Warning: I may engage in fail in this blog because I am pondering issues which I haven't directly experienced. However, I've read some material on this sort of thing and got to the point where I want to think out loud. Please tell me if I've got something terribly wrong.
Is being disabled like being gay? I used that comparison to explain to a friend of mine why I'm opposed to the legalisation of voluntary euthanasia.* Some people express a very strong wish to commit suicide because they have impairments. Gay teenagers have a higher than average suicide rate. Why do good liberals think that an appropriate response to the gay teen is to promise them that it gets better
and even actively prevent them from committing suicide, but the appropriate response to the disabled person is to tell them you'd do the same in their position and help them to kill themself? How would he feel if we set up suicide clinics (with strict safeguards) for gay people? Why is there no 'it gets better campaign' for disabled people contemplating suicide, even though I've read a lot of pieces by disabled people saying that it took them years to adjust to being disabled and get to a place where they felt OK about it? For most people, attempted suicide is automatically seen as a sign that someone is not in their right mind. What effect does it have to be told through the law that people like you are the exception and you probably are better off dead?
This is all a bit of a digression. Is being gay better or worse than being straight? I don't know. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. I was happy to view myself as a lesbian and I'm happy to be married to a member of the opposite sex now. Some people view having a particular impairment as no better or worse than not having it. In fact some people find certain impairments positively desirable, for example deaf parents who hope for a deaf child. I have a certain amount of sympathy for this as I think I'd prefer for my children to be short sighted enough to wear glasses. Almost everyone in my family wears glasses. Most of my friends wear glasses. I'd find it a bit odd if my offspring didn't.
I've been pondering these issues for a while but I was inspired to put them into words by a post on Dave Hingsburger's blog
about how he was upset that a woman seeing him walk because the pavement was too snowy for his wheelchair, congratulated him on managing to walk. It made me think of one of my brothers, who used a wheelchair for a few months due to injuries from a car crash. For him, the first teetering steps were an achievement and a cause for celebration. They were a stage in his recovery from intensive care to reasonably good health. So I suspect that the woman made a common category error because she didn't know that most wheelchair users can walk to some extent. She saw a permanent wheelchair user walking because he temporarily couldn't use his wheelchair and interpreted it as temporary wheelchair user walking as the first stage of recovery from injury.
However, that raises the issue of why recovery from temporary wheelchair use is a good thing. If rolling and walking are equally good, is it bigoted to send someone recovering from a leg injury a get well soon card. For that matter, if rolling is just as good as walking, why should the NHS have sent money on physiotherapists and surgery to get my brother walking again, rather than on a wheelchair and some leaflets about the social model? One answer is that any change in unpleasant. I've certainly heard of deaf people or blind people who develop the ability to hear or see not liking it, at least at first. Suddenly losing your sex drive can be unpleasant even if asexuality is a perfectly fine way to be.
I have two problems with the 'impairments are just equally good ways of being and the undesirability of certain impairments is due to society being built for people who don't have those impairments' approach. The first is that certain types of impairments seem to be just objectively worse than not having them. Not so bad that it's worth killing yourself over, but definitely undesirable, other things being equal. Chronic pain is bad. Reduced life expectancy is bad. Increased risk of various diseases is bad.
The second is that it's quite difficult to tease out the difference between disability and illness. My husband is disabled (enough to feel justified in using a disabled toilet anyway) due to a chronic illness. There's no cure for it the moment. If the symptoms of his illness are just an equally good way of being, how do we justify state funding of research into a cure or at least better treatments. If the symptoms are just an equally good way of being, how do we justify the state spending thousands of pounds a year on treatments do reduce those symptoms. Even more complicated, it's often difficult to tell whether a symptom is due to the permanent illness or a temporary illness or, for that matter, a temporary illness caused by the permanent illness. Is he feeling a bit run down because of the chronic illness, or the medication for the chronic illness, or because he had a cold recently? Even if it was due to the cold, did he catch the cold due to his illness or the treatment for it or just because it's going around? All of these are possibilities, for which of them is it OK to hope he'll get better? If you go too far with this all medical treatment is just a lifestyle choice rather than a justified need.
I don't think many people, if anyone, would go as far as to say that all medical treatment is oppressive, but I'm not sure where the line is between rolling is as good as walking or wearing glasses is as good as being a dirty two-eyes and flu is as good as not flu. You probably can't draw lines for these sorts of things, which is why it is so discombobulating.*There are other reasons but this was a fundamental issue I wanted to get across.