Ableism–Not Just Another “-ism” for me

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In the past few weeks I’ve had the remarkable opportunity to interview several people with physical disabilities (preferred over ‘disabled people’, as they are, of course, people first) for some magazine articles. I’ve learned a great deal, not only about the interviewees themselves, but about their attitudes toward disability and my attitudes toward disability, too. What’s more, the experience has helped me better  understand “-isms” in general, perhaps racism in particular, in ways which, if not particularly flattering to me, might help us all take the time to try to understand what it means to be “other.”

As I’ve written here before, my parents both had some physical disabilities. My father, who has passed, had polio as a teenager and persistent significant one-arm/opposite leg weakness (for the life of me I can’t remember which!) throughout his life. My mother had a stroke when she was nine, probably as a result of some kind of atrial-venous malformation in her brain (there weren’t any CAT scans at the time). She’s dealt with right-sided weakness and spasticity since.

In both cases, it’s hard NOT to be influenced, as a child growing up, by stories your mother tells you (entirely matter-of-factly; my parents were never interested in anyone’s opinion about their disabilities, never mind pity) about how, after her stroke, she couldn’t speak. Or your father’s story of how, in the middle of a polio epidemic, he grew so tired and weak one day on a walk home from work he simply collapsed. About how one of the first things he remembered when he got to rehab was being weighed on something akin to a meat scale, my dad said (he was too weak for anything but). My father, even as a teen, was very tall (well over 6′) and he thought he must have been “close to the door” (as he was fond of saying) when he heard his weight announced as something under 100 pounds.

So: you know what? I’m all in for a discussion of ableism–which, according to a Wikipedia definition, is “the term for the privileging of able-bodiedness resulting in discrimination or social prejudice against people with disabilities.” From another source, diversityinc.com, “the thought that people with disabilities are dependent and require the care and support of someone else is an example of ableism.”

In essence, ableism characterizes a person as defined by their disability, just as racism characterizes a person as defined by their race, just as sexism characterizes a person as defined by their gender.

Although I’m a woman, I’ve not been touched–much, anyway–by sexism in my life. And I’m white, so I don’t have personal experience with racism. But ableism’s a different story. There are my parents’ stories, of course. But I also worked for many years as a physical therapist in the areas of neurology and rehab. My patients included many fine and interesting people with both physical and cognitive disabilities.

So all of a sudden it occurs to me, when I’m writing these articles in the past weeks, that “person with a disability” taps a well no different than “person of color.” That when my teenaged interviewee with cerebral palsy says to me she’s fine with questions (about her wheelchair or ‘sticks,’ e.g.) most days but on other days is simply tired of answering repeated inquiries about her body and her mind, it’s a reality check for me. In the past I’ve been kind of affronted by a person of color who said ‘I’m not answering that question AGAIN.’ But put it in the form of ableism (vs racism), and I totally get it.

When I interviewed a middle-aged dancer with multiple disabilities it was tempting to list, among his achievements, sky-diving. He brushed me off–that’s not what he’s about, he said. And his recently-produced dance show is NOT about how is life is an example of what disabled people can do. HE’S JUST A PERSON, he explains to me. Just a person with a body that works, albeit diversely, who loves to dance. As my teenaged interviewee is just a person who’d like to have a normal conversation with peers, about a TV show, or after-school sports. That’s all.

Which has made me reconsider what odd frame of accomplishment/achievement/let’s-just call-it-what-it-is racism it is through which I may judge, however much I don’t mean to, people of color.

In the broadway show Avenue Q there’s a song, “We’re All A Little Bit Racist” and I think it’s useful to expand that to other -isms, as well. The point I’m trying to make is this: Try to find that place where YOU best understand “otherness.” (This is one reason I think it’s useful for people to travel the world, to places where they are clearly excluded by language, custom, etc. It makes you understand “otherness” like little else, if you’ve generally not been “other” in your life.) Imagine this even brief encounter with being on the outside and see if you can extrapolate it to people who experience discrimination based on things that are not essential to who they are.

I’m better at understanding racism, I think, because I’ve had a lifetime of trying to understand ableism. What makes you better at understanding “-isms”?

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