Monday, February 26, 2007


There was a surgeon who used to work at a hospital I worked at. Had a bad accident (broadsided by a drunk when he was driving home). He had some orthopedic injuries, but his hands were fine. He almost totally lost the ability to talk, however. And when he could speak again, his speech was nearly unintelligible, even with speech therapy.

It took him far longer to return to work then it should have.

His colleagues suggested he should take disability. They seemed embarrassed to have him around. They pretty much shunned him. They didn't think patients would understand him. The hospital didn't want him back. Everyone assumed that since his speech was affected, his whole brain was damaged. Pity they could give, but not understanding.

He had to fight hard to get his job back. And that included a long time being supervised by fellow surgeons having to "prove" that he really could operate.

And I wonder, just what is it about speech, anyway?

Out of our faculties, it seems the one that is most tied to other's perception of intelligence and personhood. I mean, why is the lack of speaking ability sometimes referred to as being dumb (as in "He's deaf and dumb.")? In the 1968 movie "The Planet of the Apes" (which my quite sophisticated wife loves for some unexplained reason) Charlton Heston lands on a planet much like Earth, where the Apes and Chimpanzees talk and are intelligent, and the humans are mute and are looked down upon by the ruling apes.

If you look at people that are blind vs. people that are deaf (and also usually mute), the blind people are often much more readily integrated into "normal" society. The deaf/mute are shunted off to the fringes of society. People who don't speak are often assumed to be "dumb", not acknowledged, not taught, and not valued at all by society.

And though my son speaks (totally understandable, though his speech patterns and idioms are sometimes a bit "off") many with autism struggle with this, and some never do to an appreciable degree. This has led to many quite intelligent people in the past being labeled as retarded, and shunted off to institutions to be wharehoused. It also leads to continuing misunderstandings when autistics with limited speech venture off into society. Amanda Baggs relates on her blog many of the sometimes sad, and othertimes horrific, things which have happened to her over the years as a somewhat non-verbal autistic.

Nowadays there are assistive communication devices that are available to help non-verbal people be understood. Dr. Sanjay Gupta recently wrote of his impressions of autism after meeting Ms. Baggs, who used a voice synthesizer. And though this has helped, I can't but think that we have a long, ingrained societal understanding that those without speech are "dumb", and that it will take more than a little technology to overcome this.

Joe is 209 :(


Daisy said...

The stereotypes are certainly out there. I surprised one of my graduate school professors. She expected me to be a poor writer because I am hearing impaired. My Masters project blew her away.

kristina said...

There's an association between "deaf" and "dumb" as in "stupid" in ancient Greek culture----whereas blindness (Homer was blind) is sometimes associated with having a different kind of sight; with being able to know about something with a "different" kind of sight.

David N. Andrews MEd (Distinction) said...

Nice one, Daisy.

I'm one of few autistic psychologists doing anything, let alone working in the field of autism practice-research. I was trained academically and professionally by a good handful of psychologists in the UK, and my graduate supervisor never once let her expectations drop. I was the first autistic person to do the autism-specialist MEd course at Birmingham, and I set the bar high. The three others who followed have been equally treated, in that they we expected not to under-achieve.

Even with the high expectation held of me, Glenys was 'blown away' with my MEd thesis.

The most major factor in lack of success for members of disability groups is not the situation behind the diagnosis, but the response of societal systems (education/professions and so on) to that diagnosis and the situation it represents. My thesis demonstrated that it is not sufficient to 'diagnose a person's disability' in the sense of ascribing the lack of success to a sole cause - the classification on the diagnosis sheet. Rather, there is a whole situation to be diagnosed, since the other factors involved in a given client's case interact with the client's own developmental difference to bring about what we call a 'disability'.

Club 166 said...

I'm convinced that the whole "teacher's expectations of student determines how well they will perform" is much more important than the next 3 or 4 factors combined.

Unfortunately there's no way to magically change ingrained prejudices. You can change the laws, but that's just a start. It's only thru example (showing the doubters that autistics can succeed), education efforts, and good public relations that we will see a change over time.