First of all, thanks to Sue Grafton, whose alphabet-themed mystery novels inspired the title of this post. My theory is that you could probably come up with a different disability-related word for every letter of the alphabet. I’m not going to try to do that, but I may come up with other “letter posts” as the year goes on. Now, on to the topic.
Ableism is a popular word these days. Now, if you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you know I am not a proponent of political correctness. If anyone ever told me, in all seriousness, that Southerners should all be called “Appalachian Americans,” I’d fall down laughing. (I’m from the South, by the way, and that’s one of our particular jokes). I believe all December holidays deserve recognition and respect, but you can still say Merry Christmas, or not, if and when you want. If your sitcom character with a disability happens to use a wheelchair, I’m not going to jump on you. That’s why I’m very careful about calling something ableist or even using the word. The more we police ourselves and each other, the more miserable we’ll be.
But what happens when words and actions cross into true discrimination? You’ve probably seen this–black people being called the N word or using it on each other. Well-meaning fathers telling their sons not to “act gay.” Somebody making a remark about “getting gypped” or “getting Jewed” at a store. (My living grandmother once did this last one right in front of me, and had we been alone I’d have given her a piece of my mind. Amazing what family gatherings will do for your restraint).
How do you know when words or actions are truly ableist? What are some common instances of ableism? Moreover, what do we do about it? Can we stop it?
Example 1: College friends are discussing a class assignment. One student calls it “dumb.”
Is this ableist: In my opinion, no. There are definitely ableism-driven words out there, and we’ll get to those in a minute. However, our culture has evolved in such a way that “dumb” no longer means “unable to speak”; in fact, it’s offensive if used that way. “Dumb” now means “stupid,” “not enjoyable,” and several other things. It’s not polite to call people dumb, and it damages self-esteem if done too much, but it’s not classically ableist.
This said, words like the R word are definitely ableist. The argument is that “it’s just a word,” but words like that are describing whole groups as undesirable, just like the N word does, or like it does to call LGBT people “deviant.” Don’t do it.
Example 2: A teenage girl is having a particularly bad episode of PMS. Her parents say, “Stop acting crazy.”
Is this ableist: Depends. The majority of the mental health community sees this as an ableist word and I am inclined to agree. Why? “Crazy” is used in such a way that it denotes, “This person is of lesser value. This person does not understand reality and cannot participate in it.” This is particularly true if that teenage girl is experiencing/expressing real anger, sadness, or other emotions that others simply don’t understand.
Of course, we all use “crazy” now and then. You might use it when watching a YouTube video showing a man dancing naked through a patch of cacti. You might use it affectionately, as in, “My husband is a funny, crazy guy who brightens my day.” I’m not going to say, “never say this word”–to me, it’s kind of like the Appalachian American thing. That said, be careful when you use it, and never say directly to a person, “You are/are acting crazy.”
Example 3: A restaurant owner or manager comes up to a family dining out with a child or other relative who has autism. Because the person is behaving in a certain way, the family is asked to leave.
Is this ableist: Yes. A PWD should never be barred from or kicked out of any establishment because of the disability, and neither should loved ones. It’s the equivalent of saying, “This is not a colored restaurant.”
Example 4: The owner of a small store has aisles that are too narrow for wheelchairs or strollers in certain parts of the store. Customers with disabilities are encouraged or outright told not to use those areas.
Ableist: Yes. Intentional? No, maybe not. This is why ableism is tricky; a lot of people don’t mean to do it. Then again, a lot of people don’t mean to positively discriminate against Asians by saying they’re all great at math, either. By law, if your place of business is going to be accessible, the whole place must be. You also cannot effectively tell someone, “Stay out of this section.” If you don’t know how to make a business or house accessible, you need to do some research.
Example 5: A hired matchmaker suggests to a client with a disability that he or she “try dating disabled individuals first” or only makes matches with other PWDs.
Ableist: Yes, and it happened in real life. This statement assumes that PWDs are not equal relationship partners, can only relate to TAB people as caregivers, and are better off with “their own kind.” It’s the same thing that happens when a teacher suggests a student be in a self-contained classroom or receive services that are not necessary because he o she has a disability.
Example 6: A school theater director who regularly modifies productions to reflect racial differences, sexual orientation, and national origin only gives bit parts to cast members with disabilities.
Ableist: In most cases, yes. The key is, the director is picking and choosing what to modify, which is unfair to a whole population. However, the arts are tricky. There are three cases in which this would not be ableism:
1. The actor is really only experienced enough for small roles.
2. The entire point/integrity of a role or production is changed if it is modified for disability (i.e., if your lead character will be performing gymnastics tricks onstage, and you can’t get rid of those scenes because the production revolves around them). This goes for modifying for race, orientation, or other differences too, by the way.
3. Disability precludes an understandable performance (for example, you have a deaf actor who cannot speak intelligibly.) However, if you then bar that actor from participating, or you punish their deafness by never letting them do anything meaningful, you are committing ableism.
Ablesim exists, but many of us are still in denial. Fortunately, just as many of us want to prevent it. Knowledge is power, and it is my hope that these examples helped.