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Expanding social justice: Ableism and why it matters

“You’re faking.”

I turn around to face the person speaking to me. A man towers above me, a condescending smirk across his face.

“Excuse me?” I ask.

“Your dog is a fake service dog,” he says, as he turns to the flight attendant. “Did you know this person has a fake service dog? Ha, I should get a fake service cat!” he tells her. He bellows with laughter, and I shrink down into my seat as he continues around the plane, pointing me out to strangers. I feel their eyes on me and I feel impossibly small.

My heart starts racing and my chest gets tight. I feel like I can’t breathe. I know the warning signs, so I take an Ativan, but it’s no use. I’m already spiraling down into a hurricane of flashbacks, dissociation, sensory shut down, panic and delusional thoughts. My stomach clenches with excruciating pain as my Ulcerative Colitis is thrown into a flare by the sudden stress and I can feel myself bleed. My psychosis wraps itself around my mind before something seems to crack, and I crumble into blackness, passing out.

This story is a real experience that Dani Shapira had, and is an example of ableism and how it can affect disabled people. Ableism is the systemic oppression against individuals with physical, mental and/or developmental disabilities. It can manifest in discrimination, lack of accessibility and hate crimes. It is also characterized by the view that people who are disabled are outside of the “norm” and need to be “fixed.”

All three of us writing this piece are physically, mentally and cognitively disabled. We encounter ableist systems and attitudes every where we go. Even on campus, there can be difficulty getting accommodations, misunderstandings based on stereotypical notions of disability and far too frequent uses of ableist language.

It is important to talk about ableism because it is frequently ignored, even within conversations on intersectionality. Ableism is often still pervasive in spaces that are supposed to be inclusive and social justice-oriented, where there can be inaccessible events, shaming of the inability to participate in active forms of protest and blaming of problematic behavior on mental illness.

Ableism exists as barriers, both physical and institutional, and can result in violence. However, ableism is not always so obvious. Like other forms of oppression, it also exists in casual everyday interactions and conversations. In these cases, it is often perpetuated unknowingly by people who may be well-meaning.

While ableism and disability are complex topics with many varying viewpoints, there are some general guidelines to avoid engaging in everyday ableism:

  • Avoid giving unsolicited treatment advice. Many of us have spent most of our lives having family, friends and strangers tell us what we can do to cure ourselves. It insinuates that we are disabled because we have not tried hard enough and it also reinforces the idea that we need to be fixed.
  • Do not touch or move someone’s wheelchair or mobility aids without their permission. Never pet service dogs without permission. If you are going to ask, accept that the handler may say no. Service dogs have important work that they are doing for their handlers and in some cases, distracting a service dog can even be life-threatening.
  • Do not assume a person does not need their aids, such as a parking pass, no matter how they may appear to you. Disabilities are not always visible. Additionally, do not treat accommodations like they are perks we are lucky to have.
  • Find alternatives to using ableist slurs such as “psycho” or “cripple” unless you are reclaiming these words for yourself. These words, especially when used in insults or jokes, bring disabled people down, spread misinformation and maintain stigmas.
  • Unless someone specifically identifies with an alternative description, use the word “disabled” rather than trying to replace it with a term like “differently abled.” These terms often feel like they are minimizing our experiences and purposely avoiding the word disabled implies that there is some wrong with disability.
  • Understand that “recovery” is not always possible or an end goal. We are all affected by our disabilities and illnesses in different ways and for many of us, disability is an integral part of our identities.
  • Ask, instead of assuming, if you are unsure about preferred language or the appropriateness of an action. This includes asking before attempting to help someone. However, when it comes to more specific details such as how someone became disabled, some people are comfortable sharing while others view it as very private. Generally, it is considered invasive to ask people about their disability if you do not know them well.
  • Do take the time to expose yourself to more information about disability, ableism and disability justice. Question learned stereotypes or stigmas that you may have about disability.
  • Think about things you can do to increase accessibility. If you have a blog or website, are there descriptions for photos or captions for videos? If you are planning an event, is the location wheelchair-accessible? Is there a quiet space for people to go if they are overstimulated?
  • Include disability issues in the way you think about social justice. Above all, be open to learning from and listening to what disabled people have to say about our experiences.