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Four Steps On The Road To Invalidity: The Denial Of Sexuality, Anger, Vulnerability And Potentiality

From: Australian Disability Review
Creator: Irving Kenneth Zola (author)
Date: 1988
Publication: Australian Disability Review
Source: Available at selected libraries

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Now while this may have roots in certain Judaeo-Christian values, it has certainly been made an essential personality ingredient of many people with chronic disabilities. For most of contemporary history, to be a complainer in the hospital (or doctor's office) was a road that led nowhere. In a sense we were taught that we had no right to complain; everything that could be done was being done. Everyone was busy and overworked and besides: 'Weren't we grateful?'. This gratitude has been our curse. In the first place, being sick made us by definition so dependent that any expression of dissatisfaction became a threat to the continued care which we could not easily get elsewhere. And in the second place, our anger was regarded as inappropriate because it indicated we were not sufficiently 'grateful' for all that was being done for us.


The idea of suppressing one's anger has still another social function as seen in the cliched consolation: 'Be grateful for what you've got. Look at all those who are worse off than you.' The words are as frequent as the lack of solace they provide. My observation is that such 'consolations' most typically occurred when someone was feeling 'down' about their condition and expressed this rather depressingly to someone who did not have any obvious physical 'difficulty'. The inevitable reply was intended to have a reassuring effect, but it was, in fact, far more effective as a 'silencer'. Passed off as an attempt to prevent us from 'wallowing in self pity', its real function may have been to protect the listener. Making us look at those 'worse-off' than us rather than those 'better-off' preventing us from being envious and even resentful of our able-bodied friends. For they were the ones we wanted to shout at for having what we didn't have and being so smug about it, for not knowing what it's like and not letting us explain.


Whatever else this process produces, it cannot help but be detrimental. On the one hand, it deprives us of an almost universal need -- the need if not the right -- to be angry. Some of the more common expressions of sublimated anger are not open to us. Often we do not have the physical strength to hit a pillow or kick a chair. And when we use what we have at our disposal, we are either condemned or run unusual risks. When a friend became so frustrated at his wife's behaviour that he rammed his wheelchair into a wall, the hospital staff labelled him self-destructive. Someone with the complications of diabetic retinopathy cannot swing their arms for fear of haemorrhaging. To these can be added the countless other people who because of their disorder have been warned by their physician not to exert themselves, not to worry too much, or not to get too excited. In short, they are instructed not to feel anything too intensely; especially anger.


Thus, with virtually no acceptable avenues for expression, those with a chronic disability are forced either to turn their anger in on themselves or to blunt it. To the degree that we succeed in the latter we become increasingly unfeeling, and often so distanced from ourselves that virtually nothing can touch us. In this way we provide the basis for the stereotype in the professional literature which describes us as 'difficult to reach'. If, on the other hand, we turn the anger inward, it is likely to take the form of depression. Is it thus any wonder that study after study document the high degree of depression among those with a chronic disability? This depressed state is not merely a primary reaction to our losses, our dependency, our sickness, and thus something for us 'to realistically come to grips with,' it is every bit as much a socially induced defense, the result of our enforced inability to express anger. Society's gain by this process is straight-forward. Since depression is considered the result of one's inadequate adaptation and resources, it can be more easily ignored as the individual's problem. Anger, on the other hand, whatever its cause, has an outward expression and direction. As such it at very least demands involvement if not response.


For those with a disability, the issue of anger goes, however, beyond the ability to express it. While it may be more blessed to give than to, receive, where anger is concerned the two go hand in hand. If we are to be encouraged to be angry at things that bother us, then we must also be prepared to receive anger if we bother someone else. Though such a statement seems perfectly obvious, its daily application is not. And through the years I have grown aware that people are very wary about being openly angry or critical of someone with a disability. And yet one of the greatest putdowns one person can inflict on another (as the feminist movement has pointed out) is contained in the phrase: 'I'm afraid that you won't be able to take it'. Since all of us have done things to upset others, to be denied their resentment is to be taken unseriously and to be deemed unworthy of response, to make the provoking action almost unreal.

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