Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Mistaken Identity

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2008

I've seen it happen to able-bodied people once in awhile. Someone approaches and starts a conversation, and after a moment or two of confusion, there's a realization that the approaching person has mistaken my friend or family member for someone else – someone of the same race, similar height and weight, similar age, similar facial characteristics.

“I’m not who you think I am; you’ve got me mixed up with someone else.”

Humbly backing away, the bewildered individual is embarrassed and apologetic, “How silly of me! I’m so sorry.”

It might be surprising to hear that I have never been confused with a person of my same build, same age, same facial characteristics, same race. But, I, a brown-eyed, light-brown-haired white male, have been confused with males significantly larger than me, smaller than me, older than me, younger than me, and surprisingly, even of different ethnicities! A blond child, I was often mistaken in my own school by teachers, staff, and students for a dark complexioned student of Laotian descent who was much smaller than me, or, with an older blue eyed student who was 40-50 pounds heavier than me. Over the years, I have been mistaken as well for a black male and a male of Egyptian descent by people who know one or both of us. And, when I travel, strangers often mistake me for someone they know; it’s a regular part of visiting a new place.

My silliest incident of mistaken identity occurred when I was an audience member at a theatrical production. The show’s lead actor, onstage for most of the 2 ½ hour production, had just completed his final bow. The curtain closed; the lights came up and the crowd slowly started to leave the packed auditorium. A woman maneuvered her way over to me and said, “You have a wonderful voice.” She kept talking, and it took me a few minutes to process that she had confused me with the lead actor, a black-haired teenager of Indian descent with a very small build. Not only would the actor still have been in full costume, he would have had to do a major leap over the audience to get to the back of the theatre in such a short time.

How could this happen, you wonder? Why these repeated bizarre mix-ups??

Because in all these cases, both I and the person I am mistaken for, use a wheelchair.

And, in most cases, after I tell the offender, “You have me mixed up with someone else,” the response is not apologetic. No embarrassment. Just a laugh at the “coincidence” of it all. They seem to think that theirs was an obvious, easy, natural mistake that anyone would make.

You see, when you use a wheelchair, some people don’t look you in the eye, don’t take in your personal physical characteristics, let alone see you as a unique distinct complex individual. They see the equipment, not the person.

And this inability to see is where ableism starts.

I have come to believe that seeing someone for only the equipment, or for just one piece of his or her external appearance, is a root cause of discrimination. Seeing a wheelchair, a white cane, a speech impediment, a gender, a skin color and then making an assumption that we now know the individual gets us into trouble. When we believe that we know someone’s identity and that they and their “group” are one, not only are we wrong, we are arrogant and we open the door to justifying to ourselves our superiority. There begins the slippery descent down into the swamp of dehumanization.

If you have a story about mistaken identity, feel free to share it in the comments.

Be sure to check out the other posts for Blogging Against Disablism Day 2008. Thanks Goldfish for once again organizing this amazing event!


Ruth said...

I've had this happen a number of times but the story that sticks out in my mind was one woman who I ran into and for years called me Debbie, although I told her over and over that wasn't my name. One day she looked at me and said "Well you know why I confuse your name, don't you? There was a woman I used to know in a wheelchair and her name was Debbie."

Well, gee, that explains it...

Great post, David. So well said.

Lady Bracknell said...

Now, that was something which needed saying...

Excellent post.

Wheelchair Dancer said...

Ya didn't know? All wheelchairs look alike.



pete said...

Good stuff.

akakarma said...

My daughter with Down Syndrome has the same problem! Strangers will come up and call her another Down Syndrome child's name who might even be older or younger! Hmmm..... Great post!

Penny L. Richards said...

I don't think this has happened to my son--he's pretty distinctive in appearance, and we live in a diverse enough city that people may be slightly more accustomed to "reading" a range of identity cues. But maybe people do mistake him for other kids when I'm not around. It's not necessarily something anyone would tell me about afterwards. Huh!

imfunnytoo said...

I can't tell you how many times I got that

"Aren't you Sherry?" who used the same type of crutches.

"Isn't your name Michelle" for another wheelchair user...


A sociologist should do a study on this.

Anonymous said...

I get something which i think is related to this: "do you know so and so?" purely on the basis that myself and the person they're asking if i know are deaf. It gets worse when they find out i went to a deaf school, and *ten* times worse if i'm talking to a Deaf person. Its been 18 years since i left school. I am so different to the person i was then. I've not really had much contact with the deaf community or any deaf people in the last 15 years. So even if i know a name, i certainly don't know the person they're now asking about.. grrrrr!

seahorse said...

I got mistaken for an old man once at the Botanical Gardens. Because the observation came from a rather precocious but very young child, I just gently turned around in my scooter and said: "You may notice I'm not old, or a man."
"Come along now" soothed the accompanying mother, hurrying her child away from this 'difficult' disabled person. And so it was the mother I ended up having more of a problem with in the end. But yes, it's funny how the eyes deceive, especially when you are not really looking.

Anonymous said...

I totally know what you mean!! The biggest problem in our family is people asking me whether my brother (CP; quadriplegic) is "like Stephen Hawkins." Depending on my mood I find that either hilarious or very annoying.

Dave Hingsburger said...

Gar ... what a great post. I wrote a blog a few days ago about having someone I spoke to only moments before, not recognize me when I was standing up to get in the car. Without the chair I was a whole new person they never met. Odd. Normates ... odd.

abfh said...

Some people have a great deal of difficulty recognizing others in general. This disability is often called faceblindness (the technical term is prosopagnosia), and it is very common among autistics.

While I'm sure there are people who can recognize faces but don't bother to pay attention if you're in a wheelchair, you should not assume that everyone who fails to recognize you is in that category. They may simply lack the ability to recognize anyone that they don't see regularly.

David said...

Thanks for the comments.

Ruth, WCD, Akakarma, Imfunnytoo, Seahorse, Dotcommom, Dave - Funny stories!

Kethry - I get that all the time, too! People think I must know someone else just because he or she uses a wheelchair.

Penny - Hmmm...I wonder if you haven't seen it happen because you are around, and people look it you and realize they recognize you or don't recognize you??

Imfunnytoo - I'd like to see that study!

AFBH - Thanks for the information! I don't think that's the case here, but it is a good point for me to keep in mind and it's good to learn more about autism.

Paula Apodaca said...

I have red hair---when I roll it up into a hat, no one seems to know me at all, but when I leave it down, I am very often confused for someone else. They see the hair, not the face.

I love that you wrote this. It is an important view back at the world. Thanks... and come read my stuff when you have time.
Paula Apodaca

Anonymous said...

I love, Love, LOVE this post!

Attila the Mom said...

I frequently hope to be mistaken for Claudia Schiffer. Alas! I'm too old, too freckly, and my butt is wayyyy too big!

Loved your post!

Ani Smith said...

I really like the way you chose to relate the story. Not knowing you, I was very intrigued as to how and why you would be so easy to confuse with someone else. Great insight.

RADAR said...

Great, thought-provoking post - thanks David.


FridaWrites said...

I wonder if people confuse me with the woman who works downstairs and has one of the same disabilities and who also uses a scooter. She's probably 20 years older than I am and very thin rather than overweight, but it makes me wonder. We must seem to be everywhere these days.

Anonymous said...

Great job on your post its very well written! I agree totally.

cripchick said...

LOL, david, this is great. has happened way too many times to me too.

Anonymous said...

OMG, that is inexcusable!!!

I am sometimes asked if I know Such N. Such, "that other amputee who lives [insert location]." Of course, I don't. But so far, no one has confused me with another amputee. Maybe it's because, even though I know they're only looking at my leg for at least the first five minutes of our acquaintance, at least in summer when I wear shorts, I've made sure my leg doesn't look like anyone else's. Or maybe it's just that there are fewer blatant transfemoral amputees than wheelchair users.

Ever since a head injury I sustained 26 years ago, I actually have had quite a bit of difficulty recognizing faces; eventually I learn them, but at first I rely on a lot of clues to recognize people besides faces. I often get people confused with each other, but (a) they usually have more in common than a single attribute, e.g., age, shape, general color scheme, etc., and (b) I am always, always embarrassed and highly apologetic. I always just assume it hurts people's feelings and makes them think I don't think they're worth remembering, which is not true; I just have memory issues. Perhaps I am being disablist, but based on my own experience, I truly can't imagine all these other people have the same excuse.

Kay Olson said...

ABFH and Sara: I think the difference between mistaken identity due to a faceblindness disability and due to disablism is the absolute ridiculous persistence in the face of all evidence to the contrary that you are this other person they say you are.

And it does get ridiculous. One of my most memorable was a guy who insisted I went to high school with him. No, I lived halfway across the country and you are several years younger than me. Yes, he insisted, I was this person he had supposedly shared the same building and maybe classrooms with for years. Where do you go with a conversation like that?

Great post, David. I almost wrote about this for BADD myself. (See how I made that compliment all about me?) ;)

Blog [with]tv said...

Wow, people have certainly related to this post, David! Well said!

This reminds me of the phase in my life as a guide dog trainer/instructor. Dogs in training need to be exposed to anything and everything one might do during the course of a "typical" day. So entering stores, coffee shops, places of business during training was all part of the process. Monday through Friday I almost always had a dog by my side.

I can't tell you how many times I had people say "Oh, I'm sorry - I didn't recognize you with out your dog...where is your dog?" whenever I was "off duty" and having a conversation with someone I knew - and who I thought knew me.

~ Connie

Tekki said...

This is hilarious! As a person of short stature I am often mistaken for other short-statured people who look nothing like me. I am especially exasperated when people mistake me for Meredith Eaton who is on "Family Law". She is about a foot taller than I am and actually had limb lengthening to achieve her height. I walk on crutches and she doesn't. Don't get me wrong—she's gorgeous, but she's not me! My favorite story however happened to my friend Laurie (another person of short stature) who was a street performing in Chicago one afternoon. An older woman came up to her and said, "I saw your parents perform at the World's Fair in 1933." Laurie was confused for a moment because her parents were of average height and around seven years old in 1933. Then she realized that the woman meant she saw some circus-type performance by people of short stature! And then another time a friend of hers from high school thought I was her as she stumbled out of a bar. Laurie is blond and much taller—I gotta say I wish I could sing like she can, but we're not the same person!!!!