Every time we open our mouths or put pen to paper, the words we use either affirm someone, or disenfranchise them; hurt them, or support them. Which is why, for New Year’s Eve, I’m imploring everyone I know to make the same resolution: try to be mindful of your own ableist tendencies, and start trying to change them.
As an invisibly disabled person, I experience ableism, or discrimination in the favor of able-bodied people, on a daily basis. Most of the time, the people that perpetuate these issues are not bad people; in fact, many of them consider themselves allies. But because ableism is so deeply engrained in our culture, even people who want badly to help sometimes end up hurting or alienating people like me.
Think about it. How many times in your life have you said that someone was acting crazy, or needed to go back on their meds? How many times have you excused some momentary instance of clumsiness by saying: “Sorry to be such a spaz?”
All of these are examples of ableist language. Of course, most people don’t mean to insult people with mental or neuro-motor issues with these turns of phrase. But the intention doesn’t change the fact that there are real people out there–people you probably care about–who do struggle with such issues, secretly or not. People with health conditions and disabilities already have a harder time in life than most able-bodied people. Do you really want to make life even an iota harder for them… or, heck, for anyone?
If you’re a good person, you don’t. So here are some examples of the way ableism can sneak into our everyday interactions, and some tips on how to fight against it.
Words reflect culture. This means that what we say is a microcosm of our society’s views of people, places, and things. There are many everyday idioms that are actually deeply rooted in ableism. Most of us now know that it isn’t cool to make fun of or belittle someone who is disabled mentally and/or physically, but our language hasn’t completely caught up.
We often fail to recognize the power that labels can hold, both positively and negatively, and when we use labels to describe others, that has a direct and sometimes very traumatic impact on their lived experience. If we use ableist language, we limit the existence of another person and reduce them to something they are not. All of us, able-bodied and not, are multifaceted, and our language needs to reflect that.
All of us, able-bodied and not, are multifaceted, and our language needs to reflect that.
So where do you start? Well, there’s likely going to be some trial-and-error, but the good news is, no one expects you to get it right immediately, and most disabled people or people with health conditions will appreciate being asked questions about what words and terms to avoid.
The key skill you need to exercise is empathy. Ask yourself questions like: If you were someone who used a wheelchair, would it feel good to you if someone said you were “bound” to a tool that helps you navigate the world? If you were a person with a mental illness, would it feel good to you for someone to describe something as crazy or psycho? If you were someone with epilepsy, would you be okay with being reduced to that condition as an “epileptic?”
Taking a moment to consider disability in its human context makes it much easier to understand why ableist micro-agressions can be so painful, even when they are unintentional. All of us, no matter who we are, want to be seen for who we are, and using precise, compassionate language is key to meeting that goal.
Supporting people with disabilities and breaking down ableism isn’t just about what we say, it is also about what we do and think. And, if anything, this can be harder to address than what language we use, because it’s often not as convenient to act like a proactive ally to people with health conditions. But the old adage really is true: actions speaks louder than words. So if you really want to support people with health conditions and disabilities in your daily life, here are some examples of things you can be doing.
• Don’t assume that everyone in the room is able-bodied — Disability can look all kinds of ways, and it doesn’t always appear the way that we have been taught to traditionally see it. The disability community includes people with chronic illnesses (both mental and physical) and a whole range of impairments that you are unable to see with the naked eye. When I sit in disabled seating on the subway, I often find myself thinking that other passengers must be wondering why a healthy-looking 22 year old is sitting in the areas reserved for people with disabilities. Most people with invisible disabilities struggle with feeling validated in the community. So please do what you can to support us.
• Support disability-accessible businesses, and make plans with accessibility in mind — The accessibility of a shop, venue, or restaurant literally determines who can come. That means that if you want to be less ableist, you should make a business’s accessibility in mind when choosing to give them your money, even if their lack of accessibility doesn’t otherwise effect you. And keep in mind, accessibility doesn’t just mean that there are wheelchair accessible entrances, although that is important. For example, if you were planning an event, it also means smaller, more subtle things like making sure that there is space for people to sit, that there are microphones to assist hearing-impaired people in attendance, and that there are plenty of breaks schedule for people who deal with fatigue or chronic pain. It is impossible to imagine every possible disability and plan for them, of course, but choosing to be mindful in even a few small ways of the way inaccessible businesses can shut disabled people out of an experience can reap big dividends.
• If you’re a manager, allow employees flexibility in where and how they work — More than 133 million Americans--over 40 percent–deal with chronic conditions. An additional 40 million are considerd diabled. That means, if you’re a manager, there’s a good chance someone who works for you is dealing with medical issues. Be their ally. For those people, it can be a lifesaver to be able to work from home sometimes in order to get to doctors’ appointments or just to give their bodies time to rest. Employees should have the flexibility to work how and when they can, as long as that doesn’t impact their work. Not only does working from home benefit the employee, but it also benefits the employer; employees that work from home have been shown to be more productive and more likely to stay with the company. Plus, telecommuting is more ecofriendly and more cost-effective.
• Don’t reduce disabled people into stereotypes — So many of the stories that we see about disabled people only focus on the sad parts or the inspirational parts of the disabled experience. Either people are held up as miserable people to feel sorry for (referred to in the chronic illness community as “tragedy porn”), or they are romanticized as saintly individuals struggling valiantly to go on (known similarly as “inspiration porn”). What our culture rarely views disability as is just another factor in the human experience, or disabled people as multifaceted human beings, just as hard to distill into a single quality as anyone else. What we need are representative narratives of disability, and the only way we’ll get those is by demanding them. So when you are selecting movies and books to watch, try to seek out narratives of disability that are multidimensional (this catolog complied by Vanderbilt’s Iris Center is a good place to start). And when possible, eek narratives created by disabled people; searching hashtags like #disabledartist or #disabledcreatives can help you find artists to follow (and support their work financially if you can)
Ableism isn’t going to disappear overnight, but if all of us commit to taking small actions to fully include people with disabilities—millions of Americans like me, who are your neighbor your coworkers and even your family members—we can begin to create more equity in this country.