The Double Consciousness of Disability

W.E.B. Du Bois coined the term “double consciousness” at the turn of the twentieth century. The concept describes the feeling of possessing more than one social identity and the subsequent difficulty in developing a unified sense of self. [1] Since reading this at the beginning of the semester, the idea of double consciousness has permeated many of our subsequent discussions and readings. I felt this most strongly last week while reading stories from Oliver Sacks’, An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales. While Du Bois writes about race in the essay “Of Our Spiritual Strivings” from The Souls of Black Folk, in particular the experience of Black Americans, his lens can be readily applied to the experience of living with a disability. Despite increasing attempts to assist and accommodate those with physical and mental disabilities, they are another group of people regularly “othered” by society. The titular story from this week chronicling Sacks’ experience meeting Temple Grandin illustrates this connection.

A scholar of both Autism Spectrum Disorders and Animal Sciences, Temple Grandin is the subject of the titular story, "An Anthropologist on Mars".
A scholar of both Autism Spectrum Disorders and Animal Sciences, Temple Grandin is the subject of the titular story, “An Anthropologist on Mars”.

Grandin sheds light on her idea of disability, paralleling what DuBois’ calls double consciousness, “the peculiar sensation…of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” [2] Temple Grandin seems more adept than most at “looking at herself through the eyes of others”. Her ability to do so has been a huge factor in her success as an academic and a public speaker, and has been tremendous in helping the world understand autism and the lives of people with disabilities.

Du Bois comment on contempt and pity struck a chord with me. I spent nearly my entire sophomore year of high school in a wheelchair or with walking aids. Most people wanted to be helpful; they opened doors and offered to hold my backpack. However, people with disabilities do not always like the implied assumption that they are incapable of completing a task, regardless of whether or not the assistance is needed. In my direct experiences, both personal and professional, while it is understood that offering aid is courteous, it also very consciously draws to mind that the disability is being seen rather than the person as a whole.

Taken another way, the experience of autism is the struggle to understand the fundamental differences between implicit and explicit communication. Implicit communication, that is societal expectations and public behavior, comes naturally to most people as they acquire new life experiences. A person with autism, Grandin says, needs to very consciously record such interactions and learn to make explicit their observations of the implicit. This is the idea behind her statement of feeling like, “an anthropologist on Mars.” [3] This is all compounded by her identity as a strongly visual thinker. The majority of people think in words or language. Some people, however, think more visually, or in pictures, and there is a much higher incidence of this type of thought in people with autism.

Oliver Sacks, neurologist and author of many books including An Anthropologist on Mars and Awakenings.
Oliver Sacks, neurologist and author of many books including An Anthropologist on Mars and Awakenings.

Grandin is able to concretely verbalize her experience as a person with autism and interactions with neuro-typical people on a daily basis. Autism is generally characterized as a disorder affecting one’s ability to communicate and empathize with others, as well as one with issues of sensory over and under stimulation. She has helped herself to cope with the latter by modifying equipment normally used for animals and using it to apply controlled pressure to her body, creating a level of comfort.

While Grandin was fortunate to overcome the inability to speak early in her life, Sacks is amazed that she exhibits, “an enormous difference between [her] recognition of animal moods and signs and her extraordinary difficulties understanding human beings, their codes and signals, the way they conduct themselves.” [4] Given the neurology of the autistic brain, it makes sense that she might understand animals and their behavior more easily than humans. After all, there is no implicit communication to interpret, and more importantly, to understand.

For those who enjoyed Oliver Sacks’ stories and are thirsty for more, I strongly recommend checking out the film Awakenings. It is a terrific movie and provides a visualization of his holistic approach to medicine.

[1] Alston, Chevette. “Double Consciousness & Du Bois: Definition, Lesson & Quiz.” Education Portal at Accessed May 4, 2015.

[2] Bois, W. E. B. “The Souls of Black Folk: Of Our Spiritual Strivings.” In W.E.B. Du Bois: A Reader, edited by David L. Lewis. New York, NY: H. Holt and, 1995.

[3] Sacks, Oliver W. “An Anthropologist on Mars.” In An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales. New York, NY: Knopf, 1995. 259.

[4] Sacks. 269.

12 thoughts on “The Double Consciousness of Disability

  1. Really interesting post, Noah. I found Grandin’s story to be particularly inspiring because of her willingness–and ability–to understand how others interpret her behavior. She, I think, provides a great example of someone who is aware of how she might be seen and she, therefore, makes adjustments, without loosing herself in the process. She strives to not stand stand out (in a negative way) while also embracing what makes her unique and what allows her to make a real societal impact.

  2. Noah, your point about helping someone with a disability was a really interesting point that made me sit back and think. Many times I have offered to hold a door open, or help someone with a disability. However, I also hold doors open for everyone else. It’s just how I was raised. But you bring up the point that I might be disrespecting these individuals. In the split second when I meet a stranger who is disabled, and offer to hold the door, am I perpetuating a problem or just trying to be nice. I know what my intentions are, but what is the actual result? I really appreciate you bringing this up because it is definitely something I will think about more. Not to say that I am going to stop holding doors open, but it does change how I think about this a little.

    1. MelishPelish (and others who have commented on this idea), I was also raised that you should hold doors for anybody as a common courtesy, and am glad you have no plans to stop doing so. I only brought it up as a common experience that we can all think about and relate to; not to imply that we should let/encourage people to do everything on their own. I was remembering some times when wheelchair-bound, but with full arm mobility, if I was having a rough day cursing the world for my situation and then someone ehlps with something I thought I could do on my own, it would exacerbate my feelings and make me internally cry out. Perhaps this mindset comes from having a temporary rather than permanent disability. It’s not up to us as individuals in a society to really try and go that deep into a stranger’s psyche, but if someone like Temple Grandin can go the extra mile to really think discretely about everyone’s actions and responses, perhaps we can learn something from that model and modify some of our thinking. But, friendliness and courteous behavior should always prevail!

  3. I am so glad that you decided to write about this Noah. I think that a common misconception of the greater society is that those with disabilities are sometimes unaware. Temple Grandin obviously shows that this is not true. I would like to hear more stories similar to Grandin’s that discuss this double consciousness and how they feel about living two kinds of lives; the one society sees for them and the one they see for themselves

  4. Noah, I like the parallel you made between Du Bois and our reading for this week. I hadn’t thought about disability in that way before. Sammy, your comment made me think as well about my own assumptions and biases about autism. Grandin is indeed aware that she is different from many others, and she is able to reflect on how her differences shape her life and world.

    Thanks for the movie rec Noah, I need to check that out!

  5. I wonder if it’s because of the difference in the type of disability but I never felt this double consciousness. We both suffers from communicative disability. It just manifests itself different. In Grandin’s case, neurological. Mine is physical. Perhaps I dealt with the concept of my own disability and merged it into my identity. Or perhaps I realize I will never meet the standard and stopped caring?

  6. I think you’re absolutely right that DuBois’s idea of double consciousness can be applied to those with disabilities. I saw this not only in Temple Grandin’s story, but also in the experience of Virgil, the blind man who regained sight in his fifties. He seemed to have tremendous difficulty adjusting to his new identity as a sighted person, when for so long he was a blind man. It was hard for him to reconcile what he was experiencing with his long-held identity. To use DuBois’s language, he couldn’t merge his own selves into one single person.

  7. I like your application of double consciousness to this week’s readings; it’s a theme I could see throughout as well. I was struck by the way all three main people viewed their identity and their disease; these two concepts were often so closely connected and intertwined, but also something that the people spent a lot of time thinking through.

  8. Noah, your comments about people holding doors for you really made me reconsider my thoughts on those actions. A couple years ago when I broke my knee and spent a few months on crutches and in a leg brace, I really appreciated how strangers were surprisingly compassionate toward me. Sometimes I needed the help to open doors and get around. But that disability was temporary and was not part of my identity, so I didn’t feel their actions said anything about me as a person. I’d never considered how it might feel to have that happen to you constantly for an extended period of time. Like Melissa, I won’t stop holding doors per se, but I will think about it differently.

  9. This is such a fantastic connection, and one that I had not immediately thought of. I can definitely see the connection especially through Temple Grandin’s story. It is difficult for most people to be able to step away from themselves and try to understand how others see them. I think this is incredibly brave of Grandin.

    Melissa, I had a similar reaction as you did to the idea of offering assistance to those who have a disability. I have a difficult time balancing basic manners and doing something nice that you would do for anybody with not wanting to offend or demean anyone. What is the best way of navigating this I wonder?

  10. I really like your connection of double consciousness and disability. Its definitely not something I would have thought about until reading An Anthropologist on Mars and your post. I cannot imagine how exhausting it must be for Grandin to constantly think about how she is being perceived by others, and how to react to social interactions on a regular/daily basis.

    This book really made me think about the different ways humans think, and the ways in which neurodiversity is represented in our society. Deeper discussions of how humans process sensory information and how this changes their perceptions of their own identity can be extremely valuable.

  11. As many have already commented, I really enjoyed your comparison of the concept of double consciousness to many of the narratives we read this week. It is definitely making me think about disability in a different way. I think it’s difficult to separate the W.E.B DuBois concept from it’s deep history of racial oppression, however I do think feeling “other-ed” is very applicable to these stories. What I find interesting about this is visible difference. One important aspect of double consciousness is that escaping the physical characteristics that make you different is challenging if not impossible for some. For some disabilities this is also absolutely true. For many of the stories we read this week of neurological disorders this becomes a little blurry. Some of these individuals “otherness” is defined by their behaviors not necessarily their appearance. How does then change how we think of double consciousness?

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