Ableist, they cried, and I wondered what they meant. The refrain echoed across the blogs I read, the feeds I followed and the tumbling of social justice writers. What does “ableist” mean? Why are people angry, passionate, and consumed by this word? It feels ugly, like “racist,” but I did not understand.
Concepts confound me. They twist in my brain, making social and political issues abstract, hard to fathom. Understanding ableism took time.
Dictionary words helped:
ableism (noun) able·ism | \ˈā-bə-ˌli-zəm \: discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities.
Stories helped more. When I was ten, Dr. Seuss’s “The Sneetches” created my world view. I can still visualize Mama Sneetch, smug and sneering, walking her child by the no-star Sneetches.
Ableists are Sneetches who consider themselves superior because of their mental and physical health. When people put themselves above others, their actions can demean, patronize, or exclude others. Like a contagion, negative attitudes spread, enabling stereotypes and de-humanizing worthy individuals.
Consider a stutterer and the people who mock him. Is he less of a person because he cannot speak fluently? What about my mother, who tootles along the grocery aisles with her walker? Is she less of a person because she needs extra time to buy her free-range eggs and bruiseless apples? Of course not.
At our local YMCA, a wheelchaired tennis player hauls an improbable amount of gear up and down the elevator. An ableist would swoop in and collect his gear and roll him to the elevator. A respectful person would ask if he needed help. I asked, and he beamed, “I got it!” I beamed back, “Cool!” In the elevator, an unspoken conviviality passed between us as if we were watching a friend blow out birthday candles.
That warm moment motivates me to speak out against ableism. Every person deserves respect, fairness, and autonomy.