We’ve heard it a lot. We need more awareness. Whether it’s racism, ablism, homophobia, or something else, it’s about awareness. Once people understand, they’ll become decent humans.
That’s somewhat true – ignorance does cause a lot of problems. But there’s a problem with just thinking awareness will solve it. People who aren’t good at something often think they are – see Dunning-Kruger Effect. Of course what Dunning and Kruger studied was areas where people already thought they had some understanding – things like humor. Very few people are completely incompetent at humor (that’s no joke).
Ask an 12 year old who is reasonably good at math if they are good at math, although maybe not quite a genius at it. Now ask a math professor with years of post-graduate research. I’ll be the math professor rates himself lower. He knows a lot better how much math he doesn’t know. He also probably knows some really, really, really great experts in math. The 12 year old probably doesn’t. He probably wouldn’t even define math the same way.
But what if you ask someone about astrophysics? Or auto mechanics? I’m not sure, but I know in other commonly-perceived to be difficult tasks – such as chess or computer programming, people generally underestimate their skills compared to their peers – they think others are better than they are, even when they aren’t. The key is that people focus on their own skills – if they feel reasonably competent at something, they are of course above average, while if they don’t feel competent, then they are below average. And of course you don’t feel average about things you know nothing about – even if most people also know nothing about them.
How does this apply to disability or other minorities? I think it explains a ton of mistreatment. Someone who knows nothing about a minority or disability, and knows it, will probably be decent. Why? They’ll listen. And since everyone with a disability or who is a member of a minority (or both) is unique, that’s important. Lack of knowledge in this case is actually a good thing.
What happens when someone has had an hour or two of disability awareness, LGBT sensitivity training, or racial relations education? They now know a lot more than they used to – not enough to actually be useful, but more than they did. They know more than a lot of people do, and almost certainly more than they think most people know. They’re feeling pretty good about themselves.
That’s dangerous because it’s exactly then that people make assumptions. “Oh, I know about blind people. They want me to tell them where their food is on their plate” (they may, but they also might already know – before you spend 5 minutes explaining, you might ask!). Meanwhile they will not think of telling the blind person, “Your bathroom curtains are open, so you’ll probably want to close them before you shower.” That wasn’t covered (again, you should ask and not assume!). But if they asked the blind person, “Do you want any help, and if so, what can I do?” the blind person would probably let them know what they should (or shouldn’t do).
I’ve seen this with LGBT issues – if someone knows the words (What’s a demisexual? What’s a cismale? What does “curious” mean when someone talks about their orientation?), then they see themselves as fairly knowledgable. But of course there’s a lot more to understanding the LGBT community than knowing definitions – people literally spend their lives trying to understand the LGBT community from both the inside and the outside of that community. Even more significantly, if I know a man is gay, what do I know about his attractions? It turns out, not much. Sure, I can probably guess he’s likely more attracted to men than women in an abstract sense, but I have no way of knowing from just knowing he’s gay if he’s attracted to any specific man. Or if he says he’s straight, that doesn’t mean he hasn’t had consensual homosexual sex. But too often the thrill of being educated about LGBT issues hides the complexity of real lives. Someone that knows nothing will probably be more receptive to some of the complexity.
With autistic people, what I fear most are people who have been exposed in very limited situations to autistic people (for instance, worked part time for a short time in a group home or institution). They don’t know what they don’t know – they’ve seen only a few autistic people in only a few environments. They’ve heard about them from others that share their primary experience of being in those environments with autistic people. So it starts a bit skewed. Add to that, the person now knows a lot more than they did before, assuming they knew almost nothing about autism. They now have awareness.
Awareness isn’t the same as competence or understanding, however. They know only a little bit. Unfortunately, people often think they know more than that. This goes both ways in the autism community – people generalize about adults on the basis of a child they know. Or adults with autism, who haven’t had children, generalize about parenting when they have little experience other than having been raised by parents. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing indeed.
If I want to tell someone about my autism, for any reason, I hope and pray that they don’t know anything about autism. If they do, I have to figure out what they know and somehow unteach that part of it from them, or at least provide evidence it doesn’t apply to me. That’s difficult (how can I know what they’ve been taught?). It can be downright deadly in a medical environment – if the doctor associates autism with crazy, you may receive treatment for “crazy” while your primary complaint is ignored. A little knowledge is dangerous indeed.
Yet, if I’m in a medical situation and the person has never heard of autism, then I’m in the position to teach them what matters for me. That’s actually a better place to be in. I can explain that it makes it hard for me to express that I’m in pain or localize a symptom or make appointments. Rather than having to teach that it doesn’t mean I’m violent, don’t want to socialize, can’t participate in my own treatment, or whatever else. It’s a lot more efficient to be the first person to tell someone. It’s nice when I don’t have to break through the wall of “I already know about this.”
Maybe awareness is good. But not in small doses.