10 Ways to Avoid Everyday Ableism

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Erin Tatum offers tips to help people navigate showing respect for disabled folks. 

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Since able-bodied privilege is one of the most unrecognizable forms of privilege in society, today we’re going to talk about ten ways that you can avoid ableism in everyday life.

(As a disclaimer, I can only speak about my experience as a physically disabled person. In no way do I claim to speak for the entirety of the disabled community.)

1. Take the Stairs

If a person with a disability needs to use the elevator, this seems like a no-brainer, right?

Apparently not.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been waiting for an elevator with a large group of able-bodied people in front of me only to watch them all squeeze on and leave me to wait for the next one.

Obviously there can be exceptions for people with strollers and so on, but for the most part, the vast majority of people who do this are perfectly capable of climbing a flight or two of stairs – or, you know, maybe have the common courtesy not to push past a person with a disability to get first dibs on the elevator.

If you see a person with a disability in line behind you for the elevator, ask yourself, “Am I using this as a necessity or convenience?”

If it’s the latter, climb the stairs or give the person with the disability priority.

2. Don’t Use Handicapped Restrooms

Yet another commonsense rule.

Accessible restrooms are adapted for a reason, not just for the luxury of added space or privacy.

There are usually also at least three regular stalls for every handicapped restroom, so please don’t be the jerk that uses the one bathroom available to the people with mobility impairments.

I have found that this issue makes people very annoyed because it’s a choice that they make unconsciously and will try to come up with a list of circumstances where it’s okay to use the accessible restroom.

Hint: It never is.

Also, I can’t emphasize enough that if you’re an employee of a given venue, that does not give you the “special privilege” of using the handicapped bathroom. It not only makes you look inconsiderate, but reflects badly on your employer as well.

3. Don’t Patronize Us

I could go on about the offensive use of baby talk for hours, but what it boils down to is blanket stereotypes.

Don’t assume someone’s intellectual capacity based on their physical capabilities or lack thereof.

You would never assume that someone with poor grammar or a lisp couldn’t use their body properly, so why on earth does the opposite apply?

When I was younger, I tried to write it off as a function of age, but still at 21, it’s gotten to the point where even people younger than me will speak to me as though I’m five years old.Complete with baby talk and that excessive enthusiasm where everything sounds like a question

Just don’t do this.

It’s embarrassing for everyone involved.

4. Don’t Address Us through an Able-Bodied Person

Related to number three.

Because of my physical impairments, I’m perceived socially as a small child. Sometimes this results in the assumption that I am incapable of processing direct speech.

I have had multiple people on different occasions ask my mom if I am able to speak while I am right next to her and clearly listening.

In addition, it’s important not to equate verbal ability to the presence of comprehension. Plenty of my nonverbal friends communicate and process at the same rates as everyone else.

Once on a field trip in high school, the security guard even asked my friend if she was my mother!

The level of infantilism is ridiculous.

Address us first. We can probably answer whatever question you have much better than a third-party.

5. Don’t Ask ‘What Happened’

People with disabilities are often subjected to a barrage of questions.

Namely, able-bodied people will often assume that our existence represents some kind of mystery that they need to get to the bottom of. This means that people frequently ask us for the truth or origin story of our condition.

Disability is usually (and misguidedly) associated with a moment of trauma, like an accident.

People put on their ethnographer hat and want to find out why you’re different.

It always makes me laugh that people act disappointed when I tell them I was born with cerebral palsy, as if that’s too mundane.

This tendency to interrogate manifests itself most awkwardly in young children.

Please, please, please teach your children that this is inappropriate behavior as early as possible.

I have had to patiently explain why I’m in a wheelchair to far too many children that I don’t know in public while their parents look on affectionately at their child’s inquisitiveness.

Parents seem to interpret it as a welcome social lesson that a person with a disability just happened to come by to underscore the importance of tolerance and accepting difference.

Don’t allow your child to think that they are entitled to demand explanation and justification from everyone who’s different than them.

It’s not our job to educate anyone, children or adults. Everyone has the right to go about their day without being accosted.

6. Make Sure All Venues Are Accessible

And if they’re not not, think about how they can be modified.

It’s always a bummer when you have to constantly change your plans or are just flat-out excluded from an activity because someone forgot to account for accessibility.

This can be anything from visiting friends to attending public events.

Sure, America has the ADA in place hypothetically for businesses and public venues, but the exact definition of accessibility is often loosely enforced.

My friends and I usually invent our own remedies, such as plywood ramps.

For larger events or public spaces like restaurants and hotels, call ahead and make sure they have the proper modifications.

If you can, it’s always best to visit beforehand to avoid any unpleasant surprises.

There’s also always the option of changing your plans to include a more disability-friendly backdrop.

7. Avoid Misguided Comments

“I wish I had a chair!”

We get it. You want to let us know that you think our chairs are cool.

However, statements like the above inadvertently cherry pick the disabled experience and reduce it to the “luxury” of having an easy mode of transportation.

Most of the time, people are very tickled with themselves to announce this jealousy to me.

Able-bodied people think they’re empowering us by flipping the scripts and insisting that they envy us in some way.

It comes off as very grating because they’re oversimplifying disability.

It’s not progressive or cute.

8. Stop Assuming We Want to Be Able-Bodied

Enough of the hypothetical “if you were normal” scenarios.

What is normal anyway?

For example, many people interpret my appreciation for dance as sad because I’m supposedly pining after something that I can’t do.

A lot of people are sports fans, but that doesn’t mean everyone has a secret desire to be a quarterback.

I don’t go around with a tiny violin following me because I can’t do whatever it is you think I need to be able to do to make my life fulfilling.

It’s the same when people ask me if I would “cure myself” if the technology were available.

I happen to be perfectly content with the cards that I’ve been dealt, and if I did want to pursue treatment, it would be for my own reasons and not a result of some starry-eyed assumption that an able-bodied existence would fix all my problems.

The life trajectories of people with disabilities may be a little different, but that doesn’t mean they’re inherently miserable and inferior.

9. Stop Calling Us Inspirational

Ah, my favorite backhanded compliment.

This one might seem to be the most banal.

On a superficial level, it’s a positive thing to be considered inspiring – until you consider the implications.

When you tell someone with a disability or someone who is otherwise perceived as disadvantaged that you find them inspiring, you are essentially saying that you would find their way of life insufferable and wouldn’t be able to cope if the roles were reversed.

While it’s meant to be a compliment to perseverance, it’s not exactly the best way to raise someone’s self-esteem or general outlook.

Yes, people with disabilities often face more challenges, and their accomplishments should be recognized, but don’t condescend us.

Please stop pretending to be humbled by passively perpetuating our oppression in allowing the ableist status quo to persist.

10. Remember: People with Disabilities Are People First

You may have noticed that throughout this article, I made a concerted effort to use the phrase “person with a disability” rather than “disabled person.”

It’s always important to remind yourself of an individual’s personhood instead of the circumstances that define them.

Everyone deserves to be treated with respect.

It sounds cliché, but don’t judge a book by its cover.

Superficial circumstances, especially ones as obvious as physical disability, can obscure who a person really is.

Don’t sell yourself short with stereotypes. Get to know us.

Humanity should be shared, not allocated in increments based on privilege or experiences.

A person with a disability could change your perspective on things, but it’s just as likely that you could change ours, too.

 

 

Originally appeared at Everyday Feminism

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Erin Tatum is a queer disabled college student currently residing in Berkeley, CA. She is particularly interested in representations of queerness and disability in media. She hopes to advocate for more numerous positive portrayals of marginalized identities in television and film. Follow her on Twitter @erintatum91.

 

Photo: Flickr/U.S. Department of Agriculture

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Comments

  1. In re # 1- I always figured letting someone in a chair cut the line is condescending…
    But I do have a question….
    Several years ago during a truly cruel cold snap; wearing hunting boots, glove liners & long underwear to my NYC office cold- people in the most of the country have no idea how cold commuting by mass transit is. I’ve had frost bite and this was bad enough to wear a balaclava…
    In any case there was a young woman, wheel chair bound who worked In my building.,, she commuted with a city bus service which I know meant waiting both coming and going… And on day one of the cold snap I notice she’s wearing a skirt, stockings and ballet slippers below and a pretty warm looking coat, hat and gloves… Much more stylish than my dress… Day 2 sometime during the day I see her on the elevator with the same ballet slippers… Day 3 I ask how long did she wait for the bus this morning when we arrived at the same time and she told me it was 30 or 40 minutes late… I get off at my floor and stew a bit, go down to the lobby find out where she works.. We had talked a bit, she warned me not to smoke and chew Nicorette gum at the same time, one of those elevator friends you make.
    . Have to go up there and to tell the receptionist that I want to talk to the woman in the wheelchair… She comes out, I ask if we can talk and tell her I’m concerned that her feet are literally frozen, I’m concerned that she is going to end up with frost bite… That I’d seen her several times that week wearing inadequate cover on her legs an feet…
    She’s maybe 20-25 years younger than me so I believe some of the sting was mitigated with my paternal concern- but she looked horrified and embarrassed when it dawned on her that I might have a point.
    So was I a jerk?

    • How do you know she was horrified and embarrassed because she realized you had a point?

      Stockings can be very, very warm. And since I assumed she changes her clothing daily, if she did indeed get frostbite, it’s not as though she’d have dangling icicle feet for a week– she’d notice pretty quickly, even if she couldn’t feel it. (And, by the way, not everyone who is unable to walk is also unable to feel sensation in their legs.)

      I am an able-bodied person with many relatives who have physical disabilities. My personal take is that while your concern comes from a kind place, it still makes a number of assumptions that are potentially insulting.

      • Well tis she showed up the rest of the winter in Napoleon .dynamite boots.
        I know horrified when I see it, maybe because she wasn’t thinking maybe because she had to be reminded…

  2. Eli Stark says:

    Hi Erin,
    Thanks for writing this. While I was gratified to see that I wasn’t violating 9 out of 10, I was a bit torn about #2 based on my own difference. When I read your bio, I thought I would post my question to you in hopes that your double-consciousness might inform your response.

    I am transgendered, and currently in “that awkward phase” in which neither gender’s bathroom poses a particularly pleasant prospect in public spaces at this time. Sometimes, the only gender-neutral option is the “family/accessible” restroom. I use this one sometimes knowing full well that it is possible (though not probable) that for a few minutes, a person with a disability might have to wait for me to exit. I weigh their temporary inconvenience against my physical safety and decide to use that restroom anyway. Given that just about everyone has to have the experience of waiting for a stall at some point in life, is it not a bit much to ask me not to use the accessible bathroom just so a person with a physical disability doesn’t have to wait? On that note, if there is a line for stalls in a public restroom, and no physically disabled people are in the restroom, should we just leave the larger stall open in case someone comes in? That seems a bit silly. Looking forward to your response.

  3. My take from this – treat the disabled person as you would anyone else, abled or not. Might this mean standing down from attempts to be helpful?

    Once riding my bicycle I saw a fellow in a motorized wheelchair who was trying to cross a busy street, and cars were not letting him through. Low to the ground in a seated position, it’s possible cars weren’t seeing his situation. On my bicycle, I rode to the middle of the street standing up on my pedals so I was visible, and forced traffic in all directions to stop, enabling the fellow in a wheelchair to cross – which he quickly did. He didn’t seem to appreciate my effort though. I was only trying to be helpful, but perhaps I was condescending leveraging my height and visibility on his behalf.

    • John Smith says:

      Ask yourself this, would you have stopped if you had seen an able bodied person having difficulty crossing the road?

  4. I coach at a local gym, one of our members has an issue with the use of his right hand, and thus, his ability to complete all movements is limited as a result of it. It’s visibly obvious and as his coach I simply asked him how functional his hand was and what he wanted to get out of it. This was the first time I had to engage with anyone in this manner outside of able bodied people recovering from injuries. I didn’t need his story, just how much use he had in his hand. We struck it off well and he continues to get great workouts in!

    As regards the kids statement. Kids generally don’t know right from wrong, good from bad and are exceptionally inquisitive. The school system, the media, society then works to shut us inquisitiveness down over the years that follow so that we follow orders and obey. Whilst I appreciate it could be annoying from your perspective, you could flip it around and actually use it as a way to help children understand and embrace the fact that we are so different.

    As for the inspirational part, again I will refer to my gym stuff for this. What I do is hard, it hurts, it leaves me stuffed on the floor in a pile of sweat and gasping for air. I am fairly fit, healthy and able bodied and I know just how much this taxes me. When I see people with disabilities on some level doing what I do I cannot help but be inspired by them. Because no matter how challenging it is for me… they take it to another level beyond what I can. That isn’t condescending, it’s amazing, even more so when you realize so many able bodied people aren’t motivated to do anything but sit and watch day time telly. Inspiration comes in many forms to many people, we should all try and be inspirational in whatever we do in life… regardless of our differences.

    • Karlos, I think that’s easy to say that she should use every oppurtunity with a child as a “teaching moment” as someone who doesn’t have to deal with being bombared with questions about your body from complete strangers everytime you go out. At some point, I am sure it gets frustating to have so many strangers make personal comments or ask personal questions about your body simply because you don’t fit into the norm. After awhile, it’s defeating I think. I myself am a pretty petite lady and people always find it neccesary to comment on this. Even complete strangers. They are harmless but after awhile it feels like an invasion of privacy to have comments made about my body when I’ve made no such comments about their bodies. I can imagine that for someone with a disability as described for the OP, it’s even more difficult.

      What should actually be happening, if parents want to teach their children that everyone is different and to accept people more easily, is get thier children involved with other kids or adults with disabilities. Do some actual volunteer work with your children. Let them make friendships with people and be exposed to it for a longer period of time then the few short moments they will spend in the presence of a disabled person who is a complete stranger. Make the conversation an ongoing one instead of focing some random disablied person you come across in public to be your kids teacher. Because most likely those kids and parents go back to their “normal” lives and only think about that experience periodically. Is one short conversation that lasts all of 5 minutes enough to change a person or child? Probably not. Meanwhile, the person with the disability has a lifetime of being forced into the position to be the educator for other peoples kids instead of being alloewd the freedom to simply enjoy their own space and right to privacy.

  5. 1. Take the Stairs
    If a person with a disability needs to use the elevator, this seems like a no-brainer, right?
    Apparently not.
    I can’t count the number of times I’ve been waiting for an elevator with a large group of able-bodied people in front of me only to watch them all squeeze on and leave me to wait for the next one.

    Some of us with severe heart or lung issues appear quite able-bodied yet are not. Getting glared at or spoken too over the elevator or handicap parking space gets very old……as my beard turned gray it’s a bit better…….but at 30 with cardiac issues being yelled/ “spoken too” only increased the level of my angina.

  6. The majority of these are, or should be, really obvious, but I do object to parts of the first two.

    Nobody should ever judge why someone else is using an elevator. It’s up to the individual person to decide whether they want to take the stairs, not up to you to tell them they must. If there’s a queue for the elevator, everyone who wants to use it waits for it. That includes those with disabilities. Pushing past or otherwise pretending not to see someone waiting just because they might be slower than you or seated in a wheelchair? Now that DOES make someone an ass.

    As for the disabled bathroom – yes, many people use it who don’t need to. But leaving the only open cubicle empty simply because it’s the only one with handrails, etc, is silly. And the larger rooms, those which are separate – yes there ARE sometimes occasions when an able-bodied person genuinely needs to use it. Saying ‘never’ is just as inconsiderate as those who deliberately use it when they don’t need to – just because someone’s emergency or needs are different to yours, doesn’t make them invalid.

  7. I generally get cranky at these sorts of posts from the stereotyped to the stereotypers. But this one was perfectly written. Well done and thanks for sharing.

  8. Number 9! Love it!!! I find it disturbing that people don’t realize that when they say “I don’t know how you are able to…” or “I don’t think I could do it if I were in your shoes” are basically saying “I’d rather fucking die than live your life!”

  9. As a cyclist, I add “don’t chain your bike to the handrail” to lists like this.

  10. John Smith says:

    2 disagreements.

    1) I’m sorry, but the lifts are there for everyone. Don’t push past people, who ever you are, but don’t expect special treatment just because you are in a wheel chair. Many people have reasons they can’t, or don’t want to use the lift. It seems as though you are falling in to the ableism that many with visible disabilities do. That those of us who do not have a visible problem are able bodied.

    2) Kids will ask. It is probably a function of still being quite young, but kids will ask about anything they think as different. Don’t find reasons to be offended. Wheel chairs, glasses, red hair, a brightly colored coat. To them you stand out. Telling kids not to ask is telling them that wheelchairs are bad, and different and to be keped away from. I have a normally non viable disability, but when it dose show kids have asked and I have told them. Kids process that information, put it away under “Stuff I now know” and carry on.

  11. Of course parents are going to “look on affectionately at their child’s inquisitiveness.” We teach our children to ask questions and about how important learning is. I think it is a little extreme to say that this is inappropriate behavior. As others have mentioned, children ask all sorts of uncomfortable questions, because they just don’t know the way that things work or why things happen—this is why they are so full of curiosity, and to teach them that it is inappropriate is just absurd. Now, if someone were to say “actually, it is very personal and something that I don’t like/want to talk about” then parents have the cue to end the conversation. If you oblige and answer the questions then parents will assume that their child’s inquisitiveness is being well accepted and will allow them to continue. You’re absolutely right, it is not your responsibility to educate them, but they have every right to ask questions, just as you have every right to not answer them.
    I also agree with others that not only can elevators be expected to only be for those in wheelchairs and with strollers, but no one should assume that simply because one does not have crutches or a wheelchair or some other assistance that they are physically able. Assuming something about a person based on how they appear, would that not be ableism as well? Just as assuming something about a woman because she is a woman is sexism. And elevators are made to serve as a convenience, not just as a necessity for those who need them. I do agree that no one should push past someone in a wheelchair (or anyone else, for that matter—it’s just obnoxious and rude) but if a group of people are there waiting for the elevator before a disabled person arrives, I think that it is perfectly acceptable for them to load on to the elevator first. Again, expecting special treatment in an instance like this is the same as expecting special treatment because you are a woman, and that seems to only encourage ableism, rather than discourage.

  12. I have a question.
    I require a gender neutral restroom, but often the only ones are the handicap accessible ones. When I do use the men’s onea, a lot of times the only toilet is the handicap accessible stall, even though there are up to three urinals. Obviously, if there’s someone with a wheelchair or a cane, I’ll let them go ahead of me.
    Is this okay?

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