Microaggressions and brain injury disability

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There are lots of stereotypes about people with brain injury: we’re all fixed as soon as we look good physically; we’ll never get better; we’re not smart anymore; we’re lazy about controlling our behavior. Oh, my favorite? If we don’t recover fully, it’s because we didn’t work hard enough. These are big ones. If someone came right out and said “You didn’t recover because you didn’t try as hard as people who did!” it would be really noticeable. Some people do that. But more often than not, it’s subtle criticisms, little pokes and prods that add up over time and chip away at your confidence.

There’s a name for that: microaggressions. Thank you to folks who work in racial justice who articulated this notion and the damage it does. Microaggressions live just below the surface. And it’s hard for the speaker to realize they’ve used one. People don’t mean to be cruel. But sometimes we are when we don’t replace our stereotypes with truth and believe that people keep their value and dignity after a brain injury.

Here’s how microaggressions can come out against people with brain injury when we try to stand up for ourselves or ask for something we need:

  • “Why are you so upset? It’s not that bad.”
  • “It’s not that loud in here.”
  • “You should be grateful you lived.”
  • “I’m forgetful too. I guess I must have a brain injury!!!”
  • “But you look fine.”
  • “You’re so lucky that you get discounts because of your disability.”
  • “What do you mean you’re having a hard time? You’re doing great!”
  • “You don’t need accommodations.”
  • “I don’t think you have a brain injury. It’s just anxiety.”

Recently, Barbara Diamond interviewed me for her third short film about microaggressions. (Find the first one about microaggressions and race at her website: www.diamondlaw.org.) Funny, but even with weeks to prepare, I messed up. She showed up, videographer in tow, and I couldn’t remember all my good examples of microaggressions. I’d printed out a bunch of little stories, only some of which related to the topic. I told her how I got injured, told her where I grew up. But I couldn’t remember those pokes and prods my peers and I get on a regular basis. The forgetfulness and lack of good planning is part of the injury, of course. Yet it’s still easy to be disappointed in myself for not being able to remember the most hurtful microaggressions. For a moment, I thought I made it up. I thought maybe I’ve never experienced them around disability. So since then, I’ve been watching out for brain injury microaggressions with an extra eagle eye lately. And I keep hearing them all over.

If you want to understand microaggressions more, please visit The Microaggressions Project at www.microaggressions.com. Warning: the examples on that site may trigger people who experience discrimination and marginalization. Many of the examples relate to racism, white supremacy, and ethnic discrimination. The examples are not online to hurt anyone more deeply. They are there so we can learn the negative effects our stereotypes have even when we don’t realize we’re stereotyping.

I’d like to see more storytelling and more documentary work where the people who are targeted by microaggressions get to teach us about their experiences. This is about listening to the stories as the storytellers tell them and not shining them up to sound more positive, uplifting, inspiring, or saying we all have things in common that we don’t. Then, after listening, we have to take action.