Not believing people in a helpless position when they tell you about their needs is an abuse of power

TW: mention of abuse, rape, sexual abuse

For the longest time I’ve had a phobia of situations where others have power of me and might not listen to me, like being in a mental hospital or being raped.

At the same time I have a very shaky relationship with authority figures and I really dislike having power over others, especially being in any position where I might have to go against their will. This aversion is strong enough that I’ve avoided getting pets and felt unsure about wanting children because of the power dynamic I would have to be part of.

In short, I have difficulty trusting that people in power will listen to and care for the people they have power over.

I have often been surprised to realize that my problems mimic the problems of people who have experienced abuse by authority figures.

I have had loving parents so I believed it couldn’t be their fault. Instead, for a long time, I suspected that I had been sexually abused by some stranger and forgotten about it.

It wasn’t until I realized I was autistic that I started understanding that my parents abused their power in their treatment of me.


Autistic people have special needs. They experience the world differently. For instance, what is painful for an autistic person is not necessarily painful for the majority of people.

Now, a person who believes that the child’s needs are safe and worthy of being met will meet them, even though they are different. A person who sees needs as dangerous, on the other hand, will see special needs as particularly problematic and will try to “train them out of the child”.

Very indirectly, this is what my parents did.

Even after I realized that my parents neglected my needs in this way I couldn’t see how this related to my fear of people having power over me. It’s not like my parents beat me, controlled me or humiliated me. They were all about independence and autonomy.

Then I realized that for small children this kind of neglect is a form of abuse of power.

Telling a child that they ought to be more independent and their needs are not real or worthy of being met is an abuse of power.

Let me explain.

Small children are helpless. They depend entirely on their parents meeting their needs. This means that the parents have a responsibility to meet their needs. And refusing to do so is an abuse of power.

The situation is similar to one where a person in a nursing home asks for help to go to the toilet and the nursing staff refuses to help them. This is clearly neglect. And because of the power dynamics it is also an abuse of power.

Being unable to meet the needs of someone who is helpless is not always an abuse of power. So, what makes this kind of refusal abusive? The fact that the person in power is taking in what the helpless person is saying about their needs (regardless of whether they believe them), and Choosing not to act on it.


The message that the helpless person internalizes isn’t that the people in power are inadequate to help them, the message is that their own needs are not real or worthy.

How does this lead to a fear of people having power over you?

If you believe that people will not meet your needs, will not listen to you, will not believe you, then anyone having power to meet or not meet your needs is dangerous. And then depending on other people in any form becomes dangerous and power dynamics start to look inherently abusive.

So you make yourself independent. And you react negatively to others who show needs, because they remind you of your own vulnerability. And you try to help “train it out of them”.

And so the cycle continues.

Abled and disabled dependence

I like to sleep with a plushie
I become overwhelmed by loud fans
I get tired when you change my plans
I get frustrated when I have to use a new computer
I sometimes communicate through writing instead of speaking
I am calmed by tight squeezes from my boyfriend

You call me childish, dependent, exaggerating

I travelled alone on an airplane for the first time when I was 6
I made the independent decision to become a vegetarian when I was 8
I took complete responsibility for my studies at the age of 13
I took on economic responsibility for another person when I was 17
I am studying at one of the top universities in the world.

Do you call me childish, dependent, exaggerating?

You become uncomfortable when others look different from you
You care so much about being accepted that you bend who you are to fit in
You become frustrated when others don’t use oral communication
You have trouble making a plan and sticking to it

You call Me childish, dependent, exaggerating

I am no more dependent than you. The world just doesn’t accommodate my dependence like it does yours.

How non-normal needs are rejected

I have written before about how discovering my needs made me realize that society rejects non-normal needs, and the negative consequences that this has. In that article I mentioned that we live in a society that treats certain needs as more valid and natural than others. Quick recap from “Rejected needs and societal structures“:

An easy example can be taken from how people view autistic versus allistic (non-autistic) needs.

To stereotype a little:

  • Allistics need you to look them in the eye for emotional validation when you speak with them, autistics need to look away in order to process information when you speak with them.
  • Allistics need spontaneity, autistics need routine.
  • Allistics gain comfort and information through social non-literal social exchanges such as “how are you – good”. Autistics need exchanges to be literal for understanding.

Both the autistic and the allistic person has “demands” on what the other person does, and yet at best we see only the autistic person as the person with needs, or at worst we see the autistic person as a person with unreasonable demands. This regardless of the effort the autistic has put in to accommodate the “invisible” needs of the allistic person.

This has effects on how both the autistic and the allistic needs are seen. We may compare the experience with swimming with or against a current – the current being a metaphor for which needs are treated as “normal” and thus for the support you are automatically given in society. (see “the hidden brain” https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/04/09/the-hidden-brain-shankar-vedantam/)

When you are swimming against the current and nobody acknowledges that there is a current you attribute your struggle to yourself and see yourself as defective. The autistic thus starts to see their needs as invalid, as me and my sister did.

At the same time the allistic’s needs and dependence on society are masked. When you are swimming with the current, and no one has told you there is a current, you don’t notice that you are being helped and that you would struggle and need help if you were swimming in the other direction. You attribute your success to yourself, not the stream.”

 

When the person swimming with the invisible current meets the person swimming against it

In this article I want to talk about the two ways in which privileged people (those who are swimming with the current) tend to react to the declared needs of non-privileged people (those swimming against the current).

Throughout my teenage years I made myself easy to handle for with-the-stream (privileged) people because I denied my needs, was extremely independent, and did not ask anything from anyone. I watched others with similarly non-normal needs be rejected, and I did not want to give anyone that kind of power over me. While this saved me from a lot of conflict and rejection in practice this made it difficult to associate with others as equals because I wasn’t showing my full self.

Lately I have been choosing to be more open about my needs and have gotten to experience first hand the kind of direct rejection that I used only to observe in others. The advantage of this is that I have realized that privileged people (and non-privileged people who have internalised this way of thinking) have a couple of very predictable ways of reacting when against-the-stream people make it clear what they need:

 

  1. Acting like the need isn’t there

The first predictable way of reacting to a declared non-normal need is acting like the non-privileged person is mistaken about the need. This is sometimes thought to be due to the ignorance of the non-privileged person but often due to some kind of personality flaws of theirs, eg. they have a vendetta (angry man hating feminists), or they are in it for the attention (non-binary people), or they want to find an excuse for their laziness (people with mental health problems or learning difficulties) or they are just “too negative” or “too emotional”.

A natural response is then to ignore the person or give the person well-meaning advice not to focus on the “need”, as if it were an unhealthy obsession of theirs. The most harmful thing about this approach is that it takes the authority away from the against-the-streamer: they are not treated as the best judge of their needs. It states “I know better than you what you need” Such treatment has huge consequences for the ability to trust both yourself and others. Some examples:

  • When I took issue with the way disabled people’s confidentiality was handled in my college they acted like I was a single “angry trouble maker” and there was no problem.
  • My father once told me that he shut down a discussion about gender equality at work because focusing too much on it was impairing women’s performance.
  • When I first developed an undiagnosed illness people told me not to “obsess” about finding a diagnosis because it was “probably just stress”.
  • I once got caught in high waves and signalled to my father on the beach to come help me. He saw me and ignored it. Later he told me he would have come “had I needed it”.

A special case of this is the insistence that we ought not identify as autistic or disabled, that we are too negative if we identify with such different needs. Let me explain why this is problematic: I am disabled whether I identify with the label or not. Arguing that I ought not identify with my needs does nothing but show me that the person I’m talking to does not believe in my needs.  T

People believe that I will limit myself through reminding myself of my disability but because they don’t believe in my needs they don’t understand is that am more limited by not reminding myself of my disability because then I push myself too far and blame myself when I cannot perform what everyone else can.

The problem is if we focus only on the negatives, regardless of whether you have been validated or not. Validating difficulties does not cause you to focus more on the negatives, rather the opposite, when you have a name for them you can more easily make adjustments and move forward. You cannot ease another’s pain by telling them to ignore it. It doesn’t work and if you are a cause of their pain it is an insult.

 

  1. Acting like there is a real need but it’s not your problem to deal with

Because people who are swimming with the current don’t see their own dependence they may very well decide that when others show dependence this signals that they should not be considered responsible adults, or even that they have reduced worth as a person.

These privileged people see the problem as lying with the non-normal person, not society, and feel that society shouldn’t have to adapt. These are the people who respond to accommodation requests with “that’s taking things a bit far, isn’t it? We can’t accommodate everything, where will it end?” What they’re not seeing is that society is already adapted, it is adapted to the needs of the privileged.

These people see non-normal needs as real, but as somehow reducing the person’s right to participation. They may thus act like the person is simply too fragile to participate in society on equal terms. This can cause them to advice or force the person to leave a role, or not include them in the first place.

Taken to its extreme, this is the kind of reasoning which caused us to lobotomise disabled people, to put them in institutions, to exterminate them in the holocaust. In short, the kind of view that causes us to view disabled people as worth less.

Introduction to ableism

When I received an autism diagnosis I sent the information below to my family as an introduction to ableism.

Some important words

  • Neurodiversity – the neurological differences between people (primarily people with ADHD, autistics, neurotypicals etc).
  • Neurodiversity paradigm – the concept that these neurological differences should be recognized and respected as variations, not illnesses or deficits.
  • Neurodiversity movement – a rights movement that tries to promote the neurodiversity paradigm against ableism. Like the feminist movement it says that all neurotypes (feminism: genders) are equal and focuses on the problems created by ableism (feminism: sexism).
  • Ableism – discrimination or prejudice against disabled people. The idea that disabled people are somehow lesser than non-disabled people. Comparable to sexism and racism.

Examples of ableist beliefs

  • Seeing disabled people as less autonomous and less competent
  • Seeing disabled people as less than full members of society
  • Seeing disabled lives as worth less
  • Seeing disabled people as defective or in need of fixing.

Consequences of these include disabled people having more mental health problem and higher suicide rates, being put in institutions more than necessary, being unemployed more than necessary, not being seen as equal under the law, being more likely to be the target of hate crime, sexual abuse and other crimes, eugenics. The extreme end of this is described in this article (Trigger warning: graphic violence) https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/intelligence-report/2018/invisible-hate-crime#.W3az06QIqBs.facebook

Ways that ableist beliefs may manifest

  • Saying as a compliment: “I don’t think of you as autistic” – Implied: autism is something negative.
  • Saying “getting a diagnosis will only have negative consequences” – implied: there is nothing positive with identifying as you are. Or you don’t really need the support that you think you need.
  • *laughing when autistic person does something autistic* – implied: your way of being is silly or childish.
  • Acting like accessibility adjustments are over the top/coddling/a slippery slope, e.g. questioning the need for trigger warnings in texts containing rape to help people with PTSD: Implied: disabled needs are not real or if they are they are less important than normal needs.
  • Using a word like retarded or autistic as a slur. Implied: disabled people are defective/worth less.
  • Insisting on helping the disabled person with something they’ve said they don’t need help with. Implied: you don’t know what you need.
  • Insisting that a person who is expressing non-typical needs is just being sensitive or lazy. Implied: disabled needs aren’t real
  • Assuming that we live in a non-ableist society and that the way disabled people are treated is necessary. Implied: disabled people are not competent and don’t know what’s best for them.

Why do we derogate disabled needs?

There are a few reasons why we might deny, look down upon or deny responsibility for disabled needs. Mostly this has to do with being uncomfortable with needs in general, and disabled needs being more obvious. Let me explain:

Both abled and disabled people need others. But because the disabled person is the odd one out they are seen as the one with extra needs. We all need cars to get around but only people who need wheelchairs are seen as dependent. We all need other people for making our clothes, building our houses etc, but only people who need a personal assistant are seen as dependent. When someone’s needs stand out in this way they are an easier target for denial and critique.

Obviously, this is a problem if you are disabled and your needs stand out simply through you being who you are. You may be able to choose to make yourself invisible and (almost) entirely independent, but because sharing who you really are is essential for healthy relationships you are then in effect choosing not to have real relationships. This is what ableism can force us to do.

Detour – the social model of disability

The social model of disability states that a disability is caused not by the disabled person’s difference or impairment but by how society reacts to that difference. Whether society is set up to respect and meet the needs of the person with that difference. In other words: if we had a deaf society which was set up to meet the needs of deaf people then a deaf person would not be disabled in that society. Another way of expressing the same thing is to imagine a society which is organised to accommodate those humans who do not need any sleep. In such a society a person who needs 7 hours of sleep each night would be disabled. According to the social model of disability people are disabled by society, not by there being something “wrong” with their bodies.

How do we become less ableist?

So, what can we do to change our derogatory views of needs, which disproportionately negatively affect disabled people? We can recognize them and contradict them:

  1. We believe that having needs and being dependent on others is a sign of weakness
  2. This is false
  3. Having needs and being dependent on others is entirely normal
  4. Disabled or non-normal needs really are Different.
  5. Different needs are not Worse needs.

Is there something wrong with highlighting differences?

Some people respond to the neurodiversity movement by saying that we are all unique in different ways and we don’t need labels. These are often the same people who say that they are colour blind or that feminism is sexist. The problem is that these people often want to deny the different needs that people have and the different ways that people are treated in society. Usually because they are uncomfortable with needs or uncomfortable with the idea that they have privilege. They can only imagine equality in a world where our needs are all the same. I hope that the above description of ableism shows why labels matter and can help disabled and nondisabled people be seen as Different And Equal.

Audre Lorde, the lesbian black feminist writer said: “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”