Guest Post: Negotiating Disableism

This is a guest from from Renee of Womanist Musings.

Disableism is very new to me. My chronic illnesses not only changed my status, but forced me to see just how pervasive ableism is. It has been a huge learning process, as I have sought to reduce the ways in which my language and behaviour support ableism. I have a physical disability which has caused me to more aware of the ways in which society is structured to benefit those that are able bodied, but it has not helped me to understand the ways in which those that are neurologically atypical face discrimination. Common phrases that I used to utter like bat shit crazy, must be erased from my vocabulary. I have struggled not to say that someone is blind to something, rather that pointing out that they are unable to see or understand.

What I have learned is that ridding oneself of disableism, is a process that is not easy but so very necessary. Each time I am reduced by the assumption of another, it causes me to examine the ways in which my language or behaviour support this. It took time to understand that though I am disabled, I still exist with privilege in certain areas. I can hear, I can see, I can get up and walk if I have to, I have all of my limbs, and people do not dismiss what I am saying because they deem me non-sensical due to being neurologically atypical. As long as they are not referring to my specific disability, many are quite comfortable displaying their disabliesm, as though it does not effect me.

I have sat and listened to the complaints regarding the accommodations that those who are disabled must have to participate in society. While most will not scream and carry on about a ramp, even a small thing, like getting more time to hand in a paper at school, is enough to cause a rant about favouritism and unfair standards. Disableism occurs when people feel as though they cannot take advantage of their able bodied privileges. It occurs when people resist that a task can be completed differently to allow a greater participation.

This weekend, on the way to Destructions hockey game, I ran into an old friend. She had not seen me since I contracted my illnesses but her first comment was that she had to get herself a scooter. To her it seemed a cool toy, while to me it is a reflection of all the things I cannot do. There is a man in my neighbourhood who uses a manual wheelchair and he has commented on more than one occasion, that he wished he had a motorized scooter to get around in. Though I am hurt by the ableist comments of a former friend, my class privilege is part of what allowed that pain. When I needed a scooter to facilitate my activities, we were able to afford one.

Though I am differently abled, I am barely at the 101 level. I went through anger, denial and finally acceptance but negotiating this life is something I must begin again like a newborn babe. I have isolated myself because I viewed my body as the great betrayer, refusing to see the ways in which I could and can still participate. When someone is racist against me, it is easy to find my voice because this is something that I have lived with all of my life, whereas; disableism, even when clearly directed at me, brings about silence and sense of shame. For now I count on the unhusband to speak when I cannot and this again is a marker of how blessed I really am. Even in times of weakness and sorrow, I can count on my family to do the heavy lifting. When I need comfort, each one of them is quick to run to my aid. They may not understand what I am feeling but my pain is enough for them to intervene or try to comfort.

I have learned that disableism cannot be reduced to a simple Black/White binary. Even as I struggle against it, I perpetuate it. Just as we understand that society is inherently racist, classist, or sexist, it is also highly ableist. If this were not an absolute truth, the various barriers that block or limit participation would not exist. My task is to now unlearn that which I have accepted as truth. For me it becomes difficult when I begin to look beyond the limited experiences I have had as a differently abled person. There are issues of race, class, gender and even differing abilities to contend with. This task would not be so difficult today, had I made a conscious decision to acknowledge my various privileges in the past. I allowed my privilege to dictate what I learned and studied, thereby reinforcing the very hierarchies that I claimed to struggle against. Today I understand is that there is no universal experience and it is this very rainbow of difference that I must commit myself to embracing.

11 Comments

  1. im just happy there’s one more person on the planet attempting to navigate this shit.

  2. Fantastic post, Renee. Thank you for putting into words some of what so many of us are struggling to say!
    .-= annaham´s last blog ..IIB v 1.0 =-.

  3. What a great post, Renee. It can be so difficult to come into a new identity and perceive all the little things you just didn’t get before. ‘This task would not be so difficult today, had I made a conscious decision to acknowledge my various privileges in the past.’ So true.

  4. Great post.
    .-= sanabituranima´s last blog ..A murderer and a thief =-.

  5. Hi, Renee! Nice to see you writing here!

    To her it seemed a cool toy, while to me it is a reflection of all the things I cannot do.

    Thank you so much for writing this–I definitely needed to hear it. My disability has always been a part of me, and it’s easy for me to forget that other PWD experience their disabilities differently.

    I would’ve thought of your scooter as a cool/beautiful/awesome piece of technology or vehicle. (I think I said as much to you when you wrote about getting one–I’m sorry). Since I have always been disabled, assistive technology for me is about helping people do more things. Thanks for reminding me that it can be a painful reminder of stuff someone used to be able to do.

    I have a physical disability which has caused me to more aware of the ways in which society is structured to benefit those that are able bodied, but it has not helped me to understand the ways in which those that are neurologically atypical face discrimination.

    I definitely relate to this–although in my case it’s sort of reversed. I’m neurologically atypical, and I know more about some kinds of neuroatypicality than others. (The only one I’m an “expert” on is mine–not my diagnosis, just my brain!–and I still learn new things about it all the time). I don’t know much about chronic pain conditions–I’ve learned everything from cool people who’ve written about their experiences, yourself included.

    My favorite thing about the disabiity community is how diverse everyone in it is–it’s wonderful and overwhelming at the same time. (Or maybe overwhelmingly wonderful? :D). The feeling that you have “101-level” knowledge will fade with time, I think…at least, in the way I think you mean. For me, disability advocacy is definitely a case of “the more you learn, the less you realize you know.”
    .-= Tera´s last blog ..*Squeak!* It’s open thread time! =-.

  6. Thank you so much for this thoughtful post.

     begin quote  I have isolated myself because I viewed my body as the great betrayer, refusing to see the ways in which I could and can still participate.  quote ends 

    That isolation is not all your doing—or choice! Our disablist society encourages isolation, whether at home or in institution or separate classrooms. Out of sight, out of mind.
    .-= Jesse the K´s last blog ..Meta about Meta for the Wheeee! =-.

  7. Yes, wow, yes. I think more discussion on the differences between being born with a disability vs. acquiring one along the way could be very interesting and helpful. I’ve found very often that people from one group feel very differently than people from the other group about things in the disability movement. This is all just generally speaking, obviously, as neither group are a monolith (and in fact many people have both experiences!), but there ARE certain things that tend to be different in perceptions and experiences between the two, ime.
    .-= Rosemary´s last blog ..More peeks inside my head right now =-.

  8. Thanks so much for the responses everyone. I was very nervous about cross posting here because of my limited knowledge and the great work of the bloggers here.
    .-= Renee´s last blog ..Don’t Start None, Won’t Be None: Trans Woman Strikes Back =-.

  9. Thank you, Renee for guest posting here! I love this post.

    There are issues of race, class, gender and even differing abilities to contend with. This task would not be so difficult today, had I made a conscious decision to acknowledge my various privileges in the past. I allowed my privilege to dictate what I learned and studied, thereby reinforcing the very hierarchies that I claimed to struggle against.

    This. So much this. On some level, as we navigate womanist/feminist issues and theory, we make decision on what it is we look at. We choose what learn. We choose what become educated in. More of us should take it upon ourselves to learn about things outside of our own privileged windows before a baseball smashes through them and forces something into our laps.

    Thank you again.

  10. Great post, Renee. It’s good to see you guest post here. This really speaks to the complexities of challenging internalized ableism which I’ve experienced, and observed in others.

    I guess, being disabled via neuro-atypicality and not being physically disabled, I still have a lot to learn about ableism directed at PWD who have physical disabilities. I’ve wondered in the past whether the sort of attitude your acquaintance had is not anti-ableist in a way–seeing wheelchairs not as a terrible thing, but a useful tool. But I can definitely see how non-wheelchair users treating wheelchairs as some kind of cool toy rather than necessary assistive technology is just flaunting privilege. The privilege associated with being a non-wheelchair user is certainly significant. Displaying TAB privilege can come in a number of forms, and I’m only just beginning to become aware of all of them.
    .-= Sarah´s last blog ..The Power of Self-Identification =-.

  11. OMG, Renee, that was… I don’t have the words. I’m just mentally jumping up and down because a. someone else who became disabled! I’m not alone! (Those who have had impairments from birth still have valuable things that I need to absorb, but there is a difference between that and suddenly “Oh whoops, my body doesn’t work right anymore!”) b. examining privilege and the 101-ness of it all… SO much ME TOO.

    Thank you.