Communication and Ableism

Hello Dazzle! Thanks for coming and hanging out with me today, I’m glad that you are here. Today I want to talk about somethings that I have frequently encountered when trying to communicate with neurotypical individuals and what I see as an expression of ableism.

Regardless of a person’s neurotypes, disabilities or language knowledge, communication is always an engagement between two people. As such, in order for that exchange to be reciprocal, both parties must put forward an effort to reach an understanding. This means that there needs to be a meeting in the middle. This is how good and healthy relationships function.

My personal experience has been that neurotypicals are not interested in reciprocal exchange. I feel as though I have always been expected to meet them where they are at and to completely modify everything that I am doing in order to ensure that communication is effective. Additionally, when communication has failed it is common for neurotypicals to blame that failure on my lack of efforts rather then on the lack of there being a reciprocal exchange.

What does this look like?

Example One

In order for the neurotypical to be comfortable in the conversation, I am expected to make eye contact and to mimic the neurotypical paralanguage. Failure to do so results in neurotypicals labeling me as rude or inconsiderate. Demanding that I always make eye contact and mimic neurotypical paralanguage is ableism. In a reciprocal exchange, it would be reasonable for me to be expected to make eye contact while they are expected to learn to interpret neurodivergent paralanguage. Or some other giving on both sides like this.

Example Two

Another way that I frequently see ableism present itself in communication is in context to my tendency to take things rather concretely or literally. I frequently encounter neurotypicals who will complain that I take things this way, but then make no effort to modify the manner in which they communicate. Knowing that someone is going to misunderstand you and choosing to communicate in that style anyway is ableism and disrespectful. When someone knows that my brain works this way but chooses not to modify their communication, they are refusing to make a genuine effort in expressing their information in a clear and understandable way. This is a form of communication sabotage.

If they were interested in having a reciprocal conversation, they would make efforts to change the way that they speak to me. They would use less sarcasm and jokes. They would change their language to be more concrete and direct rather then expecting me to read between the lines. They would make an effort to assess that I have, in fact understood what they were trying to express.

Example Three

Similar to the previous example is when I need people to repeat themselves because my auditory processing disorder is impairing my ability to receive the information that I am being given. When a person refuses to repeat themselves or otherwise modify their communication method, they are thrusting the full responsibility of the conversation onto me and are sabotaging that conversation. When I have asked neurotypicals to repeat themselves, I frequently hear “Never mind, it wasn’t important” rather then getting a repeat of the information or that information being presented in a different manner. The message that this sends is that communicating with me is not valued and that it isn’t important to ensure that I am included in the conversation. That is dismissive of the fundamental human need of belonging.

If a person is interested in reciprocal communication they would, as a very minimum, be willing to repeat what they have said as many times as is needed for me to understood what was said. A better approach would be to try wording it a little differently to try to allow my brain a different angle of processing. An excellent approach is to offer alternative communication styles such as texting to each other or writing the information down or even using sign language; depending on the skills available to the people communicating.

But to declare that repeating information is frustrating and thus not worth doing is neither reciprocal nor respectful. No matter how annoying or frustrating you find my difficulty to process information, I promise you that it is more annoying and frustrating for me. For you, this is a brief interaction. For me, this is every interaction I have. When you declare that it isn’t worth the frustration, what you are saying is that you do not value me as a person nor the relationship that we share enough to put in a reciprocal amount of effort into our communication. It sends the message that I am unimportant and of less value.

A Final Point

There is no style of communication nor language to communicate within that is better then any other. There are no communication tools that are not worthy of use. Saying that I am being less social because I text you while sitting in the same room is dismissing the importance of ensuring that meaning is conveyed. Because that is the only purpose of communicating with others. If the communication has conveyed meaning, then it is successful communication. There is no other measurement which to evaluate communication that isn’t ableism and lacking in reciprocity.

Every human being uses tools to aid in communication and we have done this all through out our documented history. Writing and diagrams are frequently used to augment communication. Paralanguage is so essential to communication that it actually conveys more information then the words we are using. Americans use their smart phones to facilitate communication every day without consideration for how that device augments their ability to send and receive information. There is no difference when a person uses hearing aids or text to speech programs.

When a person tells me that one style of communication is better over another, they are expressing one of two things:

  1. They are reporting which tools and methods work best for them as an individual.
  2. They are grouping people based upon the manner in which they communicate in an effort to denote value.

There is nothing wrong with the first of these, because everyone has their preferred ways of communicating. Letting other people know what communication styles and tools work the best for you is a great way to improve your conversations.

The second of these is a problem and is what I would like to stop seeing. When we tell people that there are better ways to communicate then others we are hurting everyone by limiting our ability to communicate well with each other. Instead, let’s embrace the reality that diversity is an inherent part of humanity.

While I am speaking about these issues in context of my general life experiences and frustrations while communicating with those that are neurotypical, I think it is also important to note that ineffective communication is far from being limited to just when these two groups are talking. Having poor communication is common even when between people of the same neurotypes. Part of this is due to the inherent limitations and complexity of language. But another large factor is the stereotypes, ableism and stigma that we apply to various styles and tools for communication.

Well, that’s about it for my rambling today. Thanks for coming and spending some time with me. If you like what you read, click on that like button. It really does help! Until we talk again, you take care of yourselves!

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