Anti-Ableism 101: How to Be a Better Ally

953727_necroticpixies_make-it-accessible-or-burn-it-down

Image: The standard disability icon, but carrying a flaming torch, and with this written on the wheelchair: Make is accessible or burn it down. Buy this image on a variety of products at the Etsy shop NecroticPixies

Happy Disability Pride Month!

July is the month people with disabilities express pride in our identities and accomplishments, and work to make the world a more equitable place for all PwDs. I’ll be devoting July’s posts to discussing disability and the able-bodied allyship we need from you. This post is designed to cover a few of the basics.

THESE ISSUES ARE SYSTEMIC. The vast majority of people who say and do ableist things just haven’t yet examined the ways in which systemic ableism has impacted their beliefs and understanding. One key thing to remember in work around allyship is this:

When you’re feeling defensive, when that “BUT I’M NOT ABLEIST, I DIDN’T MEAN IT THAT WAY, I’M A GOOD PERSON” rises in your chest, it’s the X that marks the spot: Dig Here. There is something to find. It’s OK to be uncomfortable. Sit in the discomfort. Think honestly and fearlessly about the issue at hand. Instead of resisting them, allow defensiveness and fragility to be your guides. When they occur, stop. Breathe. And then DIG. It’s not your fault our ableist society put those ableist thoughts in your mind, but it’s your job to honestly examine them and root them out.

If a PwD has told you that something you’ve said or done is ableist, thank them. It took an enormous act of bravery to be honest with you because so many able-bodied people react defensively and even angrily when told that their words or actions were ableist. Honor the trust they’ve shown in you by doing the work required. Is it easy? No. But honest self-examination is one of the central projects around learning how to be a better ally.

EXAMINE YOUR EXPECTATIONS.

  • Not every disability is visible. It’s not allyship to yell at someone who “seems fine” when they park in a space reserved for PwDs. There are numerous invisible disabilities that can make walking painful, difficult, or dangerous, and you are more likely to be shaming a PwD than fighting on our behalf. And there are many aspects to disability that aren’t about mobility. Learn about invisible disabilities.
  • Disability is not all or nothing. Ambulatory wheelchair users exist. Many people who use wheelchairs can stand and walk under certain circumstances. For example, I usually walk with a cane, but if I’m going to a museum or theme park, I will use a wheelchair because I can’t walk for very long. The ableist jokes and memes (“It’s a miracle!”) about ambulatory wheelchair users are an example of disability binarism— the concept that disability must be all or nothing. Either you can walk fine, or you cannot walk at all. Either you can see well, or you cannot see at all. This concept does real harm to people with disabilities.
  • Do not assume you know what we need. Once I taught at a school that rented space from a church. I parked in one of the blue spaces until the church complained that all the blue spaces were “theirs.” Rather than wrangle with them, the school generously provided me with a parking space right near the building entrance. The only problem: I wasn’t using the blue space because I needed to be close to the entrance; I was using the blue space because I needed more room to get in and out of my car. No one had asked me what I needed; they just assumed they knew. Ask us what we need.
05589fae029ba5f2165ad334c0244ec5

Image: An illustration of flags that say, “Nothing About Us Without Us” against a dark blue backdrop with many small icons representing various disabilities in light blue. This appears to be an adaptation of a Women’s March protest poster by Jennifer Maravillas, but if you have more specific information, please let me know. 

NOTHING ABOUT US WITHOUT US. If you’re creating disability-related policy, planning a public event, creating a product, writing a character with a disability, or educating yourself about PwDs, you must center the voices of PwDs in your work. I know this sounds like an obvious piece of advice, but it’s not often followed. The majority of public policy, corporate policy, event planning, and disabled character creation happens with little or no input from PwDs. When we do give our opinions, we are frequently shut down. I’m just one person, but I’ve been told all of the following when attempting to create a more disability-friendly workplace:

  • We don’t need that; we do great with disability
  • Maybe we’ll include disability in our DEI work in the future, but not right now.
  • People know that our program is not fully accessible. They can just choose to go elsewhere.
  • This area is occasionally used by able-bodied people, so we can’t make it disability seating.
  • But we’re not required to by law.
  • It’s too difficult.
  • It’s too expensive.

PwDs have written reams of material about making spaces, programming, events, products, and characters more accessible. There are hundreds of PwDs, myself included, who offer their services as disability equity and inclusion consultants. There is no need to guess, assume, or imagine what we need. “Nothing about us without us.” Just ask, and when we tell you, believe us.

DO NOT GLORIFY “TOUGHING IT OUT.” Once I heard a colleague say about a student with a mobility disability, “They did great! They walked for hours and never once complained. I’m so proud of them!”

This stood out to me because it’s an excellent example of the prevailing attitude of able-bodied people: It’s OK to be disabled, but it’s not OK to talk about it or inconvenience able-bodied people with our needs. It’s OK to come along, but you must never tell able-bodied people that you’re in pain or that you need an accommodation. This “push through pain; never show weakness” is one of the cornerstones of American ableism. I’ve written about it before, so I won’t go into detail here, but suffice it to say, it’s ableist to glorify pretending that disability doesn’t impact us.

HANDS OFF. You would be astonished how often people with visible disabilities are grabbed, touched, pulled, or pushed. Apart from the obvious– never touch another person without their consent– you are more than likely not helping. Any time you suddenly grab another person without warning or consent, you risk pulling them off balance. I walk with a cane, and when you grab my arm to “help” me walk, it destabilizes me and makes walking more difficult. People who use wheelchairs all have stories about able-bodied people who lean on their chairs, try to sit on them, or even grab the handles and start pushing them in random directions, assuming they know where the PwD wants to go.

Always ask us what we need.

And while you should never pet or feed any domesticated animal without permission from its human companion, this is especially important with service animals. We don’t come to your place of business and pet you or shove an eclair in your mouth while you’re trying to give a presentation; don’t pet or feed a service animal while it’s trying to work.

Black-Disabled-Lives-Matter-twitter-landscape-1024x572

Image: A raised black fist with the infinity symbol on the wrist and thumb; to the right, the words “Black Disabled Lives Matter.” Source: Amazing artist Jen White Johnson. Go spend money on her stickers, prints, and other cool stuff. 

BLACK LIVES MATTER. Remember that these issues are intersectional. Our experience of disability is enormously impacted by other aspects of our identities. Consider the additional impact of racism, sexism, homo/transphobia, classism, fatphobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism, and other forms of oppression as they interact with ableism. This is why it’s key to develop your allyship by reading the work of a wide variety of PwDs. Your ally reading list for Disability Awareness Month 2020 should lean towards reading the work of Black PwDs. One of my favorites is Crutches and Spice, run by Imani Barbarin, but there are dozens of excellent sources out there!

LANGUAGE. Refer to us as “people with disabilities” (“PwDs”) in the aggregate. Individuals may have different preferences, but in the aggregate, remember that we are people with disabilities, people who use wheelchairs, people with invisible disabilities, etc. Put people first! Please avoid “the handicapped” or cutesy euphemisms like “differently abled,” “special needs,” or “handi-capable.” If an individual has a different preference, use that! It’s not up to able-bodied people to tell a PwD they’re “wrong” for using a different term.

It’s also important to stop using ableist slang terms. “Lame” and “dumb” meaning “bad” are two of the most prevalent now that it’s common knowledge that “r****ded” and “r****d” are ableist slurs. (Also avoid variants of “r****d” like “fuckt**d” and “libt**d,” although it seems implausible that anyone who would use “libt**d” cares about people with disabilities.)

Two more critical terms to avoid are “blind” and “deaf” as metaphors for ignorance. (You can go back through this blog and find examples of my own unthinking, ableist use of these terms.) People with sight-related and/or hearing-related disabilities are not any more or less likely to be ignorant than anyone else. Another troubling trend is the use of blindness as a metaphor in books, films, TV, and theatre. Actress, teacher, and disability activist Marilee Talkington writes powerfully about this in her critique of José Saramago’s book, Blindness, now a sound installation art piece in London:

“The book is a despicable depiction of humans who have suddenly gone blind being herded into and imprisoned in an asylum where they devolve into animalistic killers, lose all humanity and sense of self, all while being ‘cared for’ and ‘lead’ by SIGHTED individuals. . . . Stop using us (BLIND folx) as your METAPHOR for the disintegration of humanity, for your ignorance, for the world’s chaos, for your lack of goodness, your lack of ability to adapt, and for the emptiness of your own soul.”

Disability should not be used as a metaphor for moral impairment. 

THERE’S SO MUCH MORE. My post barely scratches the surface, but I hope it’s enough to get you started thinking about disability allyship!

NEXT WEEK: Disability and Covid-19.

Want more? Become a Bitter Gertrude patron & get access to Bitter Gertrude Book Club, a bimonthly post with reading recommendations about BG posts, current events, and writers to keep on your radar.

Tagged , , ,
%d bloggers like this: