Today I want to discuss a sort of privilege we ignore far too often: ableism. If you cannot tell from the name, it is privilege derived from not having to deal with any sort of infirmities. It is enjoying the advantages of not being in a wheel chair, from not having to cope with the challenges of developmental or learning disabilities, or of not having to deal with mental and emotional health issues.
I will not engage in Oppression Olympics or make the often specious claim that the disabled (regardless of their disability) are the last group that it is socially acceptable to demonize. For one, each oppressed group has its own challenges, some similar, some quite different, and quantifying them is at best silly. Second, it is far too obvious that despite talking the talk, mainstream media is still unwilling to walk the walk when it comes to acceptance of the privilege deprived. That said, there is a great deal of erasure and thoughtlessness across and within all privileged and disenfranchised groups.
The best many physically challenged folk can expect from abled folks is a sort of unintentionally malign pity: a self-absorbed “aren’t I nice for feeling bad for this person’s situation” sort of sentiment that objectifies the differently abled. The moment it comes to actually bettering their lives, through installing ramps, elevators, or generally making public amenities more accessible to them, the conversation often turns to matters of convenience or cost to those enjoying ableist privilege.
Those experiencing mental or emotional health issues have a whole different set of problems with ableism. Somehow, despite a century of education on the issue, mental illness is still viewed as a moral failing. Even those who do not view it as a moral failing incorrectly view it as something the person should just be able to deal with. “Just get help” is something those of us with emotional health challenges hear from well-meaning loved ones, as if the crippling fear of social interaction in the face of your own spiraling self-worth somehow goes away when faced with the prospect of having to deal with a bureaucracy that on paper is supposed to help you. Everyone has their battles with confidence and the occasional social anxiety, but those for whom it is not a constant battle do not understand the intensity of it for those for whom it is. It is understandable, they cannot be in our shoes, but the “just pick yourself up” rhetoric that comes from that lack of understanding often makes things worse.
Then we get to the outright cruelty that is the mainstream attitude toward the learning and development disabled. That there can still be a debate about the use of the “R” word makes my head spin. The facile rationalizations and selfishness b those that want to continue using that word twist my gut in knots. The “historical” evidence regarding the use of terms like “idiot” or “moron”, which frankly I try not to use either unless people are hell-bent on proving their willful ignorance, somehow justifies, in their minds, using a term that the people associated with it, whether the differently abled or their loved ones, have said is hurtful. Which gets down to the essence of it. Why is it so important for you to use that word when people who have never done you any harm are telling you it hurts them to hear it?
Everyone needs to be more mindful of how their actions and their privilege affect others. It is, and maybe I am being selfish here, even more imperative for these groups, who have less tools to deal with the effects of privilege than others. Also, while I am at it, I believe some attention should be paid to how these struggles intersect with others. As someone with emotional health issues, who is trans, I have an uphill battle. A PoC with all of those factors has it an order of magnitude worse that I do not think I have the words to describe.
A couple of final notes: I would like to apologize to my physically, learning and developmentally differently abled friends out there. I know I spent more time on emotional and mental health issues, those are the ones I have personal experience with and am better able to describe. Finally, to my fellow emotional and mental illness sufferers: What I said is true, the demands of “just get help” do not actually help. With that in mind though, please, do yourself the favor and look for someone who can help you get help. It is hard and scary, trust me I know, but in the end, you will be happier for it.