It’s the stunning yet simple basis of all anthropological knowledge, really–this truism that we’re not all the same, we’re different.
Take my daughter, for instance. Whereas most people get up out of bed every morning and walk, she giggles or cries until we come get her. Whereas most kids her age start to brush their own teeth, put their own backpack on, eat breakfast through their mouth and head to school, we do the brushing, Lucia’s backpack hangs on her wheelchair, and she eats her meals through a feeding tube that’s attached to her stomach (she eats a lot of her food through the same tube overnight, which is actually pretty efficient!).
But even anthropologists who believe in the wisdom of learning from others are only human. Because we, like everyone, only have one primary perspective, one pair of eyes and ears through which we experience the world, we still tend to succumb to ethnocentrism–the belief that not only are people who aren’t like us weird and different, they’re less than.
Lucia gets that a lot.
People presume that because she rides through life in a wheelchair or because she gets her feeds through a tube and perhaps most especially because her brain is different that all this comparatively limited functionality that she has amounts to a pretty pitiful and dull, if not brutal life. They ask me if she will ever do certain things like walk or talk or eat, if she will “be like that” forever, and when I tell them she likely won’t walk or talk or eat in typical ways, they frown and shake their head or grimace.
But what if I told you that some of the very things that make you skeptical about her quality of life, like that wheelchair or that feeding tube, are the things that bring her mobility, joy, and comfort? Lucia eats through a feeding tube because her body can’t process food orally without it heading into her lungs, which caused numerous scary and painful bouts of pneumonia until we got that tube. Lucia rides in a wheelchair because that enables her to feel the wind in her hair, to head outside and to school, when otherwise she might be in the house all day.
What if I told you that a lot of the limits placed on Lucia don’t come from her differences but from the way we perceive her differences and from the supports and benefits that we deny her especially because she’s different from us? When I invite my students to view the world anthropologically, through the lens of others, especially people with disabilities, it kind of blows their minds. The fact that we able-bodied people are part of the problem for people with disabilities never really occurred to them. It never occurred to them that subtly viewing someone else as less than and placing limits on their lives, compelling them to be someone they’re not, live in a society that’s only made for the able-bodied, and then wonder why they’re not thriving is discrimination, not liberation.
This ethnocentric way of viewing people with disabilities as less than is called ableism and it’s not just endemic in American society and everyday interactions across differences, it’s front and center in this debate on healthcare. Maybe you didn’t see it, because your ableism kept you from the truth, but denying life-giving services to people who are different on the basis of their differences–i.e. cutting Medicaid for people for who literally need it to live their daily lives–yeah, that’s discrimination. Or reserving healthcare only for those whose bodies are “normal,” who don’t have preexisting conditions, or denying hospital services to those who are inevitably going to have to use the hospital because they’re made different and they’re living in a world that’s downright inhospitable to their differences–that’s textbook ableism.
But we all saw Donald Trump begin his campaign by mocking a reporter with disabilities. We have all seen headlines that compare that same President who mocked someone with disabilities to people with mental illness. We’ve heard about people with disabilities staging protests in the offices of Senators and being dragged out of their wheelchairs by security on Capitol Hill.
Open your eyes.
It’s not people with disabilities who need to make more concessions to the society that already demeans their existence, down to their very lives and whether they’re worth living–it’s you and me. We all need to change our way of seeing our fellow human beings, our fellow Americans, as pitiful and less than and deficient. What is deficient are our healthcare proposals that purport to deny people coverage based on innate differences. What is deficient is our rhetoric that excludes and codifies people who we don’t want to accept or don’t understand. What is deficient is a country that seeks to find its greatness at the expense of its very citizens.
Please don’t shake your head or frown or grimace at my daughter’s quality of life. Instead, please pick up the phone and call your Senator and shake your fist at them for failing to grant the necessary supports that make her different life possible. Become an unlikely advocate and listen to the concerns of those who are different from you not just because they’re different but because we’re all human.
After all, the root of anthropology is anthropos, human being. Providing good healthcare comes down to the recognition that we are all human beings but that we’ve constructed an able-bodied world that’s only fit for some.
So don’t cut my daughter’s Medicaid because she’s different. Affirm the value of her life by keeping it. Let’s keep the ACA and its supports for all kinds of people. Let’s keep healthcare that’s working for people like you and me and people like my daughter.