Thankfulness, Intent, and Impact

Places all over the internet, people are posting about things that they are thankful for this week. Today I’m posting about something that people expect to be thanked for, but which honestly I shouldn’t have to be thankful for. That’s right, I’m talking about your good intentions.

I was recently at a conference when I was confronted with an intent vs impact situation. I won’t go into the details- I was satisfied beyond belief by how the conference manager tried to remedy the situation- but in the aftermath, I realized it was time to write this post.

You see, when the conference manager tried to address the situation, the individual- who had said that I “wasn’t Autistic” and in response to my reaffirming my diagnosis “but you seem so nice”- responded that it was all “meant as a compliment.” This is not an isolated issue, as any number of advocates can tell you. Being a person with a disability can sometimes mean you get the “compliment” of being told that you “don’t seem that disabled” or that you are “so inspiring.” It also can mean that when you get upset about this, people pull out their intent.

But here’s the thing: intent isn’t magic. The fact that you were intending to pay me a compliment doesn’t obligate me to be thankful when you say something that reinforces stereotypes about people like me, or when you say something that can make it harder for me to get supports. The same system that tells you that saying someone isn’t disabled is a compliment is also at the same time telling people it is okay to say dehumanizing things about PWD, because we are other or aren’t “nice” or are all the things that you are not associating with us.

Neither does your good intentions  insulate us when we are in a position where we aren’t looking so “not disabled.” The gentleman’s insistence that I wasn’t like the kids his wife teaches didn’t stop me from having a shrieking sobbing meltdown in my county assistance office this week over something I couldn’t recall. In fact, his remarks fueled the same culture that I catch myself falling into by accident by thinking, “good thing I was the only one in that waiting area.” His intent doesn’t stop me from the horror that is finding myself thankful for the assistance office secretary not calling the cops or the ambulance on me, which is a real and present fear every time I get overwhelmed or frustrated with myself in public.

I should never have to feel thankful for people treating me like a human being. Not even when I am at my most incomprehensible impossible to communicate during states. Not even when I’m at my most obviously disabled points. I should never have to thank a stranger for allowing me to exist.

Your intentions don’t mean that you aren’t holding up a system that asks me to give thanks for these things. Intentions don’t mean your impact is mitigated, doesn’t relieve you from being implicated in a system that one day will say I’m not needy and the next that I’m too needy to be seen as fully human.

Don’t worry, I (and every person with disabilities who has been around long enough) know that you call us human, we’ve had you and so many others tell us all about your intent. But your intent and your actions just don’t line up, not really. I want to believe it when you respond to my concerns that you don’t think x bad thing about Autistics or about PWD or… But your actions tell me differently.

Your impact reminds me that all of this, all the things in our culture we are socialized with say that your intent makes you a good person. That your intent makes you more accepting and worthy of thanks than the general public. That of course your actions won’t perpetuate the group think that says those horrible things you say you’ll never say.

It also reminds me that you’ll still say them by accident, because those horrible things are a basic intrinsic thing in our culture that we have to watch for. That your privilege means that you won’t remember that the things you say about how unusual it is for me to be nice and Autistic are hurtful. That you don’t have to worry about how able is “normal” and disabled is “bad”. It means you’ll laugh at the joke in the men’s room about hand flappers, and that you won’t blink when you watch a movie where the murderer rocks to himself. (I watch those movies too, I’m a fan of horror and what not, but my goodness do. I. Blink.)

So no, I’m not thankful for your good intent. And it’s not that I’m not capable of being thankful.

I’ll save my gratitude for actions and impacts that help not harm. I’ll give thanks for the thousand tiny actions that are good, intentions or none.  Indeed, I am thankful every day for such little things, and some days for huge things.

I’ll find myself thankful when my mother opts to have a conversation with me via instant message even though we are in the same room. I’m thankful when someone helps me with a form or reminds me where I’m headed, regardless of if they know why I’m needing help. In the same assistance office where I melted down, I was thankful that my intensive case manager being on the ball meant my meltdown didn’t relapse over and over the rest of the day.

I’m thankful for having found community with my fellow Autistics and other PWDs. I’ll be thankful when we manage to balance a bunch of different food restrictions that sometimes contradict- after all, that is an accomplishment with or without intention or culture!

I’m still not going to be thankful for your good intentions. I’ll save that emotion for the good impacts.


A quick note: I’m only posting this today because of all the “I’m thankful for” posts. If you are looking for something about Thanksgiving, I’d encourage you to do what Occupy Boston is doing in centering indigenous voices. “No to Thanksgiving” is an excellent history piece you ought to read. There’s a list of Indigenous tumblr-ers for you to follow, Blogs like Native Appropriations to read, Or check out the tags on other multi-topic blogs. Sciological images has a Race/ethnicity: American Indian/Aboriginals tag, for example.