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It’s Time to Tackle Ableism

Jennifer A. Stollman, PhD, Director of Consulting Services

Disability rights. It is strange because ability intersects all identities so, why is disability left out? It’s left out because we uphold narrow definitions of perfection and little tolerance for imperfection. Research shows that we have a special relationship with atypical bodies; mostly centering on discomfort and disgust. For folks with non-visible disabilities, we suggest it’s a matter of will power, diet, supplements, or needed behavioral changes. We view disabilities as something to overcome.

Cue the inspiration porn.

The central message is we admire you despite — or because — you’ve overcome your disability. People who identify as typical congratulate themselves for their philanthropy, random acts of kindness, and project strategic goodness against the bodies and minds of disabled folks. It’s self-righteous, and not helpful.

Dr. Kendi’s agency maxim is easily transferred to disability rights. When I was teaching, I had a student who had ALS and was in a wheelchair and used voice technology to communicate. Students would look at “Tim,” register discomfort, quickly recalibrate and pretend he wasn’t there or were overly patronizing in their interactions with him. Patrolling speech and avoiding offensive actions are not enough. We need to be anti-ableist. By low estimates, 20% of U.S. citizens identify as having a disability — so that means us, our family, coworkers, community members, and our kids. If we are anti-ableist, we shift our thinking and make essential changes in our lives and the lives of others.

Take a moment and scan how you react when you encounter someone with a visible disability or when someone reveals to you that they have a non-visible disability.

Ableism presents itself in many ways, here are a few.

  • Staring at folks is a common one. If you do this, apologize and stop staring.
  • Assuming you have the right to know what someone’s disability is or how they came to be disabled is also ableist. You need to know that body language and statements conveying pity, annoy and anger people with disabilities.
  • Be aware of your approach. Don’t work out ableist anxieties on someone else. Reflexively sharing or comparing stories about other people’s disabilities is common ableism. Take a beat and a breath after someone has shared their story.
  • Racing to help somebody with a disability, while well-intentioned, can create obstacles for folks. Hold back and wait for a request.
  • Finally, stop debating or deciding whether someone is disabled. Chasing someone around a parking lot demanding that they defend their disability or placard is ignorant. Avoid being the parking spot police.

Here are some quick things you can do to avoid being anti-ableist.

  • Don’t use ableist language and stop those who do. We know that the r-word is not okay but so are the words “wheelchair-bound,” “crazy,” “mental,” “handicapped,” “handicapable,” “people with different abilities,” and “special needs.”
  • Check your language before you say it. Apologies don’t dull the impact of hurtful language.
  • Stop consuming and sharing inspiration porn on social media. These are the stories that make heroes out of people for overcoming their disabilities.
  • Similarly, stop disability blindness thinking; that is, “I don’t see your disability” or “You can’t even tell.” It negates people’s experiences and speaks more to your discomfort. Value the whole person, including their disability. Decentering ableism and centering people with disabilities is a major step toward being anti-ableist. Practice empathy and engage in perspective sharing; that is, try to experience the world as a person with a disability.

Stop presuming how people with disabilities should or do experience their lives.

Ask them. Stop assuming hardship, incapability, or inferiority. Again, that’s your projection. Instead, make sure our private and public spaces are welcoming for all types of people. Regularly check policies and procedures at work, at school, and out in public to make sure they are not discriminatory. Ask yourself the question — do people with disabilities have the same access and opportunities as able-bodied folks? If not, demand change. Put it on the next meeting’s agenda.

Why commit ourselves to being actively anti-ableist? We know that making room for the perspectives of others enriches our own lives as it relates to happiness, comfort, satisfaction, innovation, and productivity. So being anti-ableist means everyone wins. Each of us prizes our quality of life and our dignity—shouldn’t we extend that right to everyone? Remember, upholding inequity for one group of people puts all groups at risk. Systemic discrimination isn’t maintained by some Wizard of Oz-like character behind the curtain, demanding that we marginalize people with disabilities. It is held up by our everyday actions and thoughts. Don’t wait for others to make changes; step up, and do your part.