If you're a person with a disability or close to anybody with disability issues, you'll probably be familiar with the term "ableism". It's meant to be used in the same sense as racism or sexism, denoting a severe, widespread, structural, conscious or unconscious bias against one particular group: in this case, the disabled. You may look around, see some wheelchair ramps, the Special Olympics, and a disabled parking sticker or two, and conclude that society has no problem with disabilities at all — but you'd be very wrong. And there are many words and actions that reinforce the idea that disabled people are somehow lesser, cursed, problematic, or deprived.
Being ableist doesn't mean going around tossing people out of wheelchairs and throwing hearing aids across the river. The problems often come with unconscious or thoughtless assumptions and actions, in how you treat disabled peoples' experience, relate to their problems, and discuss and view them as humans. Luckily, with a bit more conscientiousness and awareness, you can banish stuff that's insulting to disabled people from your life; but it can take a bit of work.
Here are seven ways you may be discriminating against disabled people without knowing that you're doing it — and how to fix it.
1. Making A Disabled Person's Disability Their Most Important Trait
A deaf person is not just a deaf person; a person with a prosthetic does not carry all of their personality in that fact. It is not the thing that makes up the majority of their identity. It's up to them to determine how much they prioritize it; and even then, if they spend their entire day working towards disabled rights and discussing their circumstances in detail, they're ultimately still a person, not a label. It may well have a huge role in their life, but it doesn't have to be the first thing you ask about, the first thing you mention when introducing them to others, or how you categorize them in your mind.
2. Using Ableist Terms
I already talked about this in terms of mental illness and disrespectful terms (yes, "crazy" is diminishing and sh*tty), but it's important to realize that it needs to be spread to all disabled people in general. "Retarded" is not acceptable, ever, and neither are "slow," "feeble-minded," "spastic," or "subnormal". "Brain-damaged" is only acceptable if you're discussing actual, genuine brain damage in somebody, not just using it as a synonym for "stupid". And let's do away with "cripple" while we're there.
3. Using Disabled-Only Parking Spaces When You Don't Need Them
This is just bad behavior, period. Even if there's nobody around, even if you think you're absolutely sure no disabled person could turn up and require the disabled bathroom, elevator, ramp, or car space, it's still a bad idea to put your able self into a place designed to help somebody else. Think carefully about taking anything, like free wheelchairs, that has been put aside for disabled people. Chances are that you're just being an idiot.
4. Thinking Of Disability Only In Visible Terms
Newsflash: disabilities and crippling conditions can be completely invisible to the outsider. Witness, for example, Lena Dunham's endometriosis diagnosis, which is so hideous she's had to be hospitalized for a burst ovarian cyst but shows no outer signs of a condition whatsoever. And that's just the beginning of the list; plenty of disabilities, including many mental disorders as well as physical ones, exist entirely hidden from outside view.
The lesson? You can't tell from looking whether a person is disabled or not. You may go into self-righteous mode if you see a supposedly healthy-looking person using a disabled parking space, but if they've got a sticker, chances are strong that they've got it for a reason. And the phrase "you don't look disabled" should leave your vocabulary immediately.
5. Being Condescending About The "Struggle" And "Bravery" Of The Disabled
Tina Fey has a brilliant passage on this in her memoir Bossypants. Fey isn't disabled in any way she's talked about in public, but she does have a scar on her face from a knife attack on her as a child, and went on record about the people who use it to make themselves look good:
"Then there's another sort of person who thinks it makes them seem brave or sensitive or wonderfully direct to ask me about it right away. They ask with quiet, feigned empathy, "How did you get your scar?" The grossest move is when they say they're only curious because "it's so beautiful." Ugh. Disgusting. They might as well walk up and say, "May I be amazing at you?" To these folks, let me be clear. I'm not interested in acting out a TV movie with you where you befriend a girl with a scar. An Oscar-y Spielberg movie where I play a mean German with a scar? Yes."
This addresses a common problem, particularly for those with disabilities: people gushing, condescendingly, about how "brave" and "amazing" they are to "struggle through" with such a terrible problem. This is not an empowering language or attitude; it makes a big deal of disability as a curse or hardship. You may well think your disabled friend is brave and amazing for dealing with what she's dealing with, but telling her that does not make you Mother Theresa.
Also, accumulating disabled friends as a kind of let's-show-how-accepting-I-am competition is not charming or fun. It's tokenism, the "one black friend" syndrome of the disabled community. They are not here to make you feel better about yourself.
6. Assuming Disabled People Aren't Capable
Most of us will know that scheduling hang-outs with people with certain disabilities requires sensitivity; everybody with a friend in a wheelchair knows that accessibility needs to be a priority for cafes and restaurants, for example. But there's the other end of the spectrum to consider: over-compensating, imagining that a person with a disability will need help with everything, and offering aid when it's not been directly asked for.
They have the right to ask for help as and when they want it, and your offering it without a request can be taken as a diminishing of their personal autonomy. It may also, frankly, not be the kind of help they want. I've seen enough kindly people shouting at deaf people, in a doomed attempt to communicate, to know that well-meaning behavior can still be ableist.
7. Asking Unsolicited Personal Questions About A Disability
A person having a disability doesn't mean they're holding up a sign saying "INFORMATION BOOTH: QUESTIONS ANSWERED HERE". If they want to tell you about what happened, their diagnosis or condition, and other intensely personal questions about their body and health, that's their prerogative.
They're under no obligation to explain themselves to you or be an educator about a particular situation to the masses. If that's what they want to do, that's awesome! But don't assume they owe it to you. And don't stare or ask personal questions; your mother taught you that.
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