Ableism refers to discrimination against people with disabilities, including denial of accessibility, rejection of disabled applicants for housing and jobs, institutionalised discrimination in the form of benefits systems designed to keep people with disabilities in poverty, etc. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the world ableism back to 1981, and explains it as ‘discrimination in favour of able-bodied people; prejudice against or disregard of the needs of disabled people.’ As with all forms of prejudice, ableism can be both blatant and insidious; individual and institutional. And it can also be internalised by those against whom it discriminates.
How far I identify as disabled varies on a daily basis. On some days, my chronic illness disables me; that is, at its hands, I am rendered unable to do certain tasks. Whether that means it is fair for me to lay claim to the term is unclear to me, though it sometimes encompasses my state.
Sometimes, I am able-bodied, and I used to be able-bodied all the time. That is why I am also sometimes an ableist, because of the legacy of ableist assumptions and judgments I took on before becoming ill. Let it be known that I do not want to deny my own agency in declaring I am sometimes an ableist; I really want to challenge my inherited prejudices head-on, and I invite others to challenge me further. What I mean is, a lot of the things I do and the judgments I made/still make, are rather ingrained, automatic, even, to my great shame, and have been left to fester and crust over for a really long time.
So in an attempt to stick a fork in that stale ableist morass, I took to Twitter to ask people with chronic illnesses and disabilities how they have personally internalised the ableism that surrounds them. Below is what we came up with together, and in doing so, we hope that it might shine a light on the prejudices that all of us hold:
1. You leave your stick at home when shopping with a friend
I do this. Many others do, apparently. I can get around without a stick, even though said stick makes balancing so much easier on days when I feel wobbly, and even though it really helps when I lose all feeling in my right foot.
In spite of these justifications, I leave my stick at home if I go out with someone. Consciously, I tell myself it’s because there’s someone there to help if I need them to. Subconsciously, I know it’s because there’s an element of shame to the stick. It’ll take the edge off the day. It makes me *look ill,* and though I know that my family and friends accept my illness and would never pass such a stark judgement, we don’t talk about it very much, and the stick is a sort of reminder of the part of me that isn’t what it used to be.
Stick shaming is a projection of my own. I don’t want to be seen to be exaggerating my illness – how mad is that? – and I want to protect my loved ones from the reality of what I’m experiencing, you know, just sort of pretend everything’s ok. Because sticks, it seems, are loaded items. They are a symbol that all is not well, that someone is dependent (NB, all my own stuff). But my stuff comes from somewhere: it comes from a society that sometimes judges a person by a stick, that worries about a loved one if they start using a stick, that asks why someone is using a stick today when they weren’t yesterday, that sometimes casts aspersions on whether someone even needs a stick.
Yes, walking sticks tell stories, but they do not speak for people. How many disabled or chronically ill people whose walking aids – whatever form they take – are abandoned in favour of making it easier on their loved ones, end up suffering themselves as a result?
2. You pour scorn on ready meals
I am passionate about protecting the environment. I believe that being so ought to be part and parcel of the human experience. When my health was fine, I used to castigate all things non-green, from straws to cars, shrink wrap to standby; there was no room for nuance or tolerance. That blanket-ban was certainly born out of able-bodied privilege, and I now have to find a way of marrying my concerns with an acknowledgement that I – and many others – sometimes need a helping hand when it comes to basic survival.
For me, that helping hand sometimes comes in the form of an excessively-packaged ready meal, and there is still a degree of guilt around that. Yes, I could think of more creative ways around using something that comes encased in a bubble of petroleum, yet they are often the most useful go-to if certain limbs and appendages stop functioning.
As a society, we need to gravitate towards intersections, and I believe this is already happening. The intersection between environmentalism and disability/chronic illness does not look the same as environmentalism as ableds conceive of it, and while we are all dutybound to care and do what we can, let us not assume that everyone is able to do the same.
Let us also refrain from making blanket assumptions about people who make use of the things we pour scorn on; you never know what is going on for that person.
3. You ask people what they do for a living
This phrase is lazy, unimaginative, normal, born out of our natural curiosity, annoying, enlightening, a vessel to relating, boring … it is many things, and we’ve probably all used it, or responded to it, at one point in our life.
This is a tricky one, and it’s certainly divided people on Twitter. For some people who are not able to work because of their mental health, chronic illness or disability, this phrase can serve as a clanging reminder of the degree to which how we relate to one another revolves around work. It presumes a follow-up conversation based on sterling mental health and physical ability.
On the other hand, we have to take account of the fact that many people that struggle with their mental health or are physically incapacitated, shatter ableism in the workforce by being employed, and by doing a good job. So it is wrong to assume this phrase is going to jar with everybody with a disability.
Perhaps what is needed is an injection of creativity when we meet new people. Do we need to know what someone does for work in order to find common ground or start a meaningful conversation? Is there something else we could ask? Ableism will filter into every conversation whether implicitly or explicitly, from banter to discussing Brexit; checking our assumptions and privileges, and being openminded when challenged, can help curb this.
4. You feel guilty about using a disabled toilet
Read also, disabled seats on buses, trains, etc. I can’t speak for everyone with an invisible illness, but when I do venture out sans stick, I am very wary of being called out if I occupy any of the above. Again, my stuff, but I assume people will think I’m inconsiderate or lazy, perhaps because that is a judgement I would once have made. I also feel bad if I am unable to give up my seat for an elderly person; the act, or rather, the non-act, requires a speedy assessment and comparison of need and – also – an answer ready if you are challenged. That’s a difficult one. It can be really hard to say to a full bus, ‘I am autistic,’ or ‘I have MS,’ and things get tougher still if you have ‘medically unexplained symptoms.’
As a species, let us be less quick to judge, and quicker to broaden our outlook. Yes, some people will scoot into a disabled loo because they can’t be arsed to queue, but why paste that stock person over everyone we witness doing the same?
What are your experiences of ableism? As someone who isn’t able-bodied, do you think you have internalised ableism? Let me know your thoughts below!
These are the random paths that chronic illness have led me down; expect silliness and deep reflection in equal measure. Impaired health can bring pain, despair, uncertainty and a bit of unexpected joy; seek solace here if you crave some light relief from campaigning/suffering.