Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Negotiating Disableism

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.