Addressing issues of inequality is not about being politically correct. In fact, many of those politically correct terms so many people use are actually just the ill-informed attempts of people (who not are quite knowledgable about real issues) to feel like they are doing something useful for "those poor tragic people." I do not use words for the sake of being PC or because my friends use them. I think about my word choice because the words we use have meaning and impact on the people around us. Words matter. My actions matter. If you disagree, that's fine, but I implore you to at least attempt to read this with the mindset that I most likely have a different life experience than you do and my life experience is valid, just like yours is. You do not have to know my pain and life to acknowledge that it exists.
I've been putting off writing this for months, maybe longer. Why? Because ableism is a constant in my life and it encompasses so much. Trying to define ableism is like trying to capture a dark sky full of stars with a cheap camera...you might capture some of the light but you won't capture that awe-inspiring feeling of being so small yet so big. You won't know what you're looking at. I thought I'd try though. Bear with me and please ask questions in the comment section so I can address any shortcomings, make the post more understandable, etc. I'll mostly be defining ableism using examples as I've always found that helpful and it makes it more tangible! I hope you enjoy and share this post!
Please note that while I am solely addressing ableism in a vacuum in this post, it absolutely DOES NOT exist in a vacuum. Intersections of oppression exist and make ableism more difficult. The way each person experiences disability is unique and is valid.
CONTENT NOTE: this post could be potentially triggering. Mentions of ableism, non-specific mentions of abuse
What Does The Dictionary Say?
n. discrimination against people with disabilities.
n. a set of practices or beliefs that set inferior value to a person with a real or perceived disability (including mental, physical, developmental, etc). Via StopAbleism.Org
What Makes An -Ism?
For something to be a true -ism, it has to go BEYOND the individual! This isn't about one bigot not letting a Blind man with a guide dog into his restaurant, though this is a real problem that happens daily.
Ableism is bigger than individual behavior and is quite literally built into our society. Ableism is about power and privilege versus oppression. In fact, ableism is one of the oldest forms of oppression. Abled/non-Disabled (ND) people did not do anything special to be born Abled/ND, they just were, and yet, society values them more for the way they are. ND people earn exponentially more money (post to come), are able to access public and private spaces easily (their body and design of space allows them to), are viewed as equal (on the axis of Dis/ability), are seen as capable and autonomous, etc. (You can read more about privilege and oppression here: Privilege, Oppression, and Everything In Between.)
The Words You Use
How often do you use these words: d*mb, st*pid, r*tard/ed, -t*rd, m*ntal, cr*zy, ps*cho, n*ts, handicap, cr*pple/d, handicapable, differently-abled?
If you're like most people, I'm guessing you use them every day, if not multiple times a day. I'm not writing this to judge you or to make you feel guilty, I'm writing this so you can be educated on something that has a measurably negative impact on the lives of real people (in your life) with real feelings. I'm writing this so that at the very least, you take a moment to think on your words before you use them.
So. Why is it not just "bad" but oppressive to use these words?
First of all, many of these words are rooted in historical abuse (cr*ppled, h*ndicap, m*ntal, cr*azy, ps*cho) and we haven't forgotten. Those words are still used negatively against Disabled people.
Secondly, these words are used as value judgments. Examine how you and others treat people after labeling someone cr*zy or st*pid. It suddenly becomes okay to no longer listen to them or treat them with respect. It becomes okay to treat them as lesser than and it is honestly terrifying to me that the act of verbally or otherwise labeling someone with a word associated with disability makes it acceptable to heap all manners of abuse on them.
Thirdly, when it comes to terms that relate to intellect, you are saying that something or someone is less worthy of respect, of dignity, of kindness if it/they is perceived as less intelligent, on the flip side, you are saying that something or someone is more worthy of respect, of dignity, of kindness if it/they is perceived as more intelligent. Even if you're referring to an object, those words transfer to real people. That same logic, that the more intelligent the more worthy of basic human decency and kindness and the less intelligent the less worthy, has been used for literally thousands of years to excuse the most heinous crimes against Disabled people, specifically intellectually Disabled people.
Also, though I didn't include them in the list, using terms like Blind and Deaf for ANYTHING other than someone who is Blind or Deaf is ableist!
Now, I'm sure you're wondering why I included the terms handicapable and differently abled. SOME Disabled people like them but the vast majority do not and the reason is two-fold.
1) they're inaccurate. We are not differently abled, that is to say, we don't have some awe-inspiring other ability that you non-Disabled folks don't have. To quote my amazing friend "It's not like I walk on my hands!"
2) It erases our very real disabilities and the role society plays in their maintenance.
Even if you're not using the above words in a directly negative way, that doesn't change their original meaning and it doesn't change that they still hurt people. .
Finally, you may be thinking to yourself "they're just words...they're just feelings...people are too sensitive." While I think that that is an incredibly upsetting opinion to have, I'll pretend that I agree for a moment. If you don't care about feelings, consider this: those words that you utter so casually because you can't be bothered to use the word you actually mean? Those words are almost always used when Disabled people are being beaten and abused by "loved" ones and even strangers on the street (70% of Disabled people have reported being abused). So those words are not "just words" they are triggers and they are violence, even if you don't mean them to be.
So instead of...
- ...that party was crazy last night!
- try: that party was ridiculous/too much/wild/out of control
- ...that's a stupid argument!
- try: that's an ill-informed/ignorant/illogical/ill-thought-out/incorrect/tragic/poor argument
- ...the weather is bipolar!
- try: the weather is all over the place/mercurial/hot and cold/indecisive/rude
- ..."the political blindness of millennials" or "Deaf to objections"
- try: "the political ignorance of milenials" or "obstinate to objections"
Examine your word choice. It may take some practice, it's easier not to do it at all, but not only are you making a positive impact on those around you, you're also actually saying what you mean! Maybe you can do what I did and institute a jar in your home and every time you or your housemate says one of the above terms, some sum of money goes in the jar. The proceeds in our jar went to a disability charity!
Let's Get Specific
(* denotes it actually happened to me)
- Ableism is having to prove you're Disabled/sick so you can get "accommodations" while simultaneously having to prove you're not too Disabled/sick so your teachers coerce you into dropping the course*
- Ableism is your teacher saying that people who don't exhibit appropriate body language (squatting down, open body language, etc) in the child study lab will be marked down and when you tell her why you don't do it, being told, in front of your peers, that the teacher is "having trouble (believing) with that"...and still getting marked down*
- Ableism is being so sick that you are in and out of the ER, 2 weeks post major surgery, getting procedures done, but still doing assignments, and being told to do a medical withdrawal for missing lab classes...and then being failed in the course despite trying to do a medical withdrawal*
- Ableism is not providing an ASL translator at events because it's too expensive
- Ableism is not having a audio descriptions available on a show ABOUT A BLIND PROTAGONIST
- Ableism is constantly being asked "don't you want to be healthy and take the stairs"*
- Ableism is being accused of faking for being able to walk while using a wheelchair*
- Ableism is being accused of being a drug addict for being thing due to illness and for having stomach problems*
- Ableism is asking someone "OMG ARE YOU BLIND!"
- Ableism is joking about a life threatening disease someone has*
- Ableism is valuing some Disabled people over others because they don't need accommodations
- Ableism is valuing some Disabled people over others because they have normative bodies (in this case, meaning they look ND)
- Ableism is valuing some Disabled people over others because their disability doesn't make you uncomfortable.*
- Ableism is valuing some Disabled people over others because they allow you to use ableist language.*
- Ableism is valuing some Disabled people over others because they fit your idea of what disability is.
- Ableism is telling someone who is very sick "but you don't look sick" thus downplaying their illness*
- Ableism is telling someone who is thin due to extreme illness that you want their illness*
- Ableism is dismissing someone's concerns because "they should get it"*
- Ableism is assuming someone is/isn't Disabled
- Ableism is using terms like Blind and Deaf as metaphors for situations...implying that they are a choice
- Ableism is using the phrase "stand for ____" instead of "solidarity with _____"
- Ableism is assuming walking is universal
- Ableism is being unable to access a classroom and class content
- Ableism is thinking it's okay to say and do ableist things because no one Disabled is around (or so you think).*
- Ableism is someone saying that they are more Disabled (because of their unique oppression) than a Disabled white woman when they aren't Disabled at all.*
- Ableism is denying Disabled people their sexual selves while simultaneously pathologizing them if they are not sexually active.
- Ableism is thinking that anyone who chooses to be in a relationship with a Disabled person is a saint.
- Ableism is sympathizing with abusive parents of Disabled kids because really, how much can one person take?
- Ableism is having a professor not considering you missing class because you dislocated your shoulder valid but telling a kid who drunkenly cut his hand on a beer bottle that he didn't need to come to class.*
- Ableism is the entire education system.
- Ableism is the belief that physical disability looks a certain way.