Defining Ableism

Defining Ableism

Note: This is U.S.-centric

***

Sometimes it feels hard to define ableism when it is all around us and everywhere and so much more than language. Language contributes to, and perpetuates, ableism. Ableist acts can include language.

But I keep thinking of the time in Fall 2013 when I started having seizures from a medication interaction. The seizures were atypical. No one knew what they were, least of all me, too out of it to tell that something was actually terribly wrong.

What I most vividly recall is not even the night I had my worst episode, but the day after, when my friend and I talked about it and she’d been terrified to call 911 because of the way I was presenting. Because I was slurring incoherently like I was having some sort of non-neurological or physically based episode, and she knew what happens to people in the psychiatric systems if they go wrong. She knew the way I was presenting would land me in the psych ward.

More drastically, I think of the man who ended up in the mental health system during a crisis, and the state of Maine put his cat down and sold his home.

When we have to be so afraid of our psychiatric system…? That’s the result of ableism.

Sometimes I think about all the dead and murdered people too, like Dustin Hicks, a recent one close to home. My chapter just had to write a statement on it. The news outlets declined to even reply to my encouragement to publish all or part of the statement. One news report discussed his mother and reasons why she might want to kill him. None mentioned that he deserved to live, or that his death was a tragedy. We know almost nothing about him.

When we have to issue statements over and over again urging people to report responsibly and call our deaths, not our lives, tragedies? That’s the result of ableism.

I think of all the various intersections we have between other identities, too. We are not a monolith. I think of the many, many people of color with disabilities who face racism and ableism, sometimes with deadly or injurious consequences. I think of the #FreeNeli campaign, and how long it took many of us white folks to start tweeting on it after the initial call for tweets. I think of Neli himself, unjustly incarcerated for being black and autistic, in isolation. The governor finally did issue a conditional pardon.

I think of Kayleb Moon-Robinson, one of the many students of color and students with disabilities disproportionately referred to law enforcement. An eleven-year-old charged with a felony. The school to prison pipeline is real…

I think of those of us who hold many identify facets, like being LGBTQ+, a person of color, a religious minority, as well as being disabled.

When we have those intersections meet in a dangerous way, amplified by multiple marginalized identities, the ableism and other -isms and -phobias become intertwined, and not the result of purely ableism. These intersections matter.

I think of how someone got kicked out of their house by their roommates for being autistic.


I think of history, too. I think of the sordid history of locking people with psychiatric disabilities, intellectual disabilities, and developmental disabilities in institutions…

I think of the nasty history of eugenics. (The .pdf is American and German history of eugenics only, as I lack a college library to find the other physical sources. Also, there’s a typo at one point where I meant to say “Indiana passed the first sterilization law in 1907.”). How it affected so many with disabilities (and other intersections).

I think of how nowhere was physically accessible, how Ed Roberts couldn’t go to school unless he lived in the infirmary.

I think of activists crawling up the Capitol steps to protest and demand the ADA’s passage. Don’t let the black and white photographs in the coverage of the Capitol Crawl let you think that this was long-gone history. We only just hit 25 years of the ADA.

I think of the long, long history ableism has. Ableism is not new.

***

Could I go on? Yes.

I fear being too depressing. I fear a lot of things. Mostly, I am sometimes frightened of the world.

We could stand to be gentler of people still learning the new words that change so much. Ableism is far more than a list of words and we need all the good hearts we can find. Clumsy language on the part of someone who is trying (and who may have communications-based disabilities!) is something to be less concerned about than the dead and wounded around us. Clumsy language on the part of someone who is trying should, perhaps, receive calling in, not calling out.

Ableism seems insurmountable, and there will never be a great sweeping moment where we crush it entirely. But I think we’re making a dent. We’ve come 25 years since the ADA. Seattle has some crappy curbs that Disability Rights Washington is taking them to task for. Ableism still goes on and on. But we’re making a dent. The largest non-profit in the nation dedicated to eradicating autism had its donations drop. Their president is resigning, though this may have been a planned move. We are producing documentaries of our pain and sorrow, of our challenges and stories, of our hopes and dreams.


We have people among us becoming lawyers and professionals and influencing that way. We have others in grassroots advocacy and policy advocacy. We have those whose advocacy is for themselves only, fighting to survive and be heard and respected (and that’s okay). We want our brethren to survive. 
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