophy, or multiple sclerosis, or other disability-specific organization to get assistance. And, let’s not overlook wheelchair sports like quad rugby or events like United Cerebral Palsy sports that have both implied and formal rules stating that you cannot participate unless you have that particular medical designation. You may have all four extremities affected by disability or have a disorder of the central nervous system, but unless you’re a card-carrying medical member of this or that “disability” group, you’re not allowed in the door.
If all this sound absurd – that is, differentiating others based on origin or type of disability – it is. In my mind, segregating others based on differing disabilities is as absurd as Timmy and Jimmy labeling Reeve as not really disabled, or members within the deaf community calling Christy Smith a trader for using her communication abilities as she wishes. No matter our disabilities, or how we handle them, for the most part society doesn’t distinguish among us – lack of access, employment discrimination and similar “mainstreaming” issues impact all of us. Why, then, do we discriminate against each other, why do we divide amongst ourselves when we face common struggles?
There are many possible answers to such a complex question. From the interpersonal, maybe it’s hard to witness your own struggles in another person? From the organizational, maybe resources are so scarce that groups feel a need to protect their own? And, from the societal, maybe we struggle to maintain our culture while still striving to be part of the mainstream? Indeed, in the grand perspective, all of these aspects play a role in division within the disabled community. However, ultimately, individual action supercedes all, and we have an obligation to support others with similar situations to our own, uniting and creating a better life for everyone.