10 Things You Need to Know About Ableism

Ableism is a term that many people have not heard before. Like all the other -isms (racism, sexism, etc.), it means discrimination – in this case, toward disability. Ableism assumes that being ‘abled’ is the standard, so being ‘disabled’ is inferior. Ableism, like all the other -isms, is complex and hard to understand. But it is rooted in oppression of disabled people. (And I use ‘identity-first language,’ since many self-advocates are starting to prefer that.) There are aspects of ableism that even seem nice! That’s why it can be deceiving, subtle, and perhaps ironic. So here are 10 general things you need to know about ableism:

  1. Pity: Many of our perceptions of disability are based on pity. Often the first reaction to hearing about a person’s disability is grief or regret, or even fear. We have been socialized to consider disability a misfortune or something unwanted. Often, when a baby is born, we hear, “He/she is perfect and has all his/her fingers and toes.” That is sort of an ableist statement because the value is on having a proportionate body. That thinking is extended to our minds, as well. If someone doesn’t fit the prescribed template of what is deemed an acceptable human being, then it is viewed as problematic. We don’t want your pity, though. Gillette Children’s Speciality Healthcare, a major provider of healthcare services to disabled children and adults, created a “Cure Pity” campaign that was aimed at tackling the real barrier: pity. Sure, disabilities can mean obstacles and struggles, but many of them are societal. We can focus on problem-solving and working toward solutions, rather than pitying the individual for being who they are – a full person. We can focus on the social model and address community barriers, instead of treating people as less human.
  2. Tragedy narrative: This is very related to pity. The tragedy narrative is a pervasive, negative story about disability that treats disability like it’s bad. How would you like to be told every day that what you are is tragic? These are messages that get internalized and create social barriers to independence. Instead of thinking of disability as a tragedy, we can reframe it as diversity. It is a normal part of life. Disabled people can and do live great lives! That may surprise some people. Living with disability, my reality is different from how it may look on the outside. Focus on the abilities of the person. And keep in mind that what we value is taught. We just have not been taught much about disability that is accurate. We will live better lives with better understanding. We may need to reject what we have been taught.
  3. Inspiration porn: This is a term that raises eyebrows, because, “porn.” Good. We need to call it what it is. And what is it? This is when disabled people are portrayed as inspirational things, or are objectified for ableist delight. Often in the media, a disabled person will be glorified for something ordinary, as though nobody expected anything from them. If people think you can’t do anything, then of course they will be impressed when you do something basic, like leaving the house. Yawn. How about applauding something actually meaningful, like accomplishing something significant, not just breathing. It is also media representations of people that cast disabled people as dependent on abled people. It’s not disability advocacy to perpetuate disability tragedy stereotypes like helpless, broken victims who need to be saved either physically or spiritually by a non-disabled person acting like a hero. Think about the juxtaposition between disabled and non-disabled people in these scenarios. Disabled people are not objects, props, or tokens to make you look good. We are not special angels or people born to teach us about love. We are every bit as human as anyone else. We deserve respect on our own terms. You don’t need to take us to prom or let us score the winning goal. We’re good. If you want to hold the door for someone, wait until you are asked. The hardest thing for people about this one is it seems so nice! But don’t be fooled. You don’t get to be the saint or hero at a disabled person’s expense. Be your own hero.
  4. Low expectations: Disabled people are underestimated constantly, and it is discrimination. Due to social programming, we don’t expect that someone who is disabled can do as much as a non-disabled person. I call ableism! If someone is physically disabled, assumptions are made about their cognitive abilities. So even if you are a little wobbly, people will also figure that you are mentally incompetent. Not that it’s a bad thing. We don’t understand our own humanity very well. Psychology is still a very new science, and it wasn’t long ago that we held all sorts of ridiculous notions about science. It’s no wonder that we don’t get it yet. IQ tests, for example, are way overrated. IQ does not equal intelligence. It’s one type of test that measures limited information. It’s like using a teaspoon to measure everything in the world. There are many cultural differences, learning styles, and types of intelligence. It is impossible to measure them all in a quantified way. Get to know people. We’re all talented and you can learn from everyone. Disability doesn’t mean inability.
  5. Compensation: This is related to everything on this list. When we feel sorry for someone, we may be inclined to compensate for what we think they are lacking. It may look like bending the rules, coddling, and making excuses. Basically, it looks a lot like enabling because we don’t want to add more burden to what we already feel is a burdened life. Hold up! Being disabled doesn’t mean that you live such a bad life that everyone around you should try to compensate for it. We don’t want freebies and passes because people feel sorry for us. We want equality and access. Everyone is working toward greater self-sufficiency, on their own terms. This means support and appropriate challenges that fit the individual, which should also be ‘self-directed’ or promoted by the person – at times perhaps with support or facilitation. Compensation is like telling people what to do – it takes away their personal power.
  6. Minimization: This is also related to everything on this list. Where to start, there is so much of this. Minimization is when we try to make something small. It goes hand-in-hand with invalidation (rejected, ignored, judged). A statement representing minimization and invalidation could be: “A lot of people have it worse than you.” That type of a statement is essentially saying that your problem is small and you are wrong to feel that way. That does not help the person at all – it’s demeaning. Perhaps the intent is to try to make the person feel grateful, but it says to the person that their disability experience is their fault. Some disabilities are mental illnesses, and that is the worst thing you could say to someone who is depressed, for example. It treats the disability as though it is something you can wish away, when it is a medical, physical condition – including those that are psychological. Have you ever analyzed a brain scan, like an fMRI? OK, then sit down. If you are not a medical doctor or clinical psychologist, specific to that individual, you are not qualified to tell someone what to think or do about their physical condition. Listen and learn, and don’t instruct. You’re out of your league.
  7. Tokenism: People are not things. That is all. Don’t treat someone like their disability is all they are.
  8. Over-helping: Compensation is related to over-helping because people sometimes feel like they need to do more for someone to make up for what they think they can’t do or would have a hard time doing. Don’t just tie someone’s shoes because you think it will take forever and you feel bad for them. Stand by if you are needed, but don’t act like a parent and start doing things for people that they didn’t ask you to do. How annoying! So what if it takes someone longer than you to do what they need to do. They are on their timeline, not yours. Chill.
  9. Poster child syndrome: Back in the day, the Muscular Dystrophy Association did telethons that exploited children with muscular dystrophy for the purpose of fundraising. Barf. They didn’t know better, but they just shouldn’t have. Jerry Lewis, you were better than that. It isn’t fair to make someone into a poster child for their disability type(s). It labels someone as just their disability when that is only part of who they are. It would be like referring to you as only your height or weight. It takes a whole, complex person and shrinks them down to a living stereotype. Please don’t.
  10. Lack of accommodations: The largest issue is the lack of accommodation – not the disability itself. A person with limited mobility who may use a wheelchair is held back by the lack of physical access, for example. Every one of us needs different types of community supports, whether or not we are aware of what they are. We just haven’t typically expanded support to accommodate disability. We change buildings now, like doorways and ramps. But not all disabilities are physical and some of the newest changes have been in technology and content development. Society has typically served a very narrow segment of the population and that is part of the reason that society is comfortable only with a subset of certain diversity spectrums. We can open our minds to consider much more variety of human experience. Then maybe we won’t feel so bad when someone else’s life is different from ours. Universal design is the future, so that we are being inclusive of disability on the front end, and not adding accessibility features as an afterthought. Who wants to be an afterthought? I thought so.

Pop quiz: what is ableism? Hopefully you will remember at least part of this list. And remember, listening, even with conflicting messages from various perspectives, is key to increasing disability understanding. Also, disabilities are all over the map from physical, cognitive, intellectual, developmental, and neuropsychological. You don’t have to be an expert, but you can show you want to make an effort to learn. Thanks for reading and making an effort! 🙂


Being In Bloom – Musings…

Being In Bloom

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Compassion

Chapter 2: Courage

Chapter 3: Contemplation

Chapter 4: Grace

Chapter 5: Love

Chapter 6: Legacy

Chapter 1: Compassion

Empathy is not only right and good, but strategic for our own preservation.

Thank you to all the good people in the world. You’re the only reason that many of us feel safe to open up. And that is a gift.

A lack of compassion is the root of all evil.

If someone can see the person in you that they love no matter what is happening in terms of circumstances or the external, that is truly powerful, wise, and authentic.

It takes courage for your friends to stand by you at times. I understand when they can’t. It’s beautiful when they can.

I love people who care, have heart, and stand up for principles, no matter the risk or consequence. You are the ones who change the world. Thank you!

Women sometimes like the idea of powerful women when it is they who are on top, but are not necessarily ready for the idea of other women succeeding and being powerful in their own unique way. Let’s celebrate many brands of what it means to be powerful. If we are sincere women leaders, we can.

If you’re exposed to enough people, you don’t see anyone as different.

I know what a sincere heart looks like.

We can remember and acknowledge people that we appreciate for who they are and what they do, and for putting their heart into making the world a better place.

I’m not less because of how I think, feel or express myself, or because of what I have been through. I’m a survivor and I’m proud of it.

The world has changed, thanks to loving, courageous people who created safe spaces to share, express, and be, as ourselves.

A friend is someone you don’t have to hide yourself from, but who makes it safe and good to emerge as you are into a loving space.

As I was driving through the night, I stopped at one of many gas stations. I explained that I was going to try to make it back and hoped I would be able to stay awake long enough to do so. A man working at a gas station said that might not be a good idea and he didn’t want to see me get into a wreck, so he offered me a safe place to park my car and take a nap, wake up call, and a cup of coffee. After camping out for an hour and a half, I felt ready to get back on the road, and I wanted to avoid rush-hour traffic because I knew that would make me even more anxious than nighttime driving. This man is one of those ordinary heroes that nobody knows about and probably would never consider himself one.

Chapter 2: Courage

Ode to my parents: 
We took a vote in the family. Instead of building a house in the desert, we were moving to Minnesota. It would be bittersweet leaving Arizona. My earliest memories emerged there. The world that I first saw. What I first opened my eyes to. My mother gave birth to me in Minneapolis, but my parents decided to move to Phoenix when I was a baby because they had so enjoyed their honeymoon there. What a romantic beginning for a family. A young couple in love with their new baby girl.
It was magical. My mom and dad doted on me. I was very loved and felt special. They delighted in the things that I did, and treated me like they had not only wanted me, but were even happier now that I was there. They cuddled with me, read books to me, sang with me, and took me everywhere. They were so proud.

“Bridgie, show grandma how you can say the alphabet!”

“Bridgie, walk silly!”

“Bridgie, tell us again about the dream you had!”

They were very sweet. Every child should enter the world to such a grand welcome. I’m not sure where they learned how to be so amazing, but they made life so good that I would go back and relive it.

Thank you, Mom and Dad! I love you!

I’m so tired of women feeling like they have to be skinny and pretty. How about powerful? Smart? Accomplished? Bad-ass? It is so sexist that we are expected to look a certain way and be the ones to give up everything. So glad we have some role models that aren’t fake beauty babes in the mags!

A girl who isn’t afraid of science, being smart, and expressing her opinion on something controversial – that’s what’s hip!

Sending love to all the sad people who need it most. The mean and angry ones also because deep down, they are hurting. Much of our negativity is rooted in pain and comforted by love and compassion.

I was once a young single mom with a sick baby, living in subsidized housing, walking to work, and getting a holiday meal from the food shelf. Now, I’m working to help people like me. That’s the beauty of America. Help your neighbor, pay it forward, be American.

Chapter 3: Contemplation

Being poor is not immoral, but shaming the poor is! A society that kicks people when they’re down, instead of trying to understand how to solve systemic problems that contribute poverty in the first place, needs to engage in some deep, long overdue self-examination.

My daughter received a letter in the mail from her good friend who moved away. This morning, she had a letter of her own to send in return. When we got outside to the car, which takes a while with a walker and partial paralysis, I asked if she wanted to put it in the mailbox, or if she would like me to. At this point, she was holding onto the door handle with her walker off to the side, getting ready to get in the car. She smiled at me, gestured to leave the walker behind, stood tall, and said, “Just hold onto my arm, mom.” So I gave her my arm and she proudly started off, each step increasingly confident. We were surprised by her agility. Sometimes she needs a lot of support, and each step can be an achievement. But this morning, why, she delivered that letter herself, putting the flag up, and going back to the car. What could have been a very ordinary exercise was instead a delightful one. What could have been a moment to wish things were easier became a proud one. That set the tone for our day – a little trip to the mailbox. I hope you have a nice moment to set the course of your day, too. Or redirect it.

Chapter 4: Love

Love is all around us.

My Grandma doesn’t know me anymore, but we shared such intimate moments today. We sang together – “Jesus Loves Me” – just like when I was a girl. After a couple verses, I got too choked up to continue, so I just watched her beautiful face carry on. She sang for the next hour, wherever she went, her eyes so bright, her smile so joyful. It was breathtaking. And when I left her to her dinner, after she settled in for a few minutes, I kissed her and said I love her. She sweetly, almost still singing, and without hesitation, said “I love you” back to me. And as I walked away, she called, “I love you!” Our seniors are such treasures. We need to spend more time with them before they leave us. Their time is short, and precious.

I still get to snuggle with my daughter like I did when she was brand new. I told her at bedtime that I love her always and that she is forever my baby. I cherished the moment, knowing she will one day grow up…but, not today, not just yet. I know I will run out of time to have such moments, but they will be gifts in my heart, and there will be more, different moments waiting ahead. I hope she’s having sweet dreams, knowing how special she is to me. I will sleep happy, knowing she’s happy.

There is nothing quite like a sunset at my parents’ home in the country, and a dinner with the family. Cozy and warm inside a house filled with the aromas of spices released from cooking, the chatter of our clan, the babbling and crying of babies, and the ambiance of good energy and happiness.

Chapter 5: Grace

Tonight, after work, I waited for a long time at the store behind a woman who was buying a lot of toys. I figured she was gift shopping, so I amused myself with looking at tabloid magazine covers and items I wasn’t the least bit interested in. When she had finished her purchase, she proceeded to put every single toy into the toy drive box on the counter, leaving only a gallon of milk on the counter to take with her. It was none of my business, but I was so delighted by her generosity that I blurted, “Wow, you’re donating all of that to the toy drive? You’re a sweetheart!” She responded with a modest answer about how it was no big deal and that she had saved money on her total bill, and then left with her gallon of milk. Right under our noses, people do so much good – like it’s completely ordinary.

Freshly-fallen, very fluffy snow. I love how it hangs on the branches of the trees.

We need to do a better job of loving each other in this world. Less hate, more love. That is all.

Take care of each other.

Our hearts are wells of both sadness and joy, which would not exist without each other.

When I was a teen single mom with a medically-fragile baby, I told myself that I would use my experiences to help others, and that kept my spirits up. This year, I went further into politics to make a bigger difference, fully mindful of where I’ve come from. I am doing what I promised myself I would do. It’s happening right now.

My daughter told me this morning that she likes her limp because it’s like a dance that tells part of her story.

Chapter 6: Legacy

I am being tested in every which way right now. Yet, I feel like a graceful tree dancing with the hurricane winds. Seems that every adversity until now has taught me well. I can remain whole, I can breathe, and I can smile. I am not afraid, weak, or retreating. I am only dancing.

Hold your head high.

Love yourself.

You are original art.

I was at a park in Minneapolis today when a preschool class swarmed the playground. I noticed a darling little girl at the bottom of a slide. While thinking to myself how cute she was and wondering her age, I noticed that she had a physical disability affecting her legs. She was totally inconspicuous because nobody treated her like she was ‘disabled.’ When the class was rounded up, she fell in line – just like everyone else. These preschool teachers ‘get it’ and may not fully realize the level of inclusion they are practicing. Fabulous moment.

When one dream dies, breathe life into a new one.

My life is rich because of the people I’ve met and the people I’m lucky to know.

And when all is said and done, the trail we leave behind us shines brightest where we sprinkled kindness.