Ableism is the discrimination of and social prejudice against people with disabilities based on the belief that typical abilities are superior. At its heart, ableism is rooted in the assumption that disabled people require ‘fixing’ and defines people by their disability (Ableism 101). Ableism is everywhere and sometimes it’s difficult for the disabled community to feel included, heard, or even sometimes feel like a human being. Below we are going to listen to some powerful stories of what they have experienced personally dealing with ableism.
What does Ableism look like?
- Framing disability as either tragic or inspirational in news stories, movies, and other popular forms of media
- Making a movie that doesn’t have an audio description or closed captioning
- Casting a non-disabled actor to play a disabled character in a play, movie, TV show, or commercial
- Questioning if someone is ‘actually’ disabled, or ‘how much they are disabled.
- Asking, “How did you become disabled?”
- Talking to a person with a disability like they are a child, talking about them instead of directly to them, or speaking for them.
- Using the accessible bathroom stall when you can use the non-accessible stall without pain or risk of injury.
As a person with a physical disability, I have personally experienced some of these issues, which is why it’s important to educate people on the severity of how it affects people on a daily. I am 28 years old, an African American female who identifies as a lesbian and has cerebral palsy. I have had to overcome many obstacles such as limited access to places because they were not wheelchair accessible. This meant I couldn’t attend important events such as internships, job interviews, or going to college classes. I had to find other places that had the access I needed to be able to grow and succeed. When I was younger, I didn’t understand what ableism was. I remember this lady bending down to my level and started talking to me in a high-pitched tone as if I was a cute little newborn baby. She said “look at you out and about that’s so amazing” with this big Cheshire Cat smile and proceeded to pat my leg. At the time I didn’t think about how harmful that was to me. Even though in her mind she was trying to be nice she is now giving other people surrounding us at the time permission to do the same thing. So now when people try to “Baby Talk” me I put a stop to it by respectively saying “I am grown and not a child so please do not talk to me like I am one”.
Another example I’ve experienced is when someone who is abled bodied uses a handicapped stall at a restaurant. This particular day I had to use the restroom so badly that I used a non-accessible stall which was not safe because I would have fallen and wouldn’t have been able to get back up, but I took the risk because I didn’t want to use the bathroom on myself at this nice restaurant in front of my guests. When the lady comes out, she says” Oh my gosh I’m so sorry. I like using that stall because it’s cleaner and nobody was here earlier”. I was furious but I didn’t say anything. I felt like if I had said something at that moment it wouldn’t have been effective. I have many more examples but the point I’m trying to get across is; it’s important to be aware of how harmful you could be to the disabled community and should be more self-aware.
1. What is your disability?
I am profoundly deaf with bilateral cochlear implants. Intertwining with my deafness are my Sensory Processing Disorder, neurodiversity, and mental illnesses.
2. What obstacles have you overcome?
Upon being diagnosed as deaf at the tender age of 15 months old, my life forever changed. My world became so quiet, yet paradoxically so loud. While I lacked in sounds and speech, I quickly became overwhelmed with new inputs from changes. Seemingly overnight, I was bombarded with hearing tests, audiology appointments, surgeries, and speech therapy. To compensate, I sought ways to soothe myself through calming movements (e.g. going on swings) and comforting textures (e.g. using fuzzy blankets). Over time, through these coping mechanisms, it became noticeable that I was also struggling with Sensory Processing Disorder. In some ways, I was under-stimulated (e.g. seeking soothing behaviors); in other ways, I was overstimulated (e.g. being easily bothered by bright lights and loud sounds). Subsequently, occupational therapy was added to my hectic schedule. As a toddler, already, I was dealing with a stack of obstacles.
Once I became old enough to start school, my list of challenges and setbacks grew. In my mainstream schools, I was usually the only deaf student and initially struggled with delays in communication and social-emotional skills. Consequently, I felt like a lonely outsider that didn’t fit in anywhere growing up. Eventually, the adversities I faced weighed heavily on me, and I developed mental illnesses in my pre-teen years (e.g. anxiety, depression, chronic suicidality, and an eating disorder). With time and support, my tumultuous beginnings navigating school and life, in general, became more manageable. At each life stage, new obstacles arose, and some eased or dissipated. As a young adult, I continue to encounter hurdles due to ableism, inequity, disparities, otherness, and more. It can be frankly exhausting at times as a deaf person living in the hearing world and having to deal with the aftermath of my childhood, advocate for myself and educate others. In response, I have developed a repertoire of knowledge, lessons, coping skills, and connections with the disability community to maneuver through the world, tackle obstacles I may and will endure, and be unapologetically me.
3. How have you experienced ableism?
Growing up, I was naive and didn’t initially recognize ableism in my own life. However, as I got older and started to reflect on my experiences, I realized that I frequently encountered ableism from the micro level. It was and still is common to receive microaggressions through backhanded compliments (e.g., remarking “You don’t sound deaf!”), outdated terminologies (e.g., saying hearing impaired), condescension (e.g., using uncharacteristically loud voice), sentimentality (e.g., feeling pity and sadness), toxic disability theology (e.g., praying for me), and heroism (e.g., commenting “You’re such an inspiration!”). From the meso and macro levels, there are ableist practices I often notice, such as the lack of accommodations (e.g., not providing closed captioning and playing loud music in restaurants) and the expectation for me to accommodate people, rather than vice versa (e.g., having to lipread to communicate). Ableism has so many layers that seep into my day-to-day life, both knowingly and unknowingly. The nuances of ableism can act as a hindrance to my self-development, and influence how I perceive and interact with my surroundings. For example, I have to consider the intersectionality of my identities being both queer and disabled and be mindful of how the interconnectedness can impact my interactions with others. Ableism is so prevalent, and it’s crucial to have important conversations, like this, to better educate ourselves, unlearn harmful behaviors and practices, challenge biases and stereotypes, promote equity, advocate for accessibility, and amplify the voices of disabled people.
1. What is your Disability?
My disability is Cerebral Palsy. Cerebral Palsy, or CP for short, is due to a lack of oxygen to the brain. The type of CP I have affected all four of my limbs. I have the type called spastic quadriplegic Cerebral Palsy
2. What Obstacles have you overcome?
There have been many obstacles but I think the biggest one that truly affected me is in my professional life. When I was pursuing my Master’s degree, my college had issues finding me an appropriate internship that was handicapped accessible by ADA standards. The school was based in Boston, so they had no one on the ground to check out potential placements. Instead of this, they would ask able-bodied people whether the doors were wide enough, or the bathrooms were wide enough as if their answers would help me. They’re ABLE-BODIED. I try to explain to the school that their assessments were not accurate because they could walk through side doors. It was frustrating.
3. How have you experienced ableism?
I experienced hostile ableism at an internship. They would tell me that I need to learn how to open the doors by myself, even though they were heavy and wooden. I would be referred to with harsh names, rather than my name, and I also would have the back of my chair kicked by colleagues telling me to hurry up because I was moving too slowly.
These three people have had similar experiences dealing with people who discriminated against them regarding their disabilities. It is essential to realize how harmful it can be when going through these situations for the community. Many feel isolated, depressed, lonely, and scared which can cause mental health issues. Living in an abled-bodied world, education is so essential. It is important that not only do we educate people, but people also have to be self-aware and recognize when they are being ableist and work to fix it.