Social norms dictate our daily interactions. Some scholars have characterized norms as a type of “grammar,” complete with its own set of rules. 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. 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.” Dr. Bennett seemed to recognize this when he first began working at a hospital. “He was regarded, he thought, with a certain suspicion.” 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). 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. 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.
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)? 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.
 Oliver Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995): 77, 78.
 Ibid., 83.
 Ibid., 87.
 Ibid., 91.
 Ibid., 77.
 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, http://www.tsa-usa.org/aPeople/LivingWithTS/ADA.htm.
 Sacks, 100.