I wrote a recent post about how telling politically incorrect jokes is ok, and apparently, I’m not the only person that feels this way. In a Huffington Post article from April 8, Robert Slayton notes the irony of a headline that proclaims “Wheelchair Speaker Not Motivational.”
He goes on to explain that people in wheelchairs are basically unexceptional in their normality; he points out that disabled people are not endowed with special powers of courage or motivation. We are not particularly heroic for getting through the day. Slayton calls the idea of the under-able over-acheiver “The ‘Helen Keller’ model.” It is a stereotypical depiction.
As stereotypes go, this is one of the better ones. After all, it’s flattering to be seen as inspirational and noble before you ever say or do anything. Sure, there is a danger that we’ll fall dramatically short of this image, but the bar is set so low that this is nearly impossible. More interesting to me is the idea of complementary typecasting, being put in a beneficial box.
Can stereotyping be a good thing?
According to Pamela Rutledge, the director of the Media Psychology Reserch Center for the past three years, these generalizations are neither good nor bad. Instead, they are useful.
“Stereotyping is a way of processing information,” she said. “It’s a way to take something that’s not familiar and put it in your brain next to something that makes sense. People make mental models all the time, and the first one is usually inaccurate.”
She explained that stereotypes form out of a necessity to quickly sort and interpret the barrage of data that we’re hit with every day. We organize people into categories based on appearance (among other criteria) because it’s fast and easy. It’s like the Cliff’s Notes of mental processes.
Obviously, the key is to go back to that hastily sketched mental model whenever possible and examine the components more carefully. A generalization works is a temporary, umbrella-like idea, but to really interpret accurate information, it’ll take more time.
As for the flattering pigeonhole that disabled people are placed in, I choose to recognize the good fortune of being saddled with a possibly undeserved, probably well-intentioned cookie-cutter image. It could certainly be worse. Even as I acknowledge this, I counter the idea of the model-minority, the “Helen Keller” paradigm by just being me. I’m plenty flawed, and people will see it soon enough, as deception and guile are not my strong suits. In seeing my quirks and foibles, people will be forced to challenge the idea of putting a handicapped person on a pedestal.
It’s been said, though, that stereotypes come from somewhere, that they’re based in a grain of truth. The stereotype for the exceptional disabled community is no exception. After all, we are pretty great.