The Reality of Ableism
"The worst thing about a disability is that people see it before they see you."
- Easter Seals
Discrimination and prejudice are unfortunately hardwired into our mindsets by default. Although sometimes it can be helpful to have these ideas pre-programmed into us to mentally prepare ourselves for unfamiliar situations, oftentimes it can be hurtful. Sometimes, we use this way of thinking to lump all people under one category based on a single trait. A prime example of this is when people think those with disabilities are all the same. What's even more hurtful is when people brush that entire group to the side or automatically see and treat them as less than - like a fragile doll stuck in a box.
Ableism is defined as "discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities." As someone with cerebral palsy, I've definitely had my share of incidents that have shown me firsthand that this type of attitude very much exists. Some days, these encounters fade into the background as an unpleasant, yet inevitable part of life that I've simply learned to adapt to and drown out. Other days, these encounters are a bit more difficult to ignore, can shake my confidence, and make me question where I stand compared to my peers. It makes me question if I even have the ability to break free from the mold, which is hard to do when someone like me, whose body is physically slower than my mind, can barely catch myself when I'm falling--literally.
Being born with this condition, I have not experienced what life is like without the questions, stares, and occasional awkwardness. But when these microaggressions evolve into outright neglect or mistreatment, that is what truly stings and creates an unfair disadvantage.
My School Years
When I was in school, I automatically got placed in a special education class that was segregated from the rest of the kids. While I understand the intent behind doing this, to provide extra assistance or accommodations for students with disabilities, I often felt that I was not getting a proper educational experience. In a single class, you would be able to see everything ranging from physical, intellectual, and cognitive conditions, that present challenges in the traditional classroom. The problem is that even though I could keep up with my typically-abled peers in certain subjects, I was assigned tasks that catered to the "lowest common denominator" for all subjects which did not allow us to foster our individual talents or define our strengths in different areas.
When educators assume that students with unique disabilities can be treated in a one-size-fits-all fashion, it does students a disservice and prevents them from receiving the stimulation and exposure needed to grasp new concepts and reach their full potential. Thankfully, times are changing, and with lots of time, effort, and advocacy, individualized learning experiences are more accessible for students with disabilities. However, there is a long way to go before this is considered the norm and not viewed as some kind of specialized treatment these students have to fight for.
Let me preface this section by saying "I LOVE MY FAMILY!" And again for those who didn't catch it the first time, "I LOVE MY FAMILY!"
However, even with all the love and support I receive from them, ableism can still sometimes weave its way into our lives. Sometimes, ableist attitudes come in the form of being overprotective. Even when it's coming from those I love most, second-guessing my decisions, giving me special treatment, lowering expectations, or making decisions for me without consulting me first are all the types of behaviors that sometimes send a message to me that I am less than.
Customer Service... Sort of?
Oh, boy! This is a big one and deserves its very own category! If you've ever had the pleasure of having a conversation with me, you would probably notice right away that I speak a bit differently due to having less coordination in my facial muscles. When I'm around friends, family, and generally pleasant people in the community it's not a huge deal. Honestly, I'm used to this. I'm used to having to repeat myself or adapting my communication, but something that I don't think I will ever get used to is when people in the customer service world are outright mean or refuse to give me the same level of service once they hear me speak.
Oftentimes I get the impression these people believe I don't know my rights, won't be able to advocate for myself, or think accommodating me is just a huge inconvenience not worth entertaining. It's truly mind-boggling seeing how these people's attitudes change when a companion or support staff assists me. Instead of my accommodations being seen as a huge nuisance, it is my hope that one day those in this line of work open up their hearts and minds and have better training to provide the same level of professionalism to ALL people.
Guilty As Charged!
I had debated whether or not I should include this last section, because let's face it - it's EMBARRASSING, to say the least!
I had a reality check of epic proportions when I made my first friend with a disability. I was paired with her as sort of a mentor who was supposed to be older and more experienced in navigating the world with a disability. Like me, her disability primarily affects her speech and muscle control. Even with our similarities, I was shocked to realize how inexperienced I was with interacting with other people with disabilities and how I myself may have very well had the same attitude towards her that I didn't like - worried if I should help her maneuver her wheelchair, being nervous about what to talk about without offending her, and even being a little taken aback and probably staring sometimes! Thankfully, after my nerves had passed, I have been able to get to know the real her, and not only is she "normal" like me and everybody else, but she happens to also be pretty darn exceptional in many ways!
At the end of the day, I think it is helpful to be aware of our own prejudices. It is very likely that you may have some you are unaware of. Instead of letting these beliefs keep you from experiencing the good that people have to offer, why not take a moment to recognize these feelings and grow from them? I know I'm personally pledging to make that effort and I hope you will join me! Think OUTSIDE THE BOX!
Photographer: Thank you, Vinny!