The (Social) Grammar Police

Social norms dictate our daily interactions.  Some scholars have characterized norms as a type of “grammar,” complete with its own set of rules.[1]  When people violate these rules, they may experience informal sanctions, such as criticism or, more severely, exclusion and discrimination.  Ultimately, we are conscious of these rules (and the sanctions that police them): they guide us to speak in certain ways, move in certain ways, and interact with others in certain ways.

While reading An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales, by Dr. Oliver Sacks, I kept thinking about social norms in relation to some of the people with neurological disorders who the author met.  Was Franco—removed from his present life in the United States through visions of his childhood home in Italy—violating social norms that dictate interpersonal relationships?  What about Temple Grandin, who learned how—but not why—to behave in certain social situations?

I found the essay about Dr. Carl Bennett, a surgeon from British Columbia, most interesting.  In his late thirties, he identified that he had Tourette’s syndrome, causing him to experience involuntary tics.[2]  Such tics might fall outside of what some consider to be “normal.”  “The sense of personal space, of the self in relation to other objects and other people,” Dr. Sacks wrote, “tends to be markedly altered in Tourette’s syndrome.”[3]  Dr. Bennett seemed to recognize this when he first began working at a hospital.  “He was regarded, he thought, with a certain suspicion.”[4]  As a result, he made a conscious effort to conceal his tics, aware of the potential harm that they—possible violations of social norms—could have on his professional development.

Soon, however, Dr. Bennett developed a rapport with his colleagues.  After working with him for so long, hospital staff became aware of and accustomed to Dr. Bennett’s tics.  At one meeting, Dr. Bennett discussed a genetic disorder with his colleagues while lying on the floor and kicking his foot in the air.  Dr. Sacks noted that the scene was common to those in the room, but would seem bizarre to anyone not familiar with Tourette’s (or, at least, Dr. Bennett’s case).[5]  For an “outsider,” this scene would seem to violate many social norms.  But, to the other doctors who knew about their colleague’s disorder, Dr. Bennett’s actions were normal.

Dr. Sacks began his essay about Dr. Bennett by asserting that we must see Tourette’s from the perspective of the affected person.[6]  The scene from the staff meeting embodies the importance of this view.  Because Dr. Bennett could feel free to “Tourette” with his colleagues, he was not constricted by the social norms dictated and governed by a society that marginalized people with neurological disorders.

Even though there has been a shift in the stigmas associated with neurological disorders such as Tourette’s syndrome, people with these disabilities still face discrimination, in part because they are misunderstood.  Sometimes, Tourette’s and other neurological disorders are not even seen as disabilities.  In 2001, for example, Wal Mart security forced a woman with Tourette’s to leave the store after her vocal tics became a disturbance.  When she filed a discrimination lawsuit, Wal Mart attempted to block it because the store did not recognize Tourette’s syndrome as a disability.  Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), which recognizes Tourette’s as a disability, the Department of Justice ruled in favor of the woman.[7]

After reading about incidents like this, is it surprising that Dr. Bennett worked to control his tics, even at a tremendous strain to himself (“It’s not gentle…You have to fight it all your life,” he told Dr. Sacks)?[8]  Maybe not.  Still, it is troubling that involuntary tics from Tourette’s can result in shaming and exclusion, such as in the case involving Wal Mart.  Until we reexamine sanctions like these that uphold social norms dictated by people without disabilities, there will be a critical gap in the understanding between people with and without disabilities.

[1] “Social Norms,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, last modified March 1, 2001, last accessed April 22, 2014,

[2] Oliver Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995): 77, 78.

[3] Ibid., 83.

[4] Ibid., 87.

[5] Ibid., 91.

[6] Ibid., 77.

[7] Mitzi Waltz, “TS and the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), An Introduction to Your Rights,” National Tourette Syndrome Association, last modified 2007, last accessed April 22, 2014,

[8] Sacks, 100.

16 thoughts on “The (Social) Grammar Police

  1. It was striking to me to read the term “normal” several times in the book in contrast to people/children with disabilities (on page xvii of the preface, L.S. Vygotsky: “If a blind or deaf child achieves the same level of development as a normal child…”). (First of all, who, or what, is “normal”?) I think that many people who don’t have disabilities and who don’t know anyone with disabilities can be uninformed and might tend to view people with disabilities as “others,” outside of their own experiences, and that can, unfortunately, sometimes lead to the shaming and exclusion described in this post.

    1. Megan, your point about “Who or what is normal?” reminded me of an article I saw. ( Apparently in Utah “more than 20 percent of the population has been diagnosed with some form of mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).” The 20% diagnosis rate was surprisingly high to me, who does not do much research on mental illness. However, it got me to thinking that if 20% are diagnosed how many cases are yet undiagnosed? Perhaps the othering that society places on people with mental illnesses and disabilities comes too soon and those who are “normal” are really the anomalies.

      1. Michelle and Megan- I think you both highlight something very important. Throughout the semester as we have learned about all of the ways that we are “different,” what we have really learned is that our biggest commonality is that no one is “normal.” Almost everyone has something that makes them feel excluded, though some to a greater degree than others. The sooner we abandon the idea of “normal,” the easier it will be for us to accept our own differences and those of others.

      2. Yes, exactly. Normal is so different based on location and personal experiences. Whenever I hear someone refer to people as “normal” I am reminded of this poster. If you don’t want to click on the link: it’s a poster of kids with text that reads ‘it doesn’t matter if you are black or yellow or brown or normal.” Calling one skin type “normal” is very damaging, especially to people who don’t have that same skin color. This also applies to disabilities and mental illnesses. I remember learning that there were some Native American groups that believed people with mental disorders were especially sacred because they had direct contact with sacred spirits, which is why they behaved strangely.

      3. Stephenie, thanks for sharing that poster, very interesting. I hope that it is a commentary to highlight how we think of “normal” rather than a real message. Either way, it certainly makes you rethink of how we define normal in terms of race and can be applied to ability. The reading this week really made me think of how at CGP we’re trying to integrate more education about ability and disability and working with diverse audiences. I wonder to what extent this can be applied to public schools so that we as a public are aware of how we create this definition of “normal” in order to deconstruct it, especially considering Special Ed (is that the term still used?) classes separate students based on labeling of ability.

      4. Emily, I came across this article today. The article talks how integrating students with disabilities in a general classroom actually more beneficial for them. Because they are not singled out for their mental illness, the students respond better in standardized testing, there are less instances of absence, etc. If more schools integrate students with disabilities in regular classrooms, i thin that is a first step to deconstructing the definition of normal.

  2. Unfortunately, as you suggest Eric, people who do not know much about Tourette’s syndrome (or many of the other disabilities mentioned in this book) may quickly label people with Tourette’s as weird or socially inept, without even questioning the constructed social expectations that invite these labels. As a society (or species if you want to be cynical) we have the tendency to judge people on the way they visually and verbally interact with us, rather than solely focusing on their interests, goals, or other aspects of individual character. As this book demonstrates, people with neurological disorders are not only capable, but sometimes uniquely capable, of contributing to society, and often have a perspective that can transcend restrictive societal norms. Differences in perspective drive meaningful interactions as long as there is a respectful acknowledgement of such differences.

  3. Eric, thanks for your post. Your emphasis on Dr. Bennet reminded me of Brad Cohen, an amazing teacher and author with Tourette’s (Check him out: He also explains the difficulties of conquering social norms, particularly within a classroom. I think the attention brought to individuals like Dr. Bennet and Cohen help to challenge those social norms by making them the “new normal” and helping people to see and understand the situation.

  4. Reading that essay I was struck by the different ways that people with Tourette’s are treated. I always think of Tourette’s as a joke or a punch line. I remember when I was in elementary school the boys in my class would say they had Tourette’s as an excuse for yelling swear words. In the story about Walmart, on the other hand, the customer with Tourette’s was treated with fear rather than a joke. Dr. Bennett was also treated with fear. Perhaps it’s because their tics didn’t fit the stereotypes of Tourette’s.

    1. I wonder if what we think of the stereotype of Tourette’s isn’t just what is easiest to mock and not actually the how Tourette’s most usually presents as. People like to latch onto something they can understand, like yelling out swear words, rather than understand a complex issues.

    2. The boys in your class are indicative of why incorporating people with disabilities can be so difficult. There are people who claim disability so they can get preferential treatment, and this can make other people less inclined to accommodate to people with disabilities. Those first grade boys were obviously lying about their having Tourette’s, but I saw children in middle school make similar claims about AD/HD. My teachers had a hard time knowing if these students were lying or not, and their behavior irritated many other students, including me. I heard students complain that AD/HD was just an excuse to act obnoxious, and one of the most outspoken complainers was a friend who was actually diagnosed with AD/HD a year or so before.

      Another peer in middle school made perceptions of disabilities even worse there because of how she approached her own disability. This girl needed a wheelchair whenever she needed to walk for extended periods, but the only time we saw her use one was when we all had a field trip to an amusement park–school activities normally didn’t strain her that much. This girl bypassed an hour-long wait at a roller coaster to ride it six or seven times in a row, and she brought several friends with her who were not disabled. This means that they took up a significant portion of the roller coaster several times over and made a noticeable difference in how slowly the line moved. There were other students from my school who were in that line, and they were angry about the whole thing. Museums that make accommodations for people with disabilities can probably anticipate similar issues arising after a while. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t make such accommodations, but that we should be ready for conflict over what’s fair and what’s not.

  5. This essay reminded me of two different things. One is a 2008 movie entitled Front of the Class, about a man who has been challenged by Tourette’s his whole life. As a kid, he was shunned in school and by his father because, at the time, people did not believe in Tourette’s and it had not yet been explored by medicine. This man, all his life, wanted to be a teacher and had many failed attempts, but finally achieved his dreams and went on to be a gifted teacher. The other story I am reminded of is of a fellow Resident Advisor on staff with me in undergrad. In the beginning during our large trainings, she would often blurt out things unexpectedly. At first, I took this as her being rude trying to make a joke, because everyone was laughing. It was later that I realized she couldn’t control this, and the people who were laughing did not realize she had Tourette’s and it was against her will. I admire the success Dr. Bennet, my fellow staff member, and the teacher achieves despite the challenge of Tourette’s.

    1. Araya, I think you made a good point about your teacher. When reading this book, I was struck by the range of disabilities. It seems that most of the public is not familiar with many disabilities and may not recognize them. Even though your peers did not recognize that your co-worker had Tourette’s, undoubtedly this reaction has an impact on her and how she feels about her outbursts.

      1. Great point, Emily! I’ll add that, for a person with Tourette’s, the reactions of one’s peers may have also impact the things that person feels they has access to. If society is constantly questioning a someone’s tics, there is a good chance the teasing and fear may later turn into a barrier- and one couldn’t blame that person if they felt like a place like a museum or library was not for them.

  6. That National Tourette Syndrome Association comments on legal battles: “Obviously, the facts of every case are different, and not all will succeed. Bringing a disability discrimination case also means opening up your life to public scrutiny, and that’s not something that everyone is comfortable with” ( The word that keeps popping up here is “challenge,” a challenge to make a part of you known to the public, whether you like it or not. It’s a challenge to be “normal,” and yet a challenge to be unique in your own person aside from what Dr. Bennet noted as his Tourette’s side.

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