Journalists don’t handle disability-themed stories well. It isn’t just the words they use ... like "wheelchair bound” and “handicapped” ... it's that they rarely report what disabled people, themselves say. Disabled people are always in the third person. We don’t do things. We have things done to or for us.
"Acme widgets hired 10 disabled people", not, "10 disabled people got jobs at Acme widgets".
We hear how mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, teachers and care workers feel about "their" disabled people. Reporters almost never ask disabled people how they feel about their family, friends, and service providers. Or, if they ask, we don't know about it because the disabled person's voice is usually missing or severely minimized in the story that is reputed to be about them.
"Marybeth loves going to the Murgatroy Center!” A reporter hears this from Dad, and it is relevant to report because Dad is part of the story. But does the reporter ask Marybeth how she feels about going to the Murgatroy Center? Most often non. Yet, reporters are supposed to be skeptical. They’re supposed to get direct quotes and double-check the validity of claims.
This problem is what set me off about how Alex and Frederic Bilodeau were covered … for the second time … during this year’s Winter Olympics. We heard all about Frederic from everyone imaginable, except for Frederic. It seems like an especially acute problem with stories about intellectually disabled people. Are there perceived issues of consent? Do families and agencies shield intellectually disabled people? Or, are reporters just too lazy or scared to make the slightly greater effort to do a meaningful interview with someone who talks strangely, or who may take a bit longer to assemble her thoughts?
It is a widespread, remarkably consistent failure in journalism today. I suspect it has a huge and mostly unexamined effect on how we are viewed. Maybe there ought to be some new journalistic ethics rules for disability stories.
There is a strain of conventional wisdom that disability prejudice, though annoying and sometimes limiting, is otherwise benign. I think this is because we tend to compare it with other kinds of prejudice that are more notorious. Rightly or not, when we hear “Racism”, we think about lynchings, firehoses, and police dogs attacking peaceful African-American protesters. When we hear “Homophobia”, we think about gay high school students being bullied, nasty, hostile epithets, and gays and lesbians being beaten up and subjected to a seemingly inexplicable hostility. Sexism has a wide range of manifestations, and we can easily conjure up images of the casual degradation of women in the workplace, (if you can’t picture it, just watch “Mad Men”), and sexism’s ultimate expression, rape, is clearly an act of hostility.
But nobody “hates” disabled people. Do they?
I’m not sure “hate” is the right word, but people do dehumanize us. People are often disgusted by the sight of us. Increasingly I fear, as we asset our rights more directly and personally, some people respond with contempt and resentment. And history of the not to distant past reveals a literal “freak show” of accepted practices and ideas that makes the blood run cold.
So why do I call this brand of Ableism, that is so full of malice something as trivial-sounding as “Asshole Ableism”?
It is because few people consciously espouse the worst Ableist ideas. Rather, I think they are more often convictions that people have and hold onto out of sheer bull-headedness. On some level, they know these views are “unpopular”, but almost for that reason they hold tighter to them, thinking that it’s brave and truth-telling to do so. They think that they are more insightful and honest than everyone else, because they are willing to say the hard things others aren’t. This, to me, is the epitome of an Asshole … the proud waving of the flag of ignorance … selfishness disguised as a working philosophy.
What are we talking about here? On to some examples of Asshole Ableism:
- Feeling as though having to deal with disabled people in everyday life is mainly an inconvenience designed to make your day harder. “Oh, great, this is going to take forever!”, “I wish she'd get out of my way!”, “Kids like that should be kept at home!"
- Discredited stereotypes that people still cling to, even if in secret … that intellectually disabled people are sexually depraved, mentally disabled are violent, and physically disabled are bitter.
- The suspicion that a lot of “so-called” disabled people are either faking it, are deluded, or just claim disability to get attention.
- Complaining that disabled people have too many benefits and special privileges already, or that too much money and resources are expended on supporting severely disabled people, who can never amount to anything anyway.
- Belief that disabled people should not have children, a leftover from just a few decades ago when a little bit of new knowledge about genetics led to the mainstream respectability of eugenics, the idea of controlling the reproduction of whole populations so as to “improve” the human species. This, in turn, led to arguably the most terrifying episode of Ableism in recorded history, the Nazi Action T4 program. Even on the individual level, of course, there have always been people who assume that disabled people are, by definition, unfit parents.
- Drawing a sharp distinction between physical disabled people (basically okay, capable of independence, and not scary once you get to know them), and mentally and intellectually disabled people (who are mysterious, unknowable, and in need of constant supervision). This allows a person to claim they are open minded towards one group of disabled people, but “realistic” about another.
- Parents who objectify, shelter, and overprotect their disabled children, and continue to treat them as dependent children into adulthood. This usually starts as "Well-Meaning Ableism", but when taken too far, it curdles into a twisted mix of parental duty, guilt, and martyrdom that basically wastes the lives of the disabled people involved.
- Supporting legalization of assisted suicide, with severely disabled people in mind. This is a hot button issue with a lot of considerations that have nothing to do with disability. The fact remains that there is a fairly broad acceptance of the idea that choosing death is a reasonable response to being significantly disabled. That is chilling, and suggests that our ideas about disability are not as evolved as they sometimes seem to be.
Looking back at these examples, I think there are two requirements for Asshole Ableism. One is that they are truly damaging, not just irritating. Some of these ideas threaten our very existence. The other kind is what I laid out originally … where it’s the obnoxious attitude of the people that make the difference.
So, that’s an awful lot of Ableism. So what? The main thing I take away from this exercise in definition is that different varieties of Ableism are quite different, but that it’s hard to place specific examples in the right categories.
Systemic Ableism probably does the most real damage, even though it is almost never intentional.
Asshole Ableism is the most offensive and frightening kind of Ableism, but it is generally an outlier … something relatively few people espouse and rarely gets put into practice. At the same time, it is shocking to realize how many people are entirely unaware of it, even some people with disabilities.
Well-Meaning Ableism undergirds or cynically justifies almost all other forms of Ableism, so it may be “well-meaning”, but we can’t entirely treat it is harmless.
I am interested in other peoples’ views and definitions of Ableism. What is your experience?