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! 🙂


Rabbit Tails from the Meadow

Rabbit Tails from the Meadow

Meet the Rabbits from the Meadow

Once upon a time, there were five rabbit friends who all lived happily in a beautiful meadow with flowers, butterflies, and other creatures. They grew up together since they were born and played together each day. Their names were Clover, Midnight, Winter, Kota, and Sergio.

Clover had long, fluffy white fur, floppy ears, and hopped with a limp. She sometimes needed help climbing over big rocks and got tired faster than the other rabbits. The others never minded, and she helped them with other things. She especially loved to eat radishes. When she found a nice one to munch on, she enjoyed it one nibble at a time. She had a sister who looked like her who also liked radishes. So if one of them found a radish, they would share it.

Midnight had black, silky fur that glistened in the moonlight. He liked being up late at night under the stars. The daylight was too bright for his eyes and he felt more relaxed when the sun started to go down. He liked eating soft mushrooms best and liked to spend a lot of his time alone in his special spot. He didn’t like many changes and was happiest when everything stayed the same. He had a brother who was similar to him, but had brown fur. They liked to push small rocks into shapes by working side by side. Midnight was smart about astronomy and liked to show the others the patterns in the sky at night.

Winter had gray, flowing fur, and was missing one ear. She couldn’t hear out of the one ear that she had, so she showed what she wanted to say with her body. And she watched the others to understand what they were saying. They moved more expressively because she couldn’t hear their sounds. That way, she was included in the group when there was any communication. Winter was more outgoing than the others and a natural leader. When she had an idea, they usually listened to her.

Kota had black and white short fur and big, black eyes. She was the sensitive one and was the first one to take care of the others if they were sad or hurt. She was kind and gentle, and looked after the group. She sometimes went into her secret place when she was overwhelmed. There were times when she was gone a long time and hardly ate. She stayed quietly in her secret place until she was ready to come back out. The others knew when she needed space and put flowers nearby to show her they cared. She took them back to her secret place to remind herself that they were with her, and it helped her to come back out sooner.

Sergio had brown, fluffy fur that bounced when he hopped. He was smart like the others, but didn’t learn some things as fast as they did. So when they were trying something new, the others explained it to Sergio in different ways, so he would understand. He had a lot of enthusiasm and loved learning, and tried very hard to keep up. But nobody was sorry that he couldn’t learn some things and that he went about life his own way. He could teach the others about what he saw, like how the birds made a nest in the spring and where they found the materials. He was very observant and noticed things that others missed.

The Birthday Party

It was Kota’s birthday the next day, and her friends wanted to make sure that it was a good day. She is the youngest of all the friends, so they loved taking care of her. Clover called Midnight, Winter, and Sergio over to where she was sitting under an apple tree.

“It’s only one day until Kota’s birthday,” Clover said. “I think we should plan a party.”

Winter started hopping around the group of friends, demonstrating making a birthday cake. And with a dramatic conclusion and a smile, she added five imaginary birthday candles to the top.

Sergio jumped up and down, excitedly, his brown, fluffy fur dancing with him. “We all should add our own decorations to the cake! I want to put an apple from this tree right in the middle. And we should invite the birds, too; they can sing a song for Kota.”

Midnight listened to his rabbit friends, and had an idea. “We could dress up with necklaces of our favorite flowers, and give a bouquet of flowers to Kota.”

Clover thanked the rabbits, “You all are wonderful friends to Kota, and this party will make her very happy at a time when she needs to feel better. So let’s start making the cake this afternoon.”

So all the rabbits started making the cake. Midnight had the best idea for how to construct the cake. So they wove a basket together to hold the cake, then added layers of delicious nuts and fruits that they found across the meadow. Clover found fruits and nuts close to the basket because it’s hard for her to hop very far. And the others found fruits and nuts that were farther away. Sergio put a bright red apple on the top and Winter added five cattails in a circle around it. Clover added a plum and Midnight added a peach.

Clover sat down to rest after the cake was made and the other rabbits hopped over to her and sat down next to her.

“Kota is going to love it!” Winter said with movements. The others nodded their heads in agreement. Midnight didn’t usually say anything with sounds either, even though he could. He had his own way of communicating his thoughts to the others. And they learned how to understand him.

Then they all went to their dens to sleep well for their big surprise the next day. And on their way, they dropped flowers near Kota’s secret place.

Kota had not noticed that the others had been busy all day because she was in her secret place. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, she needed to be in her secret place. Sometimes she was sad and wanted to be alone. Late in the night, because she couldn’t sleep, she went out to look at the stars. She was not far from her secret place when she smelled flowers. In the starlight, she saw purple, blue, and red flowers strewn across the grass, as if smiling at her. The love of her friends made her feel warm in her heart. She decided that she would come out in the morning and have breakfast with Sergio, Winter, Midnight, and Clover.

In the morning, very early, Sergio, Winter, Midnight, and Clover gathered flowers to wear as necklaces to the party. And they made a beautiful flower necklace and bouquet for Kota. Midnight showed everyone how to make it, and Sergio found the best flowers to use. Winter did a dance for the birds to show them that there was a party for Kota that afternoon and to ask them to sing for her. The birds all started chirping and flitting about at once. They were so excited that it was Kota’s birthday and loved to celebrate.

At breakfast time, everyone acted like it was a normal day. Clover made everything pretty. Midnight put out the bowls. Sergio brought water. And Winter carried a basket of hay. They all wondered if Kota would come to breakfast. Quietly, they had their hay and water. If Kota felt peaceful, she may join them. If it was too loud or busy, she would want to stay in her secret place longer.

Soon, Kota came slowly toward the others and sat down for breakfast. She had the flowers they had left near her secret place and put them in the middle of the circle. Then she went to each rabbit and gave a hug – except Midnight, who doesn’t like hugs, so she held up a flower and thanked him.

After breakfast, they played in the meadow with the butterflies. There were white, orange, and pink ones – big and small, with different patterns. They danced and ran until they were tired and needed to rest. Clover stretched out under a raspberry bush. Midnight nestled into long, soft grass. Sergio curled up between long, red tulips. Winter lay in the curve of the base of the trunk of an oak tree. And Kota curled around the stem of a tall sunflower.

They awoke when they heard birds singing. The blue birds sang their song, then the swallows, finches, robins, warblers, and lastly, the chickadees. The rabbit friends began to stir and stretch. The birds flew down as if to greet them and came together as one flock that started to move toward the gathering place of the meadow. So the rabbit friends followed them.

When they arrived, there were the cake, flower necklaces, and bouquet for Kota. Before Kota could say anything, her friends sang Happy Birthday to her, “Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday, dear Kota, Happy Birthday to you. You are now five years old, you are now five years old, you are now five years old, Happy Birthday to you!”

Kota’s eyes filled with happy tears that rolled down her black and white fur, and splashed onto the ground. This was one of the best moments of her life. She could not imagine feeling more loved than this. She had the best friends she could imagine and they remembered her birthday. She blew at the cattails and they burst open with white fluff that floated through the air like magic.

The rabbit friends feasted on the cake together and told stories about their friendships with each other into the evening, forgetting about dinner or chores. And when the sun set, they went to the middle of the meadow and watched it cast radiant colors across the sky. There were never happier rabbits in all the meadows of the land.