CN: Ableism, Police Violence, Sexual Violence, etc.
Scrolling through my Facebook feed late at night, I came across a Jezebel article on the subject of the Fascist authoritarian in control of the US. In contrast to all of the serious articles going around this week, and especially this weekend after Trump triggered a constitutional crisis with a hateful law targeting Muslims and immigrants of color, the jokey nature of the headline and article stood out. It was mocking the newly sworn in president for an alleged fear of stairs.
To most people, the idea of a grown man being afraid of stairs seems silly and joke-worthy, but it made my stomach drop.
You see, in a sense, I am afraid of stairs.
Those of you who have read my book, know about the period of severe pain and mobility disability I went through at the start of my second year of university. For over a year, every step was excruciating. I had to walk with my cane, and even then describing it as walking seems overly generous. In many cases I was really just dragging myself along. During this time, it was not uncommon for me to lose all sensation in my right leg and have it give out completely. I have had this happen in the middle of the street as I was crossing. I have had it happen in crowded hallways where rushing people didn’t notice that someone had collapsed in from on them. And on many occasions I have had it happen to me on stairs.
It’s been years since this was a common occurrence. While I still have pain and occasionally still need the cane, and while I will never get back full mobility in my right leg, compared to where I was I am much better. I went from pain so bad that my bones felt as if they would shatter to being able to manage to move around unassisted.
But it all comes back when I stand at the top of a staircase. I can feel my body going limp. I can feel myself start to fall through the air. That moment of weightlessness followed by the sudden rush of air. If you are sleeping you jar awake just before you hit the ground. But when you’re awake, you either grab the rail for dear life, or you feel the concussive force of the ground stopping your fall.
I’m not actually falling anymore, but I still cling to handrail to stop myself. For those few seconds, even though my feet are solidly on the ground, I feel like it has been pulled out from under me. Once I come back to myself, I am able to start the slow trek down the stairs. Sometimes, if the flashback was particularly bad, I cling to the rail the whole way down. This is especially true on escalators, where the movement of the staircase means I’m already part way down before I regain my equilibrium. Sometimes it is not so bad, and I can bounce down the stairs relatively normally. But regardless of which time it is, for that one brief moment at the top of the stairs, I am gripped by fear and memories of all the times I fell.
This kind of casual shaming of disabled bodies is incredibly common. We as a society have this perception of tasks that a functional adult person should be able to perform: walking up and down stairs, bowel and bladder control, verbal language ability, etc. Anyone who is perceived as not adequately fulfilling these tasks is mocked. Similarly when people wish to indicate that they consider a person unintelligent or otherwise lacking, they are accused of failing to perform those tasks. Jokes about needing diapers, jokes about wetting the bed, jokes about drooling, and many others. The fact that such a failure is usually the result of a disability and/or illness may not be consciously thought of but the association between the two have serious impacts of disabled people.
Disabled people are constantly being infantilized in different areas of their lives. Being non-verbal is treated as being the same as being without thought. Doctors explain your care instructions for medications to your partner rather than to you. Many people with visible disabilities are desexualized and treated as though they have a child’s presumed unawareness about such matters. Well-meaning friends are always checking whether you are sure you aren’t overdoing it, or whether you’re sure you should be doing this and that, all in that falsely-sincere voice people usually reserve for other people’s kids.
That same voice is used by various people to praise as inspirational almost any action a disabled person does, while at the same time creating barriers for those same people – preventing them from being able to thrive and succeed. We call it Inspiration Porn – abled people emotionally masturbating at the thought of poor helpless miserable disabled people lifting themselves up to act like “good normal people” while ignoring that they’re participating in a system that makes basic survival for us more difficult than it has to be. A system that forces us into the extremes of poverty and then acts like not letting us starve is an act of charity. That makes us exhaust all our energy struggling for basic humanity then expects us to kiss their feet for the generosity of letting us live.
Female presenting disabled people are sterilized without their consent. Some are literally infantalized permanently by being kept small and removing all the effects of puberty. They are forced to undergo surgery, painful rehabilitation, risk complications and even death, regardless of whether it is one they want. Often they are assumed to be incapable of giving consent: because they cannot speak verbally, or because they are assumed to be too childlike to make informed decisions. The idea that disabled people are incapable of giving consent translates to one of the highest rates of sexual assault in many demographics. Higher still if they have been forcefully sterilized.
One of the excuses given for the forced removal of organs is that they might be confused or not understand their bodily processes. Still others use the childlike associations to claim that people who are cognitively disabled are also gullible and thus can easily be tricked into performing acts that can lead to pregnancy which could be upsetting to them. The fact that the abuse would still take place, just the evidence of it would disappear never seems to factor into their decisions. In actuality, the reasons are usually that the caregivers don’t want to have to bother with providing necessary hygiene, and a desire to reduce the likelihood of disabled people breeding which would lead to more disabled people. Disabled children are seen less as independent human beings with the same rights as anyone else, and more like pets where the owner gets to decide whether or not to have them spayed.
Our world is shaped by how we talk about things. The actual events might not change but how we see them can and do. If something is frequently described as being a certain way, then you are predisposed to see it that way when you encounter it. That’s how stereotypes work. Because PoC are described stereotypically as possessing more criminality than white people, teachers and other authority figures will give more negative interpretations to an action when performed by a child of colour than when performed by a white child. We see this is the disproportionate punishments given in classrooms to children of different races. Interestingly, this intersects with disability where children of colour are less likely to receive a diagnosis of conditions such as ADHD and/or autism because their behavior is interpreted as being malicious, while white boys are the only demographic that experiences potential over diagnoses in this area.
When you describe disability characteristics as being childish, when you use them as insults, you are creating a picture of disability that infantilizes and takes away our agency. It makes it easier to excuse criticisms of inaccessibility or ableism as childlike complaints rather than descriptions of reality. It frames conversations about accessibility as demands for special privileges rather than the begging for equality and the ability to function that they are.
Things don’t need to be explicitly stated either for the connections to be made. Think about the way we represent our society’s concept of “unintelligence”. Many of the typical caricatures highlight characteristics that are associated with a variety of cognitive disabilities. The inability to focus or pay attention are allusion to ADHD. The protruding tongue is an allusion to Down’s syndrome and the facial characteristics that are the result of hypothyroidism in children also known as Cretinism. These facial characteristics can also include heavier brow-ridges or lower hair lines. (Note when you are calling someone a Cretin you are literally calling them a child with hypothyroidism), stumpy finger or stunted limb growth.
– Around this time someone usually chimes in to point out that sometimes the representation is rather of hicks or Deep South stereotypes. What’s ironic about this defense is that the stereotyped appearance of the “slack-jawed yokel” are allusions to the stereotype of inbreeding among these communities. The reason inbreeding is problematic, the reason this stereotype is presented in this way is quite literally because of the increased likelihood of genetic disabilities in communities with little genetic diversity. In other words the caricature is “st*pid” because his family inbreeding resulted in genetically caused cognitive disability. –
This means that when those same visual characteristics are encountered in the wild, as it were, our societal instinct is to treat them as though they are unable to make adequate decisions. Meanwhile people with these disabilities are frequently capable of living full lives and of making independent choices about how they want to live. In many places, just the request for accessibility or assistance is seen as proof that a person is unable to live on their own. The UK is in the process, for example, of creating institutions where anyone who might request or require home support of some kind would be warehoused instead. Imagine if just because you needed someone to help you with the laundry because you experience pain when performing this task, you were forced to live in a home where your movements, ability to have friends or romantic connections, you time, were all seriously curtailed and monitored. These institutions often frown on any romantic connections made by these individuals which means that having any disability might force you into the choice of getting the assistance you physically need and never having a romantic relationship or consensual sex again, or having to try and get by without the help that would make you fully capable of living independently.
In addition to creating this visual stereotype that equates lack of intelligence or cognitive disability with a lack of ability to function or make decisions, there are the lateral meanings of words like the slur st*pid. Meanings like bigot, ignorant, people who deliberately choose to believe misinformation in the face of facts. These people are not cognitively disabled. Many of them are educated, have professional careers, and are completely Neurotypical. Yet the same label is applied to them that is applied to people who are cognitively disabled. It creates this perception that cognitive disability is related to bigotry, or misinformation and woo. Cognitive disability ends up being treated as a moral failing. Kids who have trouble with school then end up being treated as though they themselves are bad.
We see the same with mental illness. When atheists call religion a mental illness – When critics throw around armchair diagnoses for their opponents- It relates mental illness to a moral failing. This in turn gets translated into a belief that mental illness is a trigger for violence. Mass shooters are accused of being mentally ill. Fundamentalists, fascist dictators, and white supremacists are similarly called mentally ill. The association between violence and mental illness becomes so strongly linked that every mentally ill person is presumed to be a risk.
Homes for people with mental illness get harassed out of neighborhoods because of this belief. People are shamed into not seeking help or taking their medication, because they are afraid of the consequences of someone finding out. It is not uncommon for neighbors to band together to scare and bully a neighbor they find out is schizophrenic.
When mental illness is perceived as violence, any manifestation of that illness is then seen as being aggressive. Autistic adults experiencing sensory overload and trying to find a quiet place or to shut out some of the stimuli are perceived as having a psychotic break which may lead to a violent episode. The aggressive response in turn may cause someone to shut down which is perceived as a lack of cooperation. Similarly trouble with processing may be read as a refusal to follow orders or cooperate.
This association creates a dangerous situation for the person in question, especially when you consider that Police are often the first responders on cases involving a person who is having an episode related to mental illness. Cops have a tendency to read aggression in the situation, whether warranted or not (usually not), and in the same way that black people in particular and PoC in general are often perceived as being aggressive regardless of what they are doing, so too are manifestations of mental illness treated as though they are an act of violence. 1 in 2 people killed by police officers is disabled.
It is not even limited to mental illness. Manifestations of disability are treated as aggression. There are countless stories of deaf people, for example, being killed by police because their lack of response is treated as defiance, when in reality they didn’t hear the command, question, or so forth. The shooting of John T Williams is one such example.
The casual ableism that permeates our cultures and societies are part and parcel of the systemic ableism that is used to oppress and kill us. Our existence is seen as a punishment. We are seen as imperfect and flawed, not in the same way that everyone else is flawed but in a way that makes us less than. In the last week, I’ve been reminded that disability is imperfection twice. By people talking directly to me about how a disability was marring the perfection of someone else, all the while somehow ignoring the fact that I too was disabled and what they were saying about these others applied to me as well. Imagine sitting as a disabled child listening to your parents explain how another family’s discovery of their child’s disability was a suitable punishment for their past abuse. Defending their reaction by saying that they personally didn’t view it that way, but that they people they were mocking would. As though celebrating someone else’s ableism means it’s ok.
The concept of disabled children being a punishment or a burden on their parents is the most common excuse for our murders, our abuse. Instead of marveling at the inhumanity of a parent torturing and killing their child, the conversation usually centers on the profound burden that taking care of us is. As though the barriers put forth by society are our fault. As though we, rather than an ableist society that takes us for granted, are the direct cause of the hardship. As though a parent’s only course of action when faced with being overwhelmed in caring for a disabled child is murder. Not giving the child up for adoption or to the state. Murder. Our deaths, when chosen for us by someone else, are seen as an act of mercy. It is easier to convince our ableist society to let us die, than it is to convince them to let us live.
Fighting against casual ableism is exhausting. Every day is another reminder that most people won’t even humor us when it comes to avoiding slurs and addressing existing problems in society. Still many others won’t even admit that a problem exists. The fact that a ramp exists somewhere is taken as proof that all barriers have disappeared everywhere. The fact that they personally would suffer if they were to face a disability after having lived their lives as abled people is used as evidence that all disability is inherently miserable. The ways in which misery is actually caused by ableism is ignored. The fact that accessibility measures are often multiply useful for abled people is also ignored.
Meanwhile those of us struggling are gaslit into doubting ourselves, our abilities, while also doubting our symptoms and experiences. One of the most common fears expressed by disabled people I have spoken to is “what if I’m not actually as sick as I am”. I’ve heard this uttered by people who have medical horror stories that would give an abled person nightmares. There is a strange comfort in facing the worst our conditions have to offer us, because they serve as proof to ourselves, to others, that we are not making stuff up.
Many of us are forced to fight for every little accessibility measure, then deal with constant microagressions from other social justice oriented groups, from friends, and from family. We’re forced to struggle for every accommodation, for every change, even just for basic acknowledgement and it’s exhausting.
Every day, scrolling through my newsfeed, I am faced with countless examples of casual ableism. Ableist slurs are used as basic parts of language, often not even considered swears let along slurs. Joke articles use our realities to mock people. Political slogans use mental illness as a pejorative and create slogans that could very well be used as a slogan for Eugenics. (Make America Sane Again – how? You plan on killing all of us mentally ill people? I hate to break it to you but that’s already happening. In fact Trump’s policies have a head start on taking care of that for you. Pretty sure that still wouldn’t help prevent his election. Pretty sure that all on you Neurotypicals.) People express shock that mocking of disability didn’t disqualify Trump from being elected, and then go on and use disability to mock him, never mentioning that the person being mocked has a name. That he is a person who is worthy of admiration not because he was born with a disability but because he is a Pulitzer Prize winning author. Never realizing that while they’re busy using us as a prop for their outrage, they too are busy stepping on our necks.