Note: I wrote this piece in December of 2017 and shared it on Lyf which is an app/website where you can openly talk about things considered too taboo for social media and receive support from a virtual community. People can’t read your full posts unless they support your journey and negative feedback is not tolerated. It’s basically a social media support group and it’s pretty fantastic. If you hadn’t heard of it before, I definitely recommend checking it out. ☺️
I want to talk about ableism for minute. I follow a lot of body-positive and mental health activism accounts on social media and this time of year (the winter holidays) really shows how much ableism we need to fight against. So it’s been on my mind. What I’m sharing here are not at all original ideas. I owe my understanding of these concepts to sources like Everyday Feminism, Body Posi Panda, Michelle Elman, Melissa Fabello, and many others. And I definitely encourage you to follow them and any other activists you come across.
As someone with mental illness I have to fight every day to be as well as I can. My mind makes living harder than it should be, so ideally my environment should not add to that difficulty. Unfortunately, our society is incredibly ableist. It’s so ingrained that unless you know what to look for you will likely miss it. But it’s there, and it’s damaging.
“Health is a privilege.”
A major ableist quality our society promotes is health, or healthism, as a standard for beauty. You may not think so, but there are many ways this manifests. For one, just look at diet culture. We promote health and fitness as ideals, but the true goal isn’t a feeling of wellness. It’s an aesthetic. Fit is in style. It’s considered beautiful. And it’s ironic because people will destroy their health, mental or physical, just to achieve the aesthetic. No one with this mindset cares how healthy you actually are. They care how healthy you look. But they still equate looking good with good health. If you don’t look healthy, if you can’t project a healthy image, you are seen as unattractive.
Health is a privilege. It’s not something everyone can achieve. Of course it’s something we all strive for. We all want to be well. We all want to live our best lives. But not everyone can just do it. Many of us need help and medical intervention. But because our society is so adamant about everyone being healthy, when you’re not it is seen as a lack of effort instead of a lack of privilege.
“Our world is fast paced. Jobs won’t wait if you start to fall behind.”
Another ableist quality is the expectation to always be able to perform a certain way. Our world is fast paced. Jobs won’t wait if you start to fall behind. They will find someone else with more endurance. If you need to take a lot of sick days, they’ll be suspicious and consider you lazy. It’s unimaginable in our society that some people need to take more time to care for themselves mentally and physically. I myself have been criticized for taking a lot of sick days. I was actually told once to figure something out because it’s not good to be sick so often. As though my frequent colds, migraines, and low days (which I’d always have to call a stomach bug or something because god forbid you take time off for feeling depressed or anxious) were due to a lack of effort on my part to be healthy. The worst part is that I’d feel even more anxious when needing time off because I didn’t feel entitled to take it. I didn’t feel like it was my right to take time to take care of myself. That’s what ableism breeds.
Another quality is our language. And I’m still guilty of using ableist language from time to time because these are the phrases I grew up saying. I’m actively trying to catch and correct myself when I say something ableist. And it isn’t just the obvious ones like the r word that we’ve been fighting against for some time (and people STILL use it). It’s words/phrases like “that’s crazy” or “are you deaf?” or “are you blind?” or “don’t be dumb” or “that’s lame” and on and on it goes. Similar to saying “that’s gay” when someone doesn’t like something, thus equating homosexuality to something negative, these other phrases are equating differently abled people to something negative. And if the phrase you’re using is insulting a whole minority demographic, you should probably change your phrase.
Like I said, I’m still working on that last ableist quality. When I slip up I’ll back track and say “that’s wild” or “that’s ridiculous” or “that’s absurd” or “that’s unbelievable” instead of insulting people who are mentally ill. I’ll say “am I enunciating poorly?” instead of insulting the deaf community. I’ll say “isn’t it obvious?” or some variant instead of insulting the blind community. I’ll say “don’t be absurd” instead of insulting those with different intellectual levels or brain function. And I’ll say “that’s unfair” or “that’s awful” or “that’s shitty” instead of insulting people unable to walk. And these are only a few examples. I’m sure if you stop to think about your own language use you can find other phrases that might be ableist.
And these are just a handful of the ableist qualities in our society. Pay attention and you’ll see that it’s everywhere. And the only way to change it is to start catching it and calling it for what it is: ableist and wrong.
Life is already a challenge for differently abled people trying to navigate a world designed for the able bodied and minded. Let’s not make it harder by promoting ableist culture.