This is a series of posts designed to help people approach diversity and inclusion. These are questions and scenarios we’ve actually heard or seen in the wild. This is part of our corporate programming for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. For more information, click here.
Question: “I feel sorry for people who have to live with a disability and I try to help them, but I have been told that I’m being ableist. Can you explain the difference between compassion and ableism to me?”
The question is sincere. Answering it, it’s important to note how Americans think about difference. As Ibram X. Kendri puts it: “Americans have long been trained to see the deficiencies of people rather than policy. It’s a pretty easy mistake to make: People are in our faces. Policies are distant. We are particularly poor at seeing the policies lurking behind the struggles of people.”
Taken this way we can understand ableism, the assumption that the disabled are inferior and the non-disabled (whatever that means) are preferable, as a failure of civic education. Kendri’s observation is a good one because it interrogates why we ignore the unexamined social constructions that lurk behind the tendency to see people who are not like us as a problem. Who says the disabled are inferior when they’re the largest segment of humanity? Perhaps all people are “deficient”?
When people say “Black Lives Matter” they’re affirming the goodness in Blackness. Those who bristle at the phrase (which is more than a phrase as it’s a cry of the heart) are asserting in no uncertain terms that oppressed people can’t proclaim “the good” for the word doesn’t belong to them. “All Lives Matter” means white people get to imagine goodness so Black people won’t have to bother anymore. Just so, the disabled say our lives are not second-rate. We ask “where did you get that idea and why is it so important for you to cling to it?”
Notice that the question above has some pity in it. “I feel sorry for people who have to live with a disability” suggests both a lack of imagination and civic education. In his wonderful memoir “Hitch 22” Christopher Hitchens wrote: “You should be nicer to him,’ a schoolmate had once said to me of some awfully ill-favored boy. ‘He has no friends.’ This, I realized with a pang of pity that I can still remember, was only true as long as everybody agreed to it.”
Pity is only useful if it leads to insight. Being sorry for the disabled isn’t much of a thought. Or as Hitchens would have it, it’s an agreement.
Nowadays the disabled cannot agree with the agreement. Understanding ableism means recognizing that feeling sorry for the disabled is an outworn way of thinking. It means you’ve been trained to see the deficiencies in people rather than the policies that encourage discrimination. We’re all in this boat. Old social constructions that disadvantage people are all around us.
If you say “I feel sorry for people who have to live with a disability” you’re re-writing an old construct and though you’re sincere and likely kind, you should stop and notice the unfortunate expression “have to live” as it means you believe disability is a terrible fate. One says “I have to go to prison” or “I have to get a root canal” but not “I feel sorry for people who have to live with blond hair.”
Sure, disability is complicated. I’m blind. I travel with a professionally trained guide dog. I had to learn how to do it. I write and read with screen reading software. I had to learn that as well. How are these things any different than other skills we’re called upon to master? Driving a car or learning the rococo rules of ice hockey are no different.
We all “have to” live the best way we can. That’s the human condition. The difference between ableism and compassion is perhaps best summed up by Thomas Jefferson’s “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” You don’t have to pursue happiness but you’ve got the right to strive for it. The disabled are so inclined. Compassion means we should all strive to enhance social justice for all those who do not look like us.
This post is republished on Medium.
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