Implicit ablest norms are a part of our culture and society, and they sometimes blossom out of loving intentions and kindness.
When I was growing up, I received the messages daily that I was to be protected. That I wasn’t to take any risks in life. That the expectations were lowered for me. What people thought I could handle and achieve was VERY much reduced.
As an 18-year-old I was hired by a family for contract hours for their disabled daughter. She had a developmental disability and was non-speaking. She communicated in some sign language and we were a great fit. I don’t remember exactly what her disability was, but I remember she physically moved very slowly and had some mobility issues with her hands. Her mother did almost everything for her. If she was thirsty her mother would go into the fridge, get the juice jug, get the cup out of the cupboard and give her the drink. She was 16 years old and loved cooking shows. I remember thinking to myself, people have no idea what I have inside of me, I bet she feels the same. One day instead of me making us lunch, I asked her if she wanted to do it. You should have seen her eyes and how her face lit up. She was shaking. She nodded eagerly. I said ok…I’ll be outside on the deck, let me know if you need any help. (To be honest, I had no idea what she was going to put together. I would have been impressed with a P & J sandwich. It was a risk and I admit that I was nervous.) I occasionally would call to her through the open kitchen window, if she was ok, and her face was BEAMING, and she would give me the thumbs up. When she was done, she came out, opened the door and led me into the kitchen. She was shaking. I walked into the kitchen and on the table, I saw she had set up place mats, folded napkins with a spoon, knife and fork, and we each had a glass of milk ready for us on the table. On the plate she had cooked and served Kraft Dinner. She was intensely shaking. She was so excited and smiling so big, it was like…I thought her soul was going to shoot of her body. She kept writing to me, “Tell Mom, tell Mom”. All day, all she said was pointing to her message, “Tell Mom”. When her mother got home, I told her what she accomplished and she was shocked. I could see her processing everything…operating a stove unattended, spooning out the KD, carrying plates with food on it, etc. Her mom tried to cover up her anger. I could tell what had happened thrilled her and scared her at the same time.
Her mother, out of love to protect and help her daughter was doing everything for her, when clearly, she was capable of so much more.
People with disabilities have a right to fail. We have a right to get hurt. We have a right to suffer the typical aspects of life, just like everyone else. It’s almost like there is a belief that life is hard enough for you, I need to remove the typical life experiences from you, as you won’t be able to handle it. Life can be pretty shitty sometimes and as a disabled person, I have the right to experience all the suffering that anyone else experiences and learn and grow from it, and benefit from it just like anyone else. Behind the over protection, the lowered expectations, the decreased risks in life are ablest beliefs about disabled people.
These are the beliefs that really disable us. It’s the air we breathe and we don’t even know it and as children you can’t put your finger on it or have words to understand it. You just feel that you don’t belong. You aren’t strong like everyone else. We get the messages that we are weak, we can’t handle life, we need to be shielded from it. We are babied, overly shut out of the world that is harsh and not meant for us. Some people are bold and risk takers, some not so much. But yet disabled people are assumed that we are ALL not risk takers. We ALL want to be shielded. Our individuality is stripped and we are all given the same identity. It’s out of love, it’s well intentioned and it’s harmful and hurtful. We end up growing up in a fun house full of wonky mirrors that reflect back to us an altered version of our own self-identity.
Out of love and care for disabled people, what do we do FOR them or to protect them? What is the underlying belief system behind that? Ableism is so socially constructed in our society it is the implicit norms that we don’t see. Some we can clearly see. The lack of brail on the elevator buttons, no ramp or accessible parking spaces. But the invisible belief system is the invisible string theory of ableism built out of love, that connects us all, and something that needs intentional reflection in order to dismantle. When society wraps all disabled people in bubble wrap and uses their disability as an excuse to not include them in life, it is a form of ableism, carved from fear and love.
When Ruth Bader Ginsburg talks about the sexism she experienced personally and those by other women breaking into the field, she talks about how men saw it was a way of keeping women out of the law profession as a way protecting women. She quoted Myra Bradwell who was denied admission to the bar in 1869, “According to our…English brothers it would be cruel to allow a woman to “embark upon the rough and troubled sea of actual legal practice. (Ginsburg, 2016, pg 71)
A book I read and loved was the book “Haben: The Deaf-Blind Woman who Conquered Harvard Law”. In her story telling she talks about how she was expected to do family chores just like every else. She talks about how she almost walked out in front of a moving train. She had the skills and ability to navigate around the streets after learning these skills from the school she was attending.
“There were so many signs….the vibrations through the ground…Blindness wasn’t the problem. Sighted people get distracted too. Many sighted people have been killed by trains. It’s about paying attention, not blindness. Does that make sense? …….Many people will blame my blindness, but those with disability literacy will recognize that carelessness created the danger.” (Girma, 2019, pg 118)
Out of all of the people who close doors for disabled children, and shut them out, do we also want to be responsible for closing those doors…even if it’s out of love?
Ginsburg, Ruth Bader. 2018. My Own Words. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Girma, Haben. 2019. Haben: the Deafblind woman who Conquered Harvard Law. New York, NY: Twelve.