DIRT FROM THE ROOTS 7: ABLEISM
Welcome back to DIRT FROM THE ROOTS, your monthly blog for discovering new perspectives on interesting, insightful, and obscure topics within the mental health and psychology fields. Today, we will do things a little differently to discuss what may be the single most overlooked and unaccounted bias of modern society.
TOPIC OF THE MONTH
“There is nothing more debilitating about a disability than the way people treat you over it.”
-Solange Nicole, novelist with ALS
We are going to start off a little more… sternly… this week.
If there is one single message I would like to convey to the masses with this post, it is that the grand majority of able people do not realize the extent to which they contribute towards this issue of ableism. You won’t catch me advocating shame as a healthy strategy, but I feel compelled to bluntly state that you, me, and even my interviewees to a degree are overlooking ableism on a regular basis. Just in writing this article I had to revise for ableism, and you may even be a victim of ableism yourself without even realizing. While certainly not malevolent, a lack of awareness on the topic has created glaring issues that I have heard universally and continuously reported from affected individuals. My goal today is to highlight problem areas in hopes that we can become more aware of how behaviors we may think are effective in this realm may actually be detrimental.
WHAT IS “ABLEISM”?
Ableism, according to the Oxford dictionary, is simply describing discrimination in favor of able-bodied people. This translates to grand oversight regarding the consideration of how people with disabilities may be limited in or prevented from their ability to participate in, well, a large majority of activities available. It would unfortunately be impossible to account for every facet of every human being within every existing concept, but in an age of giving voice to marginalized communities, ableism seems to be sorely lacking in awareness and societal education.
Take something as simple as a TV show: subtitles may be effective for deaf individuals, but limited greatly as those do not convey the tone, emotion, volume, or cadence in discussion. Individuals with visual impairment may be able to hear the dialogue, but miss large pieces of context without an audio description describing the situation characters are in, visual cues, and the like. Very few shows offer full accommodations, and obviously this feature is extremely rare to be seen in any public setting whatsoever.
A building may be ADA compliant, but that might also just mean that there is a wheelchair ramp to enter the building with no further accessibility accommodations beyond entry nor any accommodations for additional disabilities. Mobility impairments create an entire new necessity of grueling planning– even for something as simple as going to the store– as calling or researching places that they can access may take up hours of their day. Drive-Thrus at fast food places are often the only late night food option… but only in a car after 9 PM, with no exceptions for people on foot. The examples go on and on.
All of this creates quite the undesirable bind: people with physical disabilities are unable to access many realms of life due to limitations of the environment itself, and the unfortunate most common reaction from able-bodied individuals is to view this as incompetence, helplessness, or similar sympathetic perceptions. In reality, it is just a lack of tools or opportunity, and hopefully by the end of this article you will be able to see where this perception implicitly leads to a much more difficult existence for persons with disabilities.
HOW QUICKLY THINGS CAN CHANGE…
For the bulk of this piece I will be sharing information I have attained from individuals with disabilities, as they are the voices which can best tell us their experiences and challenges in this realm. However, I will start with a quick anecdote just to show how I myself was actually able to experience ableism by proxy when being visited by a friend with a visual impairment one summer in Chicago.
A “museum trip” as we called it, both my friend and I are huge walkers and essentially strolled around Chicago’s neighborhoods checking out the attractions for a week. While this was something I had done many times before (I was living in the city for about 6 years at this point), my experience over this week could not have been less comparable to any other just simply due to the fact that I was walking next to someone using a cane.
The trip began with my own ableism, as I quickly realized that going to these museums was NOT just a thoughtless task of buying tickets, but would require an entire prerequisite checklist to make sure that they had disability accommodations. And that was not enough– given the large range of physical disabilities, some places had accommodations such as a wheelchair ramp or allowance of service animals, but this was unable to be utilized by someone who could not see. I watched as my friend was transferred from associate to associate, and after about 2 hours of work, we could finally determine which places might have a few more accommodations such as audio descriptions or tactile exhibits. Of the 11 places we called, only 5 had any accommodations at all, 3 had accommodations for visual impairments, and only one had them readily available rather than requiring the scheduling of an appointment weeks out from our trip.
I quickly realized that this was just the tip of the ableist iceberg, if you will, as the tedious planning process was perhaps the only predictable issue that presented itself. In our time walking around the city, I found myself appalled at the behaviors that were seen by almost every human who passed us; random strangers would come up and touch my friend nonconsensually, trying to lead him across streets randomly or even just to pat his back tell him he is “doing a good job” on WALKING– something that he does more than most people every day. The presence of his glasses seemed to be strange to some-- though he simply wanted eye protection, it generated skepticism in a few cases. Strangers passing would typically have three facial expression reactions as soon as we came into view: scared, guilty, or confused. When we crossed the street, cars would back up over 10 feet from the crosswalk as if our presence took up triple the amount of space of everyone else. My friend’s cane became something of a magical staff for many: most people would take huge detours to avoid our path completely, some would become extremely nervous as soon as we got near, and a few people just ran away from us upon accidentally touching it.
On top of this, it was as if my friend’s lack of sight had made him completely incompetent and infantile, while my presence made me a saint. THREE times someone came out of a storefront to offer something to my friend and I, typically speaking to him as if he was 4 years old and me as if I were some kind of guardian or assistant. I received fawning looks from people that I have never experienced before, was given random praise about how “good of a person I was”, and once was even spoken to as if I were a liaison for my friend, to which he replied “I can’t see, dude. My ears work great”.
I could not believe the way that things had shifted, as my extremely bright friend who works as an engineer and owns his own home was now being perceived as someone who required extensive supervision and lacked almost all autonomy just because he was holding a plastic stick. Perhaps the most telling moment of this trip occurred when he expressed genuine joy upon me alerting him that someone had shut the door on us rather than holding it; “damn, it feels good to just be treated like a typical human being!”, he exclaimed.
My experience was certainly shocking, but I’ll just let him tell you how much deeper it really goes.
SPECIAL GUEST 1:
VISUAL IMPAIRMENT, ADHD
“God– please, if one thing can get conveyed in this, PLEASE– just don’t patronize.”
Jordan Rodriguez, 28, has quite the perspective– after 17 sighted years, he developed LHON, an optic condition that limited his sight to just small peripheral vision. In turn, Rodriguez has the unique experience of living in the world both with and without a physical disability.
Jordan’s main inhibitions usually come from one of two sources: how people perceive him, and how people behave around him. “The saviorism is usually most apparent”, he began with. “I often feel like when I am in public, people see me as something to make themselves feel good about. I dropped my cane? Someone is there to grab it and enlighten me that I dropped it and they were here to save the day, often in the same tone that someone would tell a toddler that their binky fell out of their mouth. I can’t tell you how many times I have been grabbed and dragged in a direction that I am very aware that I am NOT heading down with this stranger reassuring me that “they’ve got me, I am safe now”. Can you imagine how NOT safe you would feel if a random stranger grabbed and dragged you?”
As you might assume, there is then the amazement that Rodriguez can do anything in collateral. “The other day some dude told me I did a great job just getting around a cart at a restaurant. “Very good!”, he said in a condescending tone, and then acted completely surprised that I could simply open the door to the bathroom and more shocked when I told him that I knew the cart was there. It genuinely feels like because I am blind, I am completely incompetent and therefore should be infantilized”.
“People also assume they know what’s best for me,” Jordan adds, “I’ve gotten some pretty wild suggestions such as changing my diet to paleo [Rodriguez actually does follow a paleo diet] would magically give me sight, or people suggesting I get surgery to fix my eyes as if they are the first person to conjure that idea. There is also a lot of assuming I am living the most depressed, miserable life ever— when in actuality, I don’t even know if I would go back to being sighted!”
The perception goes beyond just normal, daily interactions, too. “Both ways”, he states, “the blind guy is NEVER a threat. I’m hanging out with someone’s girlfriend? “Oh, it’s just Jordan.” I’m not seen as a man– if there is a physical labor task in a mixed-gender group, it is the men doing the work and the women and Jordan watching– a sexism/ableism combo! TSA is the only search and frisk that actually dares to suspect me of anything illicit, it is totally jarring how many places I’ve gotten in as the only unsearched person of the group as most people seem afraid to touch me. The perception is always that I am innocent and trustworthy,” he explains. “But on the other side, I sometimes just feel like a specimen. People also touch me nonconsensually all the time and ask questions that are sometimes appalling. I’ve had strangers ask me if I would have kids knowing they would be blind, as in this is the first thing they say upon approaching, and that’s not even near as intrusive as some of the others. I am a completely open person and I love sharing information about myself, but I sure don’t feel like the same social rules are being applied here”.
“There are a lot of ways that assumption around disabilities actually makes the world less efficient”, Rodriguez adds. “It’s nice to have interns do things that would take me 15 minutes but someone else 15 seconds just due to the ability of sight, that gets acknowledged because it’s obvious and the general assumption. But I’ve also found that I am better at proofreading through text-to-speech, as audible typos are going to be more obvious than someone reading through thousands of words with their eyes. That’s not necessarily apparent, so it’s harder to get people on board.” Jordan went on to highlight other ways that disability assumptions didn’t make much sense– “it’s honestly unbelievable how losing my eyesight regressed me to having dire intellectual and emotional disabilities, because I still haven’t noticed that part. People will talk really slowly to me, start explaining basic concepts, and usually infantilizing me like that’s genuinely what I am looking for. And if it’s not that, it’s people either telling me to appreciate what I do have or misunderstanding about how the ADA has failed to fix the problem of ableism. A common bad advice I'll get from abled people is asking why I don't complain to the ADA-- that's not a thing. Most people don't realize that when a company violates ADA, there isn't some magic institution to bust them or automatically change things."
"Really, I just want more plastic bumps on the ramps of crosswalks so that I can stop tripping over curbs. But nobody has ever suggested that.”
SEEN AND UNSEEN: A FURTHER DILEMMA
A final consideration (which we will expand upon greatly next month) is the fact that Rodriguez not only faces an overcompensation to his physical impairments, but also a complete intersectionality of an equally challenging unseen condition in ADHD. “It's funny because I am constantly finding that even though the ADHD is a far greater inhibition at times, nobody has any idea. They will hold the door for me 75 feet out, but my ADHD symptoms are never even acknowledged as such”.
SPECIAL GUEST 2:
ADAM RUSSELL JOHNSON
“If I hear one more person tell me that I am an inspiration…”
From the day we met, Adam (31) was always clear about one thing: “the CP is the easiest thing about my life,” he regularly has stated, “it’s everything else that is so difficult”.
“I’ve been this way my whole life, this IS my life; I definitely know how to live it”. In so many conversations, it is clear that Johnson shares the same sentiments as Rodriguez regarding the way that he is viewed and treated being the main difficulty in his life rather than the disability itself. “I feel like I am constantly in either disingenuous social situations or having people treat me in a bizarre or socially inappropriate way. There’s also just way too much praise about everything, it definitely feels like I will always be othered from the outside perspective”.
“It’s tough when I get into situations where I understand the sentiment is good but I am feeling angry”. When thinking about the best example, Adam recalled a time back when he was attending CU Boulder and would be approached by religious groups. “I would just be walking on campus and a christian group would come completely encircle and begin praying for me. It was overwhelming in general, and look; I am a christian, I love going to church, but God ain’t going to magically fix me, and that was what it felt like they were praying about. I don’t want to say anything because I get what they are trying to do, but it is definitely making me feel like I am cursed or damned when I would like to just be praying along with them.”
But on the alternative side, he feels like people also have a more ‘colorblind’ type of approach to his disability. “It is always weird when people say that they don’t think of me any differently at first, because it is clear as day that I present much differently than most people. It feels like people just say things to ease discomfort much more often than actually respond to what I am saying, and that is what is causing me most of my own discomfort.” Making things even more volatile, these perceptions seem to shift at sweeping velocities; multiple times Adam has reported getting flack from a customer at his job for “sitting down on the job, eh?” only to see a mercurial switch over to either an overly coddling, apologetic, or otherwise uncomfortable behavior upon seeing his mobility device or walking gait. When I asked Adam if I could share this story for this blog, he laughed “that happens so often, it didn’t even come to mind as an example of ableism.”
And then we come to the inspiration. “One of the most common and definitely the most upsetting comments that I’ll get are the ones telling me I am an inspiration. What did I inspire you to do? Did you go volunteer with disabilities? Did you donate directly to disability resource areas? Have you written to your congressman about ADA issues? [laughs] Did I inspire you not to walk?? It’s just the worst comment, because again, I live my life every day just like everyone else.”
Adam also reiterates the idea of assumptions, and in his case, possibly to an even further degree. “I fall down a lot, but that doesn’t mean I want to be helped up. I am used to this, and I definitely would rather just get back up myself than have someone come pull me up without consent. If you assume that my disability is so debilitating that you need to intervene in my daily life, that definitely doesn’t make me feel good. If you see someone in a wheelchair, mobility device, whatever– assume they are competent. If they needed help, they would surely ask you. Assume competency, wait to be asked for help”.
SO HOW DO WE MAKE A LESS ABLEIST WORLD?
“How do we start subverting the ableist narrative? [laughs] Assume competency!”
Johnson’s quick-as-possible response to being asked this question might summarize what I have gathered from many different accounts most concisely. “Just assume that if you see somebody with a disability that they know exactly what they are doing. If you feel especially compelled to offer help, ask if it would help them for you to help them out in the same way you would ask someone if you needed to move your car for them.” Rodriguez echoed these sentiments almost verbatim, with an additional message that “there is also the graceful acceptance of whether they want to be helped or not. It is their decision to accept it, and that gets taken away when people just jump in”.
“The most painful thing is probably just seeing people get nervous around me,” stated Jordan. “It just sucks to be treated, essentially, not like a full human. I know they just don’t know how to react, I know it’s not a normal thing you see, but I really don’t know why that almost always results in such a vastly different reaction than when I had my sight”.
Thus, the message is clear: people with physical disabilities, above all, would like to be seen as equal members of society.
Adam, who has run small workshops in hopes that sharing his personal experiences will give a more clear picture of his perspective, ended with an interesting idea to generate empathy. “Imagine if every time you dropped something, tripped, or just stood up, someone abruptly ran in and tried to pick it up for you, grab you, or ask if you needed help walking. Imagine if you just fed a parking meter, annoyed, late to work, and someone just came up and said “wow, what an inspiration you are! I can’t believe you are brave enough to feed the meter— I don’t know if I would be!” Imagine if it was socially acceptable to go up to any stranger and ask “aren’t you afraid of having kids??” I’m going to guess you probably wouldn’t appreciate or maybe even become angry in response to any of these things, and this is how it feels for me. I love racing people to the door to hold it for them— those are the types of moments I wish I had more of.”
“Maybe it’s me— maybe I should be expressing how impressed or touched I am when able-bodied people know what they want for lunch or were able to open the door to get into work,” laughed Rodriguez jokingly. “The blind privilege is real, but it’s definitely no privilege being treated with a universally different experience that removes a lot of autonomy and relies on disingenuous intentions. If I’m being honest, it’s a lot more inner turmoil when I’m only getting scripted, safe communications from people, especially when I can’t see the full body language.”
“Particularly”, he laughs, “considering I obviously rely on my intuition heavily now.”
The best thing we can do to reduce ableism is to try and notice it within ourselves. We are naturally going to be uncomfortable with what we do not know, but we also forget we do not know anything about the strangers we pass by, and a physical indication of something different only brings that to conscious awareness.
People with disabilities would simply like to be treated as people— a perspective that is not too hard to empathize with.
WHAT’S COOKING FOR NEXT MONTH
NICK TALKS ADHD
For his birthday month, Nick will go to the bread and butter of his largest specialty (and personal waking life existence) in ADHD. We will cover the overlooked pieces of the condition, what does NOT seem to work, and some insight into how Nick works around these barriers.
At Connected Roots, our three core pillars are connection, grounding, and confidence.
We share dedication to creating nonjudgmental and safe spaces where clients can
express themselves authentically and reach their goals.
For more information on Connected Roots or Nick Serro, please visit our website or contact us at 720-593-1062.