Ableism is “the oppression you’ve never heard of.” While most people can agree that racism, sexism, and homophobia/heterosexism are legitimate social concerns, many people don’t even know that ableism exists. Because discrimination (both subtle and overt) against disabled people is so widely accepted and integrated into our society, many well-meaning people are ableist without even realizing it. Here are some examples, in no particular order, of everyday ableism and how we can combat it and work to be more aware of it in our lives.
Most people know, at this point, that the R-word (Retard/Retarded) is ableist. The Spread the Word to End the Word campaign has done a fabulous job of raising awareness of how damaging the R-word can be. But did you know that words like “idiot” and “moron” are also highly ableist terms with a sordid history? Both were used as diagnostic terms in the early part of the 1900s for what we would call “intellectual disability” today. These terms were used to promote a theory of genetic predisposition to “feeblemindedness” and to justify coercive institutionalization, sterilization, and even murder of disabled people during the eugenics movement. The work of American researchers in the area of eugenics heavily influenced none other than Adolf Hitler.
Though “idiot” and “moron” are far from the only two examples of ableist language that I hear every day, they’re two of the most common. Now, before you cry censorship and complain about how we can’t say anything without offending people anymore, I remind you that English is a massively variable language, with many terms that can mean the same or similar things. On her website, autistic activist Lydia Brown has an incredibly useful list of ableist terms with a second list of non-ableist insults that can be used as alternatives.
One of the most common ways in which people are unintentionally ableist is by planning events that are inaccessible. Though I certainly have encountered my share of venues that are inaccessible for wheelchair users and others with mobility impairments, inaccessibility isn’t just about having ramps and elevators (ahem – working elevators). A venue can be inaccessible in a variety of ways, both overt and subtle. For instance, having an event without ASL interpretation makes that event inaccessible to Deaf people and others who use ASL to communicate. But having an event without a quiet space or a space where people can go to get away from the main event and decompress is inaccessible to a variety of people, including autistic people who may be experiencing sensory overload and those with anxiety disorders.
For me, because of my physical and psychiatric disabilities, it’s important to have a space where I can get away. I need a space where I can get out of my wheelchair and stretch out. If I’m anxious, I need a space where I can get away from all the people and listen to music or read to calm myself down. Sometimes, when the panic is really bad, I need a place to cry without people around to ask me what’s wrong. In all those cases, I’ll decompress, make myself comfortable, calm down, maybe take some medication, maybe take a nap, and then return to the event when I’m ready.
Several years ago, I wrote a piece for The Mobility Resource about making your event accessible. That’s a great place to start – but remember, it’s only a start. If you’re truly concerned about making your event accessible to all, bring in disabled people with a variety of impairments to assess the accessibility of your venue. Chances are they’ll find something you’ve overlooked.
Transportation is undoubtedly a disability issue, because many disabled people, including myself, don’t drive. When you’re planning an event, make sure it’s somewhere that’s easily reachable by public transportation, and include information for bus and subway lines in your event announcements. Include the exact address and cross streets for your venue for paratransit (door-to-door bus service for people with disabilities). And if you’re just hanging out casually, make sure everyone can get there. Consider picking people up if you’re driving. Negotiate a way that everyone can chip in for gas or, if someone can’t pay monetarily, encourage them to repay you with goods or services. Equal access means that everyone who wants to is able to get to the event.
Inspiration Porn and Presuming Competence
I could write a whole piece on inspiration porn. In fact, I already have. Inspiration porn, in a nutshell, is when a disabled person is viewed as “inspirational,” “brave,” or “special” for achieving ordinary, everyday tasks. Inspiration porn is particularly insidious on the Internet, where it takes the form of glib memes branded with absurd slogans like “The only disability in life is a bad attitude.”
Inspiration porn is a form of objectifying and Othering disabled people. It sends a signal that we do not deserve to live life like everyone else, so it’s cute or heartwarming when we do.
It also reinforces the myth that disabled people are eternal children. Even when they don’t realize it, nondisabled people often talk to disabled people as they would talk to children, in syrupy, high-pitched tones. If we’re adults, talk to us as though we’re adults. If you’re talking to a disabled child, make sure you’re talking to that child in the same way you would talk to a nondisabled child, regardless of their cognitive or verbal ability. Presuming competence is the best thing you can do for a disabled person.
Talk to Us
I can’t count the number of times that someone has talked to someone I’m with instead of talking to me directly. Almost every visibly disabled person I know has a story like that: “What would she like to eat?” “What’s his name?” “Where would she like to sit?” Even if we can’t respond to you, talking to us shows that you consider disabled people human beings worthy of conversation. How would you feel if someone talked about you while you were sitting right in front of them?
When encountering a group of disabled people, nondisabled folks tend to default to talking to the “least disabled looking” member of the group. I’ll never forget when I was traveling to a conference with two of my friends who are also physically disabled. All three of us used mobility aids. My friend Emily (of the blog Words I Wheel By) was using her power wheelchair, I was using my power wheelchair, and our friend Meg was using her walker. It was an unexpectedly long walk in the airport from our gate to the ground transportation, so at some point, Meg and I switched mobility aids. I was using her walker, and she was using my chair. (I call that “the mobility aid shuffle,” and it happens quite frequently when I’m with other disabled friends.) As we were getting onto the shuttle to the hotel, the driver looked at me and asked me whether Meg could get out of the chair and walk onto the shuttle. It amazes me that people think that sitting down automatically disqualifies you from speaking for yourself.
This is just a snippet of everyday ableism. I could go on for far longer. The main thing to remember is to be respectful and kind, just as you would to anyone else. And if you screw up, well, it happens to the best of us. Just apologize, ask what you can do to make it right, and make a conscious effort not to make that mistake again in the future. Ableism is insidious, but together, we can work to expose and demolish it.
[Headline image: The photograph shows a woman in a wheelchair with her back to the camera. She has auburn hair and is wearing a black jacket. The back of her wheelchair is blue. She is sitting in front of a flight of concrete stairs with both of her arms outstretched.]