Ableism is to disabled people what racism is to people of colour or sexism is to women. It’s all the ways able-bodied neurotypical people discriminate against, harm and prevent disabled or neurodiverse people from participating in society. Ableism is naming structural inequality.
Talking about all the ways we are ableist isn’t about pointing the finger at ‘you’.
It’s about acknowledging how the dominant culture impacts who or what we see as valuable in our society (and therefore, how they might see themselves).
Who is worthy.
In terms of disability, this pertains to whether we think all humans have the right to:
- access public spaces
- be heard and seen
- communicate effectively
- have meaningful relationships
- quality employment and/or financial stability
- be offered opportunities to participate in all areas of life
The social model of disability argues that disability is an issue only as long as society continues to deny human rights to disabled people.
Therefore someone speaking out against abelism might, for example, find euthanasia problematic. They would question why certain people in an unequal society would want to die (such as disabled people and those who are marginalised and discriminated against).
There was a huge outcry against the movie ‘Me Before You’ because not only did it perpetuate an oft-repeated deeply problematic stereotype: I’d rather be dead than in a wheelchair (failing to deconstruct why someone might feel that way in a societal context), it did so under the guise of a love story. Also, again, the disabled character was played by a non-disabled actor. Jacki Jax Brown, an Australian disabled and queer rights activist, called it a ‘disability snuff film‘.
More recently, Sia’s film ‘Music’ has come under fire for crimes against disabled people, including casting a neuro-typical actor to play a neuro-diverse character and showing a dangerous method of physical restraint as ‘crushing her with love’. Initially defensive (and offensive), Sia has since apologised.
Some activists have made a point of saying they do not want to cancel these storytellers, they want powerful allies, they just want to make sure the allies are doing the right thing.
These perspectives are important to be aware of for all people interested in social justice. With that in mind, let’s look at five ways (beyond film and TV) ableism creeps into our everyday lives.
Everyone loves to hate on the selfie stick. Selfie stick users are called narcissists or dorks or whatever judgemental phrase we think of in the moment. Users have been accused of interrupting and annoying other holidaymakers or event-attenders, blocking views, and not enjoying the very thing they’re photographing.
But did it occur to you that a selfie stick makes solo and group photography possible for people who don’t have arms or can’t lift their arms up (a common aspect of such disabilities as cerebral palsy, where the person may have low muscle tone)? Selfie sticks are a godsend for folks with less mobility.
In my work as a counsellor, this is a biggie- though not for the reasons many of you may think. It is easy to assume that having a disability is the cause of parallel mental health issues. Mental health diagnoses can be classed as disability. Some conditions (such as Parkinson’s disease) directly affect dopamine production and therefore cause depression. Look, no one ever said understanding this stuff was simple.
But ponder this. On an episode of the ABC’s You Can’t Ask That (in which people submit anonymous questions that are answered by members of that group) about Down Syndrome, the question was asked ‘why are people with Down Syndrome always happy?’ I assumed that question was offensive, having known folks with Down Syndrome suffering from bouts of depression. Imagine my surprise when one of the participants laughed and said something like:
‘What is wrong with being happy? Do you want me to teach you how to be happy?’
Um, YES PLEASE. Holy cow.
This response begs some thinking: What can we learn if we accept disabled people as teachers? What might society prioritise if this guy was running the show and how would that benefit everyone?
If your ‘natural state’ is happiness, what causes unhappiness? Is it the disability- or mental health diagnosis- in and of itself causing issues, or is it discrimination… a lack of acceptance, understanding and accomodation that cause ongoing suffering? Is it trauma (disabled people are the most at-risk group in the world of being subjected to violence)?
I couldn’t find a clip of that episode, but here’s another one. Deaf people answering the question ‘Do people treat you as stupid?’ that might have some answers:
Comic Sans and Camel Case
Comic Sans font is so hated there has even been a campaign since 1999 to ban it. Holly Combs, the originator of the campaign has been quoted as saying “Using Comic Sans is like turning up to a black-tie event in a clown costume.” Which is pretty funny.
However, Comic Sans is considered one of the best fonts for dyslexic people. The creator of Comic Sans designed it to be playful, friendly and informal, like a comic book: ‘It had personality, unusual letter spacing and unequal visual weight’. The unusual shape of the letters makes them easier to read, the lettering being much clearer.
Camel Case is using CapitalLettersWhenYouDon’tHaveSpacesSuchAsWithHashtags. Most of us don’t do it when we #Sentences.
Using Camel Case simply means that folks using aural aides can actually understand whatever it is you’ve hashtagged. Capital Letters are interpreted by those operating systems as separate words, whereas a bunch of words stuck together are simply gobbledegook.
Have you ever said a disabled person is an ‘inspiration’ just for being alive? For achieving something anyone could? Or have you ever worked in an office with a poster of a disabled person running a marathon on the wall that quotes something like ‘the only disability is a bad attitude’? Do you ‘awwwwww’ when a disabled person does… literally… anything (Dance. Model. Work. Go down the street).
Please. Watch this hilarious and insightful Ted Talk by my late friend Stella Young. Disabled people want equal access to society. They do not want to be ‘inspiration’ for able-bodied neuro-typical folks to improve their own lives. Incidentally, Stella once told me she invented the selfie stick (or rather, she had the idea and wished like hell she’d cottoned onto the idea it was marketable). The bloody woman WAS inspirational, but not because she trundled down the street in a wheelchair.
Congratulating carers, partners and friends of disabled people
By no means do I wish to denigrate carers of disabled folks. I have worked in disability support services and I understand how little acknowledgment or help in any area full-time carers receive. But would it kill us to consider the life of the person being cared for too?
Perhaps carers would have an easier time if we, as a society, were much more integrated with disabled lives. What if it was accepted fact that everyone deserves equal access and we accounted for that socially, financially and physically?
Imagine how it would be, as a non-verbal disabled person who might not be able to communicate easily or at all, being constantly subjected to messaging that you are a burden. That someone is a saint for the act of helping you live. That you do not belong. You do not deserve to have anything that ‘regular’ people have and it is unimaginable for us to consider how someone chooses to care for someone else we don’t think of as ‘normal’. That it is mere luck and fortune that such a saint exists.
Horrible is my guess on how that might feel.
Imagine how this plays out in the school yard… on dating apps… the giant act of altruism an ablebod or neurotypical person must be doing to simply have an organic relationship with a disabled person. To like someone who is different from them, make the effort to communicate with another human, be attracted to someone who doesn’t fit into a binary and isn’t even trying to. That you deserve a pat on the back for being a ‘good person’ by allowing a disabled person into your life.
This poem ‘Assigned Friends Outcome’ by autistic author Judy Endow gives an insight into how painful it can be to be on the receiving end of this ‘kindness’. And while we’re here, read this amazing yarn between Alok and Mia Mingus on the vitality of ugliness on social media.
There are SO MANY WAYS able-bodied neuro-typical privilege influences how we see and experience the world. Certainly, COVID-19 has opened up a few of our minds around how easily we can make the world more accessible for everyone. Let’s not forget that is an exciting journey of change (as much as it may be uncomfortable) and embrace Comic Sans.
Did you enjoy this post? You might like to read this piece with a whole bunch of options for REAL self care (hint: there isn’t a bathtub in sight). If you’re curious about counselling with me, don’t hesitate to get in touch here.
Main image by Thiago Barletta on Unsplash