Hi friends! I’m doing a project where I will complete 30 prompts about autism, talking about autism in general, my own experiences as an autistic person, and an assortment of related topics. For each prompt, I hope to write a little bit and also include a small drawing. There will be 30 prompts/posts in total, which should cover a variety of information.
[Image is a simple drawing and text on a yellowish peach background. Bold red text in the center of the image reads: “End Ableism”. Beneath the red text are slightly smaller words in black ink, reading: “Respect Difference!” All around the central text are positioned various symbols representing different disabilities. Above and beside the big red text are the following three symbols: 1) A drawing of the outline of a human head in profile, with the shape of the person’s brain shown, to indicate disabilities that are brain-based, psychiatric, mental, cognitive, developmental, and/or neurological in nature. 2) A drawing of an eye, which is bisected by a slash from top to bottom. The slash is slightly tilted, resembling a backslash. To the left of the slash, the eye is covered with additional slashes that follow the shape of the eye but conceal the iris and white of the eye. This symbol indicates vision-related disabilities, such as low vision or blindness. 3) A drawing of the standard or classic symbol for disability: a person seated and facing to the right, in a wheelchair. The symbol indicates wheelchair users and is associated with mobility-related disabilities. To the left hand side of the red text, there is the symbol of a person, seated and facing right, in a different kind of mobility device, as they appear to be using an electric wheelchair. Like the other wheelchair symbol, this icon indicates people with mobility-related disabilities. Below the drawing of the electric wheelchair user, beneath the red text, there is a drawing of a stylized ear with a slash going through it. This icon indicates people who are Hard of Hearing, d/Deaf, have hearing loss, or have other disabilities related to hearing. A final icon is on the right hand side of the image, towards the bottom beneath the text reading “Respect Difference!”. This icon is a drawing of an eye, with a long slash bisecting the middle of the eye. The slash goes from left to right like a backslash. This symbol represents blindness. Beneath the drawing is the name of the creator of the image: “Elliott Roosa,” and the year the drawing was created: 2018.]
Please note: In creating the prompts for this project, I drew heavily upon the work of a blog called 30 Days of Autism Acceptance which belongs to a person called L (aka Gideon), and the work of Shanya Gier. This is where the ideas for some of the topics came from, but they won’t look the same because I edited them, added to them, and rearranged them in order to have a series of 30 prompts that will work for what I intend to do for this project. But I wanted to give credit where credit is due.
Part 4 – Today’s prompt is: Ableism
What is ableism?
How does it affect how non-disabled people think about disabled people?
What are the problems with this?
How does this affect perceptions of autistic people?
This post discusses ableism in detail and references some extremely disturbing ways that ableism is found in the world. Please be prepared if reading about these topics could upset you.
- Content Warnings:
- Discussion of ableism, including a number of related topics and examples of those topics, often discussed in detail.
- Topics include accessibility barriers, violence, discrimination, media portrayals, eugenics, ableist slurs, institutionalization, treatments and pseudoscience, and stigma.
- Trigger Warnings:
- History of eugenics
- Abuse, murder, and violence against disabled people
- Institutionalization (including brief mention of lobotomy)
- Pseudoscientific, dangerous, and/or abusive treatments/therapies
- Armchair diagnosis
- Blaming disabled people for violence
- Savant syndrome
- Inspiration porn
- Media and literary portrayals
- Ableist slurs (including the R-slur, which is partially censored)
- Brief mention of freak shows
- Brief mention of pseudoscientific concept of monstrosity
I generally define ableism as “a form of systematic discrimination against disabled people on the basis of disability.“ It’s something I have mentioned a few times in the previous three posts in this series. It’s something that many people in disability communities discuss frequently. It’s also a very basic, fundamental, widespread kind of prejudice that is often overlooked, to the degree that many people do not even realize that ableism exists or know what it is! I’ve even been asked if ableism is a real word — it is!
Regionally speaking, however, I want to quickly note that in some places the word used for discrimination against disabled people is “disablism,” but it is the same thing as ableism, just a variation in terms. I use the term ableism because that’s what I heard first and what I hear most frequently.
There are many layers, flavors, and different kinds of wrapping paper in the manifestations of ableism, but ultimately it works in society similar to how other forms of systematic prejudice work, such as sexism or racism. Just as sexism and racism are deeply ingrained in our society and are extremely harmful, ableism comes from an insidious and automatic hostile response to disabled people, and seriously impairs their freedom, rights, opportunities, and well-being. Yet many abled people (non-disabled people) do not realize they are hurting disabled people in myriad ways. They might even think they are being helpful. This is why it’s extremely important to increase awareness of ableism and specifically show what it is. Finally, an awareness campaign we can all get behind! As it were, this year Erin Human has launched some really great resources in this vein, all about how ableism is what we should focus on during the month of April, rather than blue lights and fundraisers for poorly reasoned and poorly managed (especially fiscally) attempts at “autism awareness”. There are a wealth — a veritable dragon’s hoard — of resources created by autistic people on the issues with “autism awareness,” so please seek those out for more information on that topic, as we’re going to focus on ableism in general in this post, rather than just awareness campaigns.
But how does ableism manifest? To those who aren’t aware of it, it’s hard to spot where these biases cause trouble. Ableism can be as fundamental as seeing a disabled person and automatically thinking of them as broken or defective. It isn’t far for the mind to jump from “defective” to “useless” and “tragic,” to “pitiful” and “shameful,” or “gross” or “disgusting,” and a plethora of other toxic ideas and assumptions about a person, their disability, and their life. And it’s a lot more than just what one person believes: these ideas are reinforced in language, media, fiction, laws, education, medicine, insurance, government, architecture, and virtually all societal institutions.
Ableism is apparent in the ever frequent occurrence of neglected and uneven sidewalks which assumes that no one with a walker or wheelchair or scooter or other mobility aid will need to walk there. It is apparent in movies and concerts and shows that have bright flashing lights that could trigger seizures, migraines, and sensory overload. It’s the big stone steps up to your local library, where they have no ramps or elevators to allow people who can’t use stairs to even get inside the building. It’s when a developmentally disabled person is paid far below minimum wage, while a non-disabled person does the same work and is guaranteed minimum wage or higher. We see ableism when violent and corrupt people are given armchair diagnoses by the public, rather than being held accountable for the things they choose to do that are immoral — and not part of any diagnosis. As a society, we would rather push them away from ourselves — by painting them as “crazy” or “insane,” or saying they should be “put away,” — than acknowledge that the same potential to do horrible and evil things exists in every person, abled or disabled, and is independent of a mental illness. Being a terrible person does not require a disability. It’s been said by disability activists a million times, but here it is again: Most people who commit violent crimes are not mentally ill. Mentally ill people are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators. Read that again if you need to, or as long as it takes to start changing your mind about the lies you’ve been told about the dubious-at-best connection between mental illness and violence.
Overall, ableism is rooted in the assumption that disabled people will always be “other” and will never be a valued part of society. And in its myriad, insidious manifestations, ableism says that disabled people should always be “other” and should never be integrated into society. This thinking reveals the deeply ingrained idea that disabled people are inherently unequal, and they will never be allowed to be on equal footing with everyone else in the world. But disability is not shameful or a punishment or something evil, and projecting those qualities on to disabled people is — again — a form of violence that “others” the disabled by definition. It is important to remember we are not far removed from the days of exploitative freak shows, or the so-called scientists who studied human “monstrosity,” or institutionalizing multitudes of disabled people in horrid conditions, allowing disabled infants to die (or outright killing them), or the days of Hitler’s T4 slaughter of “useless eaters,” or lobotomizing asylum patients to render them more “manageable”. The list could go on and on. The utter lack of awareness of the issues surrounding ableism is very troubling, and that’s why we all really need to try harder to understand it, and challenge the archaic assumptions and beliefs that still pervade our society and our world.
When paying attention to ableism, you will stumble upon its influence nearly everywhere. Ableism can even be as mild as the words you use that reinforce the idea of the inferiority of disabled people. For example, the word “cr*pple” is widely considered a slur, as is the word “r*tard.” This is not a matter of simple “political correctness” or self-righteous people trying to control your self-expression. This is about waking up to the automatic, unintentional biases that invade our thoughts and our speech, and then deciding to consciously work to counter them. It’s not a punishment, but a responsibility. Becoming aware of your biases is what helps to free you from them.
Another seemingly well-meaning manifestation of ableism can be found in “inspiration porn“. Feel-good, superficially wholesome videos, commercials, and articles about disabled people often hide ableist bias, but they’re still exploiting the disabled and using ableism to give you feels and “inspire” you. Such overly sentimentalized narratives are curated for the abled, to appeal to the abled, and do not grant dignity to their disabled subjects. Instead, the disabled are portrayed as tragic, challenged, broken, and suffering, then “saved” or “rescued” by an abled person — sometimes just tolerated — or they “overcome” their disability in a “noble” way that makes the abled audience tear up . Inspiration porn is for the consumption of the abled, and by definition cannot accurately, respectfully, or individually represent, or offer a genuine connection with, a disabled person on their terms.
The next time you see a video or a commercial about a disabled person, try to look beyond the buzzwords and saccharine portrayal. Inspiration porn is produced by and for abled people, to their specifications and preferences, and according to their biased understanding of disability and disabled people. Think critically about what you see, look carefully at the word choices used to describe the disabled person, and note if an abled person appears as curator, translator, paragon of kindness and compassion, savior, virtuous friend who can “look beyond” disability or “doesn’t see” disability, and so on. Whenever you see a video or commercial about disabled people, question who the video is for. Does it show respect, autonomy, and dignity for the person? Or is the disabled person more of a concept, stereotype, or prop for the abled people to show how compassionate and good they are? Our stories should not be about how abled people relate to us and do us a favor by not running away from us, abandoning us as children, or killing us. As humans, as people, as individuals, we should be able to have ownership of our own stories. Our narratives should not be limited to pity, warm fuzzies, tokenization, and dehumanization because it appeals to abled people and rakes in the views and likes. Authenticity is something we deserve and are entitled to as human beings. Denying that gives the false impression that disabled people should exist on the outskirts of society and can only be granted value by the most saintly of abled people — because a person must be extraordinary if they’re willing to “deal with” such untouchable people. There you go, just in case you weren’t disturbed enough by this point in the post.
Troubling narratives about disability extend beyond videos and PSAs and commercials, and into highly respected aspects of culture. In many forms of literature that inform Western society, disability is handled in troubling ways.
For example, disability is portrayed as literally monstrous in renowned works like Beowulf, in which the epic poem’s two grotesque monsters that must be slain are coded as representations of people who had deformities and were rejected from society — and even barred from their humanity — as a result. Then there are the (literally ancient) tropes that disability is a defect given to a character or historical figure which indicates some other nonphysical personal trait with a supernatural or superhuman quality, such as Homer’s putative blindness, which formed the supposed downside to his genius at composing poetry. beyond that of any other. The character of the blind prophet Teriesias had a similar double meaning to his disability. An inability to see through his eyesight corresponded with an increase in wisdom, insight, and awareness, plus an ability to perceive beyond what most people perceive, including awareness of those in other worlds and seeing into the possibilities of the future as an oracle. These traits might sound interesting, but they are just one piece small of the problematic structure that makes authentic, respectful, illuminating representation so hard to come by. Relying on superpowers to characterize disabled figures — or “counteract” the perceived negativity of their disability — is a seriously reductive idea that plays directly into many of the prejudices held by abled people. A seemingly positive trait is damaging when it’s portrayed as the only good thing about you, and the only reason you should be allowed to live.
However, the disability/remarkable trait trope can go the opposite direction too: the presence of a disability might indicate a deep flaw in the character or figure, or some kind of evil curse or divine slight. Off the top of my head, the “Six-Fingered Man” in The Princess Bride was an example of an evil character marked by the presence of a physical difference, as his trademark polydactyly (having more than five digits on a hand or foot) identified him as sinister and made him inherently “other” to the rest of the characters. The “Six-Fingered Man” was a cruel and sadistic character and he was identified by his unusual physical trait, as that was his trademark — as well as a feature perceived as frightening and disturbing by the rest of the characters.
But having a disability doesn’t make you an evil person, nor does it make you a saint. Disabled people don’t want to be seen as evil or inhuman, nor do we want to be seen as magical or angelic. Overwhelmingly, disabled people want to be seen as people: equal, respected, included, dignified, human people. Neither subhuman nor superhuman, just human.
A strange version of these tropes are found in the consideration and treatment of autistic people. The idea of “savant syndrome” — that an autistic person will be disabled in most ways yet possess a rare and unique gift far beyond the abilities of most abled people — may seem to be positive, but is disturbing when you look at it more closely. The idea that a “savant skill” — like having a photographic memory, or being a human calculator, or having extraordinary artistic talent — is a “redemptive” quality in an autistic person is infuriating to many disability activists. “Savant syndrome” is considered very rare, yet every autistic person seems to be held to this absurd, unrealistic standard. A special talent or skill is not necessary to grant an autistic person humanity, nor is it appropriate to believe that a savant skill is what grants value or respect to a disabled person. Yet we see the same idea over and over: So-and-so is so very disabled and unrelatable and subhuman, but look they have a magic skill! They are worthwhile after all!
As if this is the value of autistic people! Disgusting that our society would believe that a disabled person is a non-person, a burden, and a living tragedy such that the only way they could be appreciated would be if they had an extremely rare, extremely profound special ability. The reality is, most autistic people do not have a “savant skill” — and they don’t need one to prove they are human and deserve dignity and respect. Like anyone else, autistic people each have their own strengths and weaknesses. We have abilities and skills, likes and dislikes. Being disabled and/or being autistic doesn’t mean a person is lacking or incomplete. That idea is extremely offensive to autistic people. We want to be seen as people, not as collections of deficits and symptoms.
So many of the attitudes toward the disabled are unhealthy — and they can even be deadly. It might seem outrageous at first to find out just how dangerous this world is for disabled people, but when you consider the powerful, systemic, insidious biases against the disabled, it becomes much clearer. Because many disabled people are automatically viewed as flawed, missing parts of them to make them “whole”, suffering without end, leading an unbearable existence, not truly wanting to live, being more of a burden than a person, etc., abled people sometimes take their prejudice and use it to jump to violence.
This ableist violence can take many forms. In some cases, the manifestation is more straightforward, such as when people outwardly act out of hatred and physically or psychologically harm a disabled person. Ableism can result in the abuse of disabled people, and unfortunately it is very, very common. To outsiders, abusers might seem to love and genuinely care for the disabled person they target, but this is an act that hides the dangerous truth. It isn’t okay to harm disabled people, even if you think you love them and it cancels out, or if you think they don’t understand what you’re doing or saying, or if you think you are helping them through your actions.
Other forms of ableism can be especially insidious, yet incredibly disturbing to discover. Some people close to a disabled person — they might be a parent, nurse, relative, guardian, or other caregiver — develop the conviction that the person should not be alive. Perhaps they are seen as too much of a burden, or are perceived to be suffering, or are seen as unworthy of life due to “defect”, or other such rationalizations. All these ideas branch off from the destructive theme that disabled lives are disposable and not worth living. So many disabled people have faced abuse, violence, and even murder at the hands of those who were supposed to love, care, respect, and protect them.
Every year in March, the disability community holds vigils to honor and memorialize these victims of ableist violence. This event is called the Day of Mourning and recognizes these victims who are frequently overlooked or forgotten, while the media focuses on their murderers and garners sympathy for them rather than their victims. Each year, the names of disabled victims are read aloud, and the list continues to grow every time it’s recited. If you would believe that eugenics and mercy killings are automatically just, then you are standing on the side of murderers who killed for their own reasons and their own devices — not anyone who has shown justice, respect, or compassion to disabled individuals.
Again, the common threads repeat over and over. Ableism is a systemic, systematic prejudice that finds so many places to take root in our world. The antidote to ableism is to carefully, intensely, critically examine the concepts, opinions, beliefs, and thoughts about disability and the disabled that inform your attitudes and actions. When you find what is biased, full of prejudice, and unjust, you must pull up every piece of it like a tangle of weeds by the root and reject it — because those toxic roots are directly fed by fear, hate, and disrespect — and these things are not part of the foundation of a free and healthy world in which we all belong. Whether or not such a world will happen, I choose to believe it can, and until I see it happen, I will keep trying to uproot the seeds of prejudice to heal their toxic influence. Whether you are abled or disabled, I hope you’ll join me in this work.
Part 5 of the series will be posted soon.
Its focus is on Misconceptions, Stereotypes, and Myths surrounding autism.
Be sure to check it out!