This is a term that some of you may not have heard before. In case you haven’t, the definition of ableism is “discrimination in favor of able-bodied people.” Even the definition online seems a bit discriminatory. It doesn’t even cover the tip of the iceberg. There are many forms of ableism, but this post is strictly about the kind wheelchair users deal with from day to day. I wanted to do a blog post with some of the things that I have personally heard that have made an impact on me. This isn’t even close to scratching the surface on the kind of ableist language I’ve experienced, but these are probably the most common. I’m not doing this because I want to call people out, because I truly think a lot of the people who say these things just don’t realize the weight of their words. This post is a list of things not to say…and why.
- “I don’t see you as disabled.” – This is the exact same thing as saying “I don’t see color.” You may think you’re doing the right thing by overlooking what makes someone different than you, especially a marginalized group, but you are not. You’re basically saying that you don’t see the “unfavorable” thing about someone and you’re willing to ignore it. Please see it. Please recognize it.
- “Can I pray for you?” – One time, I was with my three-year-old daughter loading up my car in a Walmart parking lot. We were not in our hometown, so my anxiety was already off the chain worrying about our safety. Out of nowhere, a man walked up to me, and said “can I pray for you?” And I agreed, because I was honestly afraid of the stranger and what he would do to us, so I clutched onto my little girl while he put his hand on my shoulder and prayed for my “healing“. I don’t really need to tell you why this was creepy. But, even in a setting where it is safe, asking a disabled person if you can pray for their healing is very hurtful. We are doing the best we can to live our lives in normalcy. You would not walk up to a random person and ask to pray for them, so you don’t need to do it for us either. If you are someone who prays, and you feel compelled to do so, that is between you and God. I always appreciate prayer in all aspects of my life, but I do not need to know that a stranger felt that my disability made them uncomfortable enough to drop what they’re doing and put their hands on me to pray. I do not think the people who do this mean harm, but just…don’t.
- “What’s wrong with you?“ or “What happened to you?” – I always thought that I would much rather have someone ask me about my disability then stare at me and wonder what happened. Then I realized, those shouldn’t be my only two options. Having a physical disability, I understand that I look different than everyone else. That is some thing I wake up with and live with every single day. I do not need complete strangers who have absolutely no ties to my life asking me what happened. Here’s the answer to that one, that took me a very long time to be OK saying. “Mind your own business.“
- “You’re too pretty to be in a wheelchair.” – This is another one that I’ve heard several times and I can’t even begin to tell you how ableist this is. Again, you are saying that my disability is something that is so unfavorable that it would diminish my physical beauty.
- “Better slow down or you’ll get a speeding ticket!” – I don’t even really have anything to say about this one. We all just hate it and I’m speaking for every single person that is in a wheelchair. Stop it.
- “Have you tried physical therapy so you can walk again?” – This is another one that can be very hurtful. When a person starts out with a disability, or when they are young if they are born with it, they are generally given some type of physical therapy to gauge where their abilities are and if anything further can be done. Unfortunately, physical therapy is not an end all, be all. Eventually, we all get to a point where we have maxed out what we can do. And we work very hard to get there. To ask someone if they can go to physical therapy or telling them that if they try hard enough, they’ll regain movement; is the same as saying you don’t think we have given it our best, otherwise we would not be where we are right now. That is simply not the case.
- “I was in a wheelchair once, so I know how you feel.” – Being in a wheelchair for one week because you broke your ankle is not at all the same as having a permanent physical disability. I’m sure it was hard for you not being able to go anywhere for a short period of time, but the discrimination and inaccessibility people with long-term disabilities deal with is something and that should not be downplayed. To me, this is like telling a parent who is dealing with the death of a child that you know how they feel because your kid spent a week with grandma one summer. I’m not saying that these scenarios are the same, but it is equally as crazy to think that either one of these situations would be even close to one another.
- Please brace yourselves for this next one. It’s a doozy. Because I know many of you have probably said it before. It’s OK. We’ll get through this together…
“You’re such an inspiration.” – When you say this to someone, what are they inspirational for? Getting out of bed? Going to the grocery store to buy food for their family? Going to work? Didn’t you do all those things today? It’s not an inspiration to simply have a disability and to move on with life. We are not pitiful creatures that trudge through our days. Most of us just average people doing average things.
This goes far beyond just telling someone that they are inspiring to you for doing absolutely nothing. This is an entire genre of media…and this one has a name, you guys. It’s called “inspiration porn“. No, I’m not kidding. It’s one of those things that is rooted in good intentions, but is so ridiculously ableist and extremely harmful. And I’m going to guess that you have never even noticed it…until now.
These are just some of the hundreds of news stories we see every day where able-bodied people do something kind for someone with a disability and it becomes a “feel good story” that demeans the disabled community and creates very harmful stereotypes. This type of objectification sends the message that society has lowered expectations right from the start. Disabled people are seen as being less or needing someone who is able-bodied to come in and save them or make their life worth living.
That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do nice things for people. But it does not need to be exploited. If you want to help a visually impaired person across the street because they have asked you for help, do so. If you want to vote for the girl in your grade who uses a wheelchair as prom queen because she’s super awesome and her hair always looks perfect, you should. If you want to buy me a new Louis Vuitton bag, I would not turn it away. But it doesn’t always need to be a publicized, feel-good story that makes the person with a disability look like they need saving. Because we don’t.
OK. We got through it. That wasn’t so bad, right? Right?? It’s OK if you’ve done some or even all of these things. We are learning together. What is most important is that we move forward with this knowledge and how our words can be harmful to an entire community that is already dealing with discrimination in such big ways.