Autism, Disability Justice

We Need to Start Recognizing Ableism as the Serious Issue It Is|Guest Post

Guest post by Persephone Smith-Donohoe, 14 year old disability advocate, musician, martial artist, dancer, and big sister. This essay was originally written as an 8th grade assignment and was voted Best Presentation by Persephone’s classmates and went on to become an inspiring speech presented to students and teachers.

     On November 3rd, 2014, Jillian McCabe took her 6 year old son, London, to get ice cream. After, she took him to the middle of the Yaquina Bay Bridge. She picked him up, then put him back down again. Then, she picked him back up, said “sorry,” and threw him over the bridge. She walked back to her car, called 911 and admitted to killing London. Journal entries conclude that she had been planning the murder for weeks. The reason she did it: because she felt burdened by having to take care of an autistic child. Many people defended  her saying “well she was put under so much stress taking care of a child with ‘special needs.’” September 20th, 2016, North Carolina, Keith Lamont Scott was a black disabled man who was sitting in his car, reading while waiting for his son to come home when he was shot and killed by the police. The officer who shot him faced no charges. Joseph Nathaniel Weber was a non-speaking autistic man who was confused and scared as he tried to find protection in a home for disabled people when he was shot and killed by Kansas police on sight. Mitchell Wilson, age 11, was bullied for having muscular dystrophy to the point where he suffocated himself to death. Disabled people’s lives are not valued in our society. Many parents have beaten and murdered their children for the sole reason that they are disabled. And nearly half of the people killed by the police in the U.S. are disabled. Disabled people are constantly persecuted and discriminated against every day. Our history is filled with the bloodshed of our disabled ancestors. Their stories of oppression and mistreatment have been overlooked and ignored. Our everyday language is packed with slurs against people with disabilities, and the media continues to perpetuate it. We need to start recognizing ableism as the serious issue that it is.

Ableism is not a new or uncommon thing. It has been happening throughout all of history, but still we overlook the suffering of disabled people. Just by living in 2017, you probably know at least a little bit about racism, sexism, homophobia, and other oppressed minorities, but the majority of people have never even heard of ableism. Ableism is the discrimination against disabled people and though it’s overwhelmingly common, it goes unrecognized constantly. More than 7 out of 10 people with disabilities report being abused and yet still people pretend like it doesn’t exist. Disabled people aren’t getting support or help because we aren’t giving them the safe space to do so. Because when they do speak out, we shut them down and belittle them. But they’re probably just making it up or exaggerating because they’re ¨retarded,¨ right? During the Holocaust, Hitler made the T4 program which made it so that people with disabilities would be murdered because he wanted the “master race.” The T4 program ended up killing approximately 275,000 people with disabilities. This program was inspired by the American Eugenics Movement, which had the same idea of killing disabled people to “eliminate” any traits they perceived as “negative” from the human race. Even now scientists are trying to make technology to “fix” disabilities before the child is even born. Businesses are legally allowed to pay their disabled employees just pennies an hour and Goodwill takes advantage of this law all of the time. We can’t keep our backs turned to this injustice anymore. The longer we continue to ignore and silence the disabled community, the worse ableism will become, and the more innocent people will be harmed and killed.

Throughout this history, our language has become loaded with derogatory words and phrases that target disabled people. The English language has hundreds of ableist slurs that are used every day by ignorant people who know nothing of the harm they are inflicting on the disabled community. When people find out that their words are discriminatory, they are defensive and continue to say the words after they know its true meaning. Because of this, many disabled people are hurt for trying to stand up to oppression.  A lot of the word’s meanings have changed as well, which leads people to believe it’s okay to use them as slurs. It’s not. “Mental retardation” used to be considered the preferred term when referring to intellectual disabilities. The term translates from Latin to  “slow,” so it was used in the medical field to mean that the disabled person would meet their milestones at a slower pace. However, this word stopped being the medical term when people started using it as a slur. Similarly to the R-word, words like dumb and lame were used differently as well. Dumb means unable to speak and lame means unable to walk. Individuals with Down syndrome, a genetic difference caused by the appearance of a third 21st chromosome, would be diagnosed as a “Mongoloid Idiots.” “Duh” was used to mock the way people with low muscle tone talk. Words like “imbecile,” “moron,” “spaz,” “derp,” “cretin,” and “feeble-minded” have similar histories.  By using these words casually, it diminishes its history and causes pain to those around you who might have been or known someone who would have been considered “mentally retarded” or any of the other words listed.

The media is also to blame for the widespread acceptance of ableism. Many media outlets perpetuate ableism by using ableist language, turning disabled people into comedy and using disabled people as inspiration or plot devices. Most TV shows and movies have that one character that’s a little different from the others and generally the butt of many jokes. Some examples are Patrick from Spongebob, Stimpy from Ren and Stimpy, Karen from mean girls, and many other characters portrayed as “stupid” for comedic effect. Some characters have specific disabilities are made fun of throughout the film for entertainment. Take Gerald the seal from Finding Dory as an example. Then there are the characters that have physical disabilities who are “overcoming” or are turned into villains with a grudge against the person who caused their disability. Many TV shows and movies do a good job portraying disabled characters, but then use them as a plot device to help the main character grow and have no relevance after that. Nearly all movies and TV shows use ableist language as well. Legally Blond, Clueless, That 70s Show, The Wolf of Wall Street, and many more all use the R-word in negative ways. Even in the news, disabled people are almost always used as inspiration or as the object of pity. When people are constantly exposed to this type of discrimination, it’s hard not to adapt to it and start using the same language and laughing when someone does something “stupid.” Society has etched into our brains that being smart is good and being “stupid” is bad. That our IQ determines our self-worth. But being able to recreate patterns with blocks and do a certain amount of math problems in 30 minutes doesn’t say anything about your creativity, your ability to empathize, or your determination in things you love. We need to get rid of this ridiculous idea that not being society’s version of “smart” makes you a less deserving of a happy life. The next time you laugh because someone does something you perceive as “stupid,” ask yourself, “why do I find this funny? Is this idea rooted from society’s ableists beliefs?” And the next time you call someone “stupid” think to yourself “why is it a bad thing to not meet society’s expectation of intellect?” I challenge you to change your mindset and ideology around what it means to be “smart” or “stupid.” We can’t continue to let the media control the way we perceive disability.

Ableism is a very real, very serious issue that needs more recognition. Disabled people are mocked, beaten, and murdered every day. The list of disabled people killed by their parents and caregivers in the past 10 years is so long, it would take nearly 45 minutes to say all of their names. Not only have parents betrayed and hurt their children, but police brutality has taken many disabled lives as well. Our society has trained us to believe this is okay. Our language has given us the weapons to inflict pain upon the disabled community. Our history is haunted by the cries of disabled children who have been left in the streets to die. We can’t just sit and watch this discrimination anymore. We need to stand with the disabled people in our communities. The current events in America are scary for all oppressed groups, including disabled people. Our new president does not care about the rights of disabled people. He will not try to protect their rights and he will not try to protect their lives. We can’t let our government steal the rights of our friends and family with disabilities. We must take a stand against the oppression and bigotry disabled people are subjected to day after day. We must work to grow as a society that’s accepting of all people! All races, all genders, all religions, all sexualities and all abilities! And we must never fail to recognize the pain of another oppressed group again!

 

Works Cited

“Ableism/Language.” Autistic Hoya. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Mar. 2017.

Agorist, Matt. “Cops Kill Speech Impaired Autistic Man Trying to Find Safety in Home for People with Disabilities.” The Free Thought Project. The Free Thought Project, 24 Aug. 2016. Web. 9 Mar. 2017.

“Crime Against Persons with Disabilities, 2009-2012.” Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). N.p., n.d.      Web. 08 Mar. 2017.

Everton Bailey Jr. | The Oregonian/OregonLive. “‘Sorry,’ Mom Said as She Threw Son off Oregon Bridge after Weeks of Planning His Death.” OregonLive.com. N.p., 23 Feb. 2016. Web. 08 Mar. 2017.

O’Hara, Mary. “Up to Half of People Killed by US Police Are Disabled.” Mary O’Hara: Lesson from America. Guardian News and Media, 29 Mar. 2016. Web. 08 Mar. 2017.

“People with Disabilities.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, n.d. Web. 08 Mar. 2017.

“Retard.” Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com, n.d. Web. 08 Mar. 2017.

“Survey Finds Disability Abuse Widespread.” Disability Scoop. N.p., 10 Sept. 2013. Web. 01 Mar. 2017.

 

Disability Justice

Down Syndrome Superpowers

Recently, while I was giving a presentation on Down syndrome to a class of 7th graders, a student asked me, “Is there anything that people with Down syndrome are extra good at? Like, better than your average person?”

My mind raced through how to use the last 90 seconds of class time to answer in a way that was in line with both the social model of disability and the setting: science class. This wasn’t an intimate conversation with a friend where I could speak anecdotally or philosophically for half an hour about my thoughts on the subject. This was a good question that I wasn’t ready to answer.

Still, I knew somewhere in the back of my brain that I had read some convincing studies on Down syndrome and empathic behavior and I remembered some compelling thing I read about hypotonia (low muscle tone) and swimming once upon a time.

After I remarked on what a great question it was, I quickly replied that there was evidence that low muscle tone could be an advantage in learning to swim and that people with Down syndrome can have a remarkable capacity for expressing care for others, and adeptly navigating social encounters. I mentioned that I never knew how to gracefully exit a conversation with a new acquaintance at a party until a couple years ago when 13 year old girl with Down syndrome showed me how. The bell rang, and that was what went on the record for this class of 7th graders.

Of course, people with Down syndrome might be more likely to have characteristics and abilities that are valued in a world built for nondisabled people, just as we know it is likely for them to have characteristics that are devalued. It gets murky for me here, though. I refuse to try to come up with ways to pander to nondisabled or neurotypical people to make them see people with Down syndrome as more human or deserving of life and inclusion because people with Down syndrome have characteristics that are valued in an ableist society.

There are studies that have shown that people with Down syndrome look at the faces of people in distress for longer, and show more caring and comforting behaviors to those in distress. There is a difference between this and empathy, however, because the same study shows they may be less likely to take on or even label the emotions of others, which is not necessarily a bad thing at all. There are also studies that show that people with Down syndrome may have an increased capacity for perceiving certain moods based on facial expression. Those with Down syndrome may smile more than a person without Down syndrome (Fidler et al, 2005).

We don’t get to assume those are superpowers carried on the 21st chromosome, however, because the question hasn’t yet been thoroughly asked in response to these findings: Is this a survival strategy? Living in a world that is incredibly hostile and exclusionary to disabled people, particularly cognitively and developmentally disabled people– have folks with Down syndrome learned how to interact socially in such a way as to keep themselves safer? Is the ability to perceive moods developed because reading behavior is important to predicting an unsafe situation? Does frequent smiling encourage nondisabled people to be kinder and more inclusive to individuals with Down syndrome? I wish we knew more about the answers to these questions. I wish our society wanted to know the answers to these questions badly enough that there was funding to study them. Most importantly, I hope that it is people with Down syndrome themselves who get to report back on this.

Asking the question, “Is there anything people with Down syndrome are better at because they have 3 21st chromosomes?” opens up the door to more questions than it will ever have answers for. Is it important? Will this information be used to further objectify people with Down syndrome? Will we only view people with Down syndrome as worthy of life if they have something extra to contribute? What about people with Down syndrome who do not exhibit those traits, will they then be seen as tragic (or more tragic)? Will this be used to put other people with developmental disabilities down, such as research that is used to distinguish those with Williams syndrome from their developmentally disabled peers as more friendly and musically inclined, and the so-called Down syndrome advantage? Will this increase the tendency to generalize people with Down syndrome and continue to reduce them to a set of predictable behaviors and abilities? Will it perpetuate stereotypes of people with Down syndrome as “angels?”

People with Down syndrome have plenty to be proud of, and shouldn’t need a disability superpower to grant them higher status or further a movement for their rights. They shouldn’t need to smile more, be more charming, show more caring behavior, or anything else to be considered valuable. How can we ask this question and avoid these pitfalls until we have truly dismantled our ableist culture? I don’t know that we can. I came to this blog post to ask questions today, not answer them. I do know that all disabled people are deserving of life, love, appreciation, and inclusion, whether their or not disability gives them a “superpower,” whether they are pleasant to be around by nondisabled standards or not.

I wish I lived in a world where we weren’t asking these questions to assign value to people or try to counter eugenic practices. I wish we got to ask as curiously as that charming 7th grader did.

Disability Justice

It’s Time to Retire “Able-Bodied”

As folks become more aware of ableism, there are listicles and blog posts galore explaining what ableism is, how we do it unconsciously, how to avoid being ableist, how to make spaces more accessible, and so on. This is a great trend in social and indie media that should continue! Unfortunately, all too many, even those by disabled people, use the inaccurate and problematic term “able-bodied.”

The thing is, “able-bodied” erases and others cognitive*, developmental, neurological, and psychiatric disabilities. It plays into the my-mind-is-fine trope and reinforces the medical model of disability. What does “able-bodied” even mean? Which abilities count? Aren’t all bodies able to do a thing or two?

When people use “able-bodied,” to refer to nondisabled people, it separates those with cognitive disabilities from people with physical disabilities as if the two truly were separate– as if the mind weren’t a part of the body. This implies that the mind has a higher status than the body, rather than a place within the body. These concepts, while abstract, subtly reinforce belief-systems that value intelligence, and devalue the lives of people whose disabilities affect their ability to perform intelligence in an ableist and inaccessible world.

“Able-bodied” separates physical from cognitive, developmental, neurological, and psychiatric disability, it sends a message that disabled people are split between those whose “minds are fine” and are therefore deserving of respect, while implying those whose minds aren’t fine are not deserving of the same respect and accommodation or inclusion. Further, it ignores that many people have physical and cognitive, developmental, neurological, or psychiatric disabilities.

Perhaps the most insidious thing that the term “able-bodied” does, is reinforce the medical model by implying that ability lies inside bodies rather than inside the social structure. It directly refutes the social model of disability, which says, in the words of the late and fabulous Stella Young, “that we are more disabled by the society that we live in than by our bodies and our diagnoses.” Meaning that all the abilities in all the bodies and minds are valuable and important, but the world is structured to enable some, while disabling others. As disability activists, self-advocates, and allies seek to show the world a new lens with which to view disability, i.e. the social model, they are undermining it every time they use “able-bodied” when they are describing people who are enabled by the ableist structure of society.

What does “able” really mean in the context of “able-bodied?” It implies that there is a specific set of abilities a body must have in order to be considered to have ability at all. How can we reconcile that with a movement for disability justice that values all abilities, all bodies, and all minds? We can’t– “able-bodied” is simply incorrect and far too loaded to continue using.

Circling back to using the lens of the social model of disability, we can distinguish people who are disabled from those who are not by using the terms “abled” or “enabled,” as in, enabled by the structure and culture of society. We can also center disability in our conversations by using the term “nondisabled.” Some people prefer to use the term “temporarily (en)abled” in order to highlight the reality that being nondisabled in an ableist society isn’t a guaranteed permanent status.

Our words carry lots of information beyond simple definitions. As we push for a more accessible and inclusive world, we should choose our words wisely. It’s time to leave this phrase behind us and incorporate the social model of disability into our language and ideas at every level.

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*I prefer to use the term “cognitive disability” over “intellectual disability” because “intellectual disability” is a determination based on IQ, a debunked theory about how the brain works. “Intellectual disability” reinforces the belief that IQ is meaningful, when in truth it tells us nothing about a person’s abilities or ways of using their cognition. “Cognition,” on the other hand, is a word for the ways in which a brain stores, recalls, processes, and expresses information. That’s much more useful and accurate.