ARE YOU ABLEIST? LET’S FIND OUT

Ableism in its simplest form, is discrimination toward disabled people. But it encompasses so much more than what you might assume. The belief and treatment of disabled people as “less than” is so deeply engrained in our culture that it can be hard to recognize ableism in our daily lives, which can also make it frighteningly easy to slip into.

Even disabled people can be unknowingly ableist. Over the last several months, I’ve come to realize that so much of my language and actions are ableist, and I didn’t know. But now that I do, I’m working on changing them.

But how do we know if we are using ableist language or creating environments that perpetuate ableism? To answer this question, I am not relying on my own perspective or experience, but on the collective knowledge of the greater disability community.

This post, as you’ll realize if you click over to this wonderful resource by Access Living is my primary reference for information on the basics of ableism. I’m no authority–I won’t try to reinvent the wheel. But they are by no means the only one. So, just as I will, I encourage you to continue to research, learn and grow in order to stand up against ableism. Please note, that as I share portions from the Access Living website, I may summarize, shorten or omit certain pieces for brevity’s sake.

Ableism: In General

Let’s start with a few of the more general ways in which we as a society can, are, and continue to be ableist. Let’s take a look:

  • Lack of compliance with disability rights laws
  • Segregating students with disabilities into separate schools
  • The use of restraint or seclusion as a means of controlling students with disabilities
  • Failing to incorporate accessibility into building design plans
  • Building inaccessible websites
  • The assumption that people with disabilities want or need to be “fixed”
  • Using disability as a punchline
  • Refusing to provide reasonable accommodations
  • The eugenics movement of the early 1900s
  • The mass murder of disabled people in Nazi Germany

Ableism: In the Every Day

If you look at that list and think “but I haven’t done any of that,” you may be right. Ableism is often unintentional. But even unintentional ableism is still harmful to the disabled community and to our fight for equality. That’s precisely why I’m drawing attention to it in this way, because we can all do better, and need to do better. But we can’t until we know where we’ve gone wrong. So please allow me to share with you some further ways that we as a society have practiced ableism. And if you see yourself on this list, you’re not alone–I do, too.

  • Choosing an inaccessible venue for an event, therefore excluding disabled participants
  • Using someone else’s mobility device as a hand or foot rest
  • Framing disability as either tragic or inspirational in news stories, movies, and other forms of media
  • Casting a non-disabled actor to play a disabled character in entertainment
  • Making a movie that doesn’t have audio description or closed captioning
  • Using the accessible bathroom stall when you are able to use the non-accessible stall without pain or risk of injury
  • Talking to a person with a disability like they are a child, talking about them instead of directly to them, or speaking for them
  • Asking invasive questions about the medical history of someone with a disability
  • Assuming people have to have a visible disability to be disabled
  • Questioning if someone is “actually” disabled, or “how” disabled they are
  • Asking, “How did you become disabled?”

Ableism: Micro-Aggressions

Micro-aggression is a term I only heard after joining the broader disability space on social media, and what it refers to explains so much of my past that I hadn’t had words to articulate before.

“Micro-aggressions are everyday verbal or behavioral expressions that communicate a negative slight or insult” in reference to a person’s disability. And it’s in this form that I’ve been the most guilty, and where I’m working on change. The words we use have so much power, and I don’t ever want my words to be used as weapons or instruments of ableism. There are more–oh so many more–examples of ableist micro-aggressions, but I’ll share with you this brief list which we can use as a springboard for further change.

  • “That’s so lame.”
  • “You are so retarded.”
  • “That guy is crazy.”
  • “You’re acting so bi-polar today.”
  • “Are you off your meds?”
  • “It’s like the blind leading the blind.”
  • “My ideas fell on deaf ears.”
  • “She’s such a psycho.”
  • “I’m super OCD about how I clean my apartment.”
  • “I don’t even think of you as disabled.”

How Can We Get Better?

All is not lost. It’s abysmal reading through only SOME of the ways that our world has been and continues to prcipitate ableism against people with disabilities. But there are things that we can do. There are ways to change and become better allies, fellow humans and let disabled people know how valuable and worthy they are. Here are just a few:

  • Believe people when they disclose a disability
  • Don’t accuse people of faking their disability
  • Listen to people when they request an accommodation
  • Don’t assume you know what someone needs
  • Never touch a person with a disability or their mobility equipment without consent
  • Keep invasive questions to yourself
  • Don’t speak on behalf of someone with a disability unless they explicitly ask you to
  • Talk about disability with children and young people
  • Incorporate accessibility into your event planning

Ableism is like anything else–something that needs to change but can only be done once we know how to change and are willing to put in the effort to make it happen.

What forms of ableism have you experienced? Let me know in the comments so we can find ways to ensure it never happens again.

Credit:

Access Living. Ableism 101 – What is Ableism? What Does it Look Like?

YOU ARE NOT ENTITLED TO DISABLED PEOPLE’S MEDICAL INFORMATION

People are curious about what they don’t know. I get it. I’m curious to know what a wooly mammoth feels like, and how people can read my emotions so accurately just by the way I move my face. [How does one raised eyebrow say so much?]

But there are some things, no matter how curious you are about, that are simply not appropriate to ask a stranger. And particularly, a disabled one.

“Were you born like that?”

The question came from a man sitting across from me on the city bus as I was on my way home from university. I was absorbed in my phone, tracking what stops we were passing so I didn’t miss mine, and more than that, I didn’t think this abrupt question was directed to me.

“What?” I said quietly. No one else had responded.

“Were you born like that?”

I didn’t reply. It was safer than anything that might have emerged from my mouth. But I knew what he meant. Had I always been disabled?

That encounter was years ago, but it was by no means the only time I’ve been asked that question. And the unfortunate reality is that the occurrence of strangers asking after disabled people’s medical information is ongoing, and far too frequent.

Disability happens for any number of reasons, and often, these origin stories are painful and difficult to talk about. I’m fairly open with mine: I became blind due to retinoblastoma, cancer of the eyes, when I was six years old. Both of my eyes were enucleated and I now have prosthetics, painted with the same hazel that I got from my mother.

I’m open about this part of my history. But I choose when and with whom to be open about it. And let me tell you that it is not with a stranger on the bus.

But there are people who became disabled in other ways, such as tragic accidents, attempted suicide, violence, and many more, things that are not appropriate to discuss. Maybe it brings up the trauma. Maybe they don’t want to relive what happened because it’s too painful. And maybe, they just don’t want to talk about it. Because, believe it or not, disabled people do talk about things other than disability.

It is their right to choose how they respond. And that reason also doesn’t have to be disclosed.

There is nothing more private than someone’s medical history and current condition. I’ve never once encountered an able-bodied person on the bus get asked this question.

But every disabled person that I know has been asked at least once, and often in a very insensitive way. Just because we are disabled does not mean that anyone other than the disabled person and their doctor gets to know that information.

At this point, it isn’t even curiosity about the unknown as it is plain and simple nosiness, and a good dose of ableism. If someone believes a stranger’s medical details are theirs to know and asks with no regard for privacy or consent, the disabled person has just been dehumanized and reduced to an object by which to glean information that to be frank, isn’t theirs to know in the first place.

Now, if someone asks me with genuine kindness and interest about my cancer history or my blindness, I’m often more than happy to answer. There’s a difference between curious and nosy, and if one can ask and still respect that what I divulge is my choice, then I’m all for it.

I said earlier that I’ve never seen a non-disabled person get asked so callously for their medical information. You just don’t do that — it’s an unspoken, societal rule of etiquette.

Why then, are these standards tossed aside in the face of a disabled person? When did we become things that exist to indulge and satisfy a stranger at the expense of our privacy?

Our information is free for the taking. It’s rude if we don’t give a satisfactory answer. We’ve offended the asker — how dare we refuse their request?

The entitlement is staggering. The line between personal information and public knowledge is so easily crossed and it both infuriates me and makes me laugh. How, in the 21st-century, have we gotten to a place where people feel entitled to the private information of strangers, simply to satisfy their curiosity?

Disabled people are not freaks of nature. We are not part of a circus display for you to stare at, poke and prod.

We are people. Yes, we have disabilities. But it is not your job, your right or your place to know about it unless we give our full and enthusiastic consent.

So the next time you ask me “were you born like that?” I’m going to take the advice of my mentor and respond with, “You mean gorgeous? Yes, I was born like that.”

ASKING “WHAT WOULD YOUR LIFE BE LIKE IF YOU WEREN’T DISABLED” ISN’T BEING CURIOUS, IT’S ABLEIST

It’s always puzzled me, when watching interviews with artists and musicians who’ve made it big in the industry, that almost without fail, the interviewer asks a question along the lines of, “What would you do if you hadn’t pursued music?”

I understand that the underlying intent of the question is a curiosity about the artist’s other interests. After all, not everyone who pursues music makes it to a level where they can rely on it to pay their bills. Most creatives have full-time jobs, or several, with their creative passion as a side hustle or hobby.

But whenever this question arises, a lump forms in my stomach, and only recently, have I begun to realize why.

As a disabled woman, I’ve been asked a similar question but with a completely different underlying message.

“So Rhianna, what do you think your life would be like if you weren’t blind?”

For some, it may be simple curiosity. Maybe, if I hadn’t become blind, I’d be an airline pilot, something I am unequivocally unable to do, and that’s all they’re after.

But, there’s an hidden ableism in this question that even I didn’t realize for years, and it needs to stop.

Why are you asking me about what my life would be like without a disability? I am disabled, and unlike pursuing a career in the music industry, my disability wasn’t a choice. What good does it do to play the what-if game about my life now? — I can’t change it. And in truth, I wouldn’t change it even if I had the choice.

Is my disabled life that sad or pitiable that you need to imagine it, able-bodied and “normal” to cope? Are you really going to wallow in the “what might have been” pity pool?

These mindsets don’t do anyone good, but especially not for the disabled person for whose life you’re talking about like nothing more than a hypothetical rather than a human being. Our lives aren’t a guessing game, or a puzzle that’s missing a piece that you need to find so we’ll be whole again. You don’t need to feel sadness at what might have been if we weren’t disabled.

Because being disabled isn’t something to be sad about or pitied, and it isn’t something anyone needs to regret. You don’t need to dwell on the past in a vain hope to offer sympathy; all it does is tell me that you don’t see the value of my disabled body the same way I do.

And that’s what makes me sad.

I’m not sad that I’m disabled. I love my disabled self, because it’s who I am and life is only good when you accept yourself for who you are and who God created you to be.

So, before you ask your disabled friend what they imagine their life would be like if they weren’t disabled, do them a favour and don’t. Move on from the what ifs and might-have-beens, and accept that their life is just as valuable and fulfilling as anyone’s. And pardon my bluntness, but it’d be a lot easier to live like that without having to fight these ableist mindsets that are far, far too prevalent in our society.

Be part of the solution, and cut this question from your conversations with disabled people. On behalf of the 25% of the population, I thank you.

DISABILITY IS ABOUT PEOPLE, NOT POLITICS

My high school history teacher said there would come a time that I’d need to understand politics. And although I know bits and pieces of governmental bodies and systems, I can’t participate in dinner table discussions or understand news articles in a way I always hoped to. I want to learn more.

Now, thanks to Bill C-22, I have a reason to.

In its own words, C-22, called the Canada Disability Benefit Act, is “An Act to reduce poverty and to support the financial security of persons with disabilities by establishing the Canada disability benefit and making a consequential amendment to the Income Tax Act.” In plain words, this is what disabled Canadians have been fighting for, and even though it’s on the political radar with its second reading earlier this week, no one knows if it will even happen.

I can’t explain the details of C-22. I’m still learning about this myself even as I’m writing about it now. Nonetheless, I felt it was important to speak up, because this is an issue that directly impacts my life as a disabled person, and so many more lives.

Recently, I’ve been researching the statistics regarding blindness in Canada, and I came upon a list of such statistics from the Canadian National Institute for the Blind [CNIB]. Here, they list the numbers of Canadians living with sight loss in each province and territory. If you will, take a look through this list and I’ll see you in a minute.

  • Alberta: 160,000
  • British Columbia: 252,000
  • Manitoba: 57,000
  • New Brunswick: 37,750
  • Newfoundland and Labrador: 21,700
  • Nova Scotia: 49,500
  • Ontario: 681,000
  • Prince Edward island: 6,250
  • Quebec: 205,900
  • Saskatchewan: 43,000
  • Northwest Territories: 1,220
  • Nunavut: 1,280
  • Yukon: 1,400

A significant portion of the population, would you not agree?

However, this list doesn’t account for Canadians living with the myriad of other disabilities, physical, mental, emotional and invisible. Can you imagine what the number is? It’s 22%, or 6.2 million over the age of 15.

That’s almost one quarter of the Canadian population. And what is being done to support those people?

My people.

“Oh but Rhianna, didn’t you get a Covid-19 benefit?”

You mean the $600 one-time payment that we received, when able-bodied, working Canadians received $2,000? Yes, yes we did. Thanks government for covering less than half of my rent for one month.

And let’s not ignore rising costs due to inflation, and the income PWDs [persons with disabilities] receive from the Ministry that don’t account for this, and already keep disabled people below the poverty level. If you want to read a more detailed account of how the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction handles income for its disabled citizens, particularly after marriage, you might want to check out my four-part series here.

Am I over reacting? Am I making a mountain out of a molehill? [Whatever a molehill is… is it actually a hill where moles live? Someone tell me, I need to know!]

I don’t think so. Please let me offer another perspective from fellow disability advocates regarding C-22, the response from the Canadian government, and the heartbreaking outcry of disabled Canadians who just want to know that they are valued and be treated like equal citizens.
As a disclaimer, yes, I retweeted these posts, but that does not mean I take responsibility for the exact wording or the messages of other tweets on these accounts.

This is not about politics, elections or legalities. It’s about people. And it’s about time we start seeing it that way and treat each citizen like the equal, valuable member of society they are.

THE A-E-I-O-U’S OF ACCESSIBILITY — Y IS FOR YES!

It’s here at last, the final instalment in the series, The A-E-I-O-U’s of Accessibility! It’s bittersweet reaching this point, but more than a sadness at seeing this series come to an end, I’m excited to see where we take it going forward in our lives. I, as much as anyone else, have so much to learn, so much to explore, and I for one, am so excited!

A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y… isn’t that the rhyme we’ve been taught when learning our alphabet? Y’s place on the list of vowels is questionable, but on this list, there’s no argument.

Why.

Because…

Y is for Yes!

I’m not a natural adventurer. I’ve grown into this aspect of my personality and primarily, it’s come through practice and repetition. When faced with “hey Rhianna, do you want to go [camping, spelunking, skydiving, etc, you can fill in the blank], my instinctual response is to say no in favour of staying securely within my comfort zone at home with a cup of coffee, my guide dog and the familiarity of my surroundings.

But I’m learning to say yes. Not always to adventures of the outdoor variety because to be frank, I don’t believe I’ll ever enjoy them. One needs only to ask my ex-boyfriend to find out how grumpy I am on camping trips. But in non-outdoor environments, ones that are designed to grow me as a person and expand the limited perspective I’ve become accustomed to from living inside Rhianna’s brain for 26 years, I’m learning to say yes.

So, when the conversation turns to accessibility, I’m learning to always say yes.

Recently, I was asked if I thought the perception around disability and disabled people in society was improving. Yes, I said, when it came to physical accessibility and the ways in which we can accommodate different bodies; more buildings have wheelchair ramps, there’s more education and resources available on adaptive equipment and the creation of those devices are becoming more widely known and recognized in the non-disabled community.

But I also said no, I didn’t believe it was improving in the places where it counts the most–in the hearts of the people we love and do life with.

When I’m being “helped” across the street against my will, I do not feel trusted as an individual, capable of making safe decisions. When I’m denied access to establishments because I work with a guide dog, I feel discriminated against because of a tool that gives me independence in a way I’ve never had before and that many people take for granted. When a disabled person is praised and viewed as inspiring for being able to use a microwave, we are belittled. When our disabilities make able-bodied people thankful that they aren’t like us, we are pushed to the margins of society.

Until our disabilities are seen as an asset, until we are treated as people, until we are valued as equal members of society and not pushed to the sidelines, we have not grasped the true meaning of acceptance, love and equality.

there is so much work still to be done. And the best way to do this is to say yes.

But how, Rhianna? What do we say yes to? Oh, I’m so glad you asked!

  • Say yes to making the lives of disabled people as fulfilling and lifegiving as possible.
  • Say yes when disabled people need you to cheer them on in the fight against ableism and discrimination.
  • Say yes, I trust you, when disabled people tell you they don’t need help.
  • Say yes, I’ll help you, when a disabled person does reach out for help.
  • Say yes to seeing people with disabilities as people and not broken objects in need of fixing.
  • Say yes to being our allies and not our enemies.
  • Say yes, I see you for you and not what is or is not on the outside.

We are people. And people deserving of the same human dignity, value and love that every human deserves.

But we also have disabilities, and those parts of us are just as valuable, just as worthy and just as in need of love and equality as any other.

Come with me and let’s work to create a world of accessibility, equality, trust and care for every person in it. Because when we make the world a better place for one person, it becomes a better place for everyone.

Well? What do you say?

THE A-E-I-O-U’S OF ACCESSIBILITY — U IS FOR UNITE

Welcome back to The A-E-I-O-U’s of Accessibility, with our fifth post, U Is For Unite.

Unity is a word that I thought existed purely within the confines of a church. Growing up in a Christian household, I heard verses like Colossians 3:14: “And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony,” I Corinthians 1:10: “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment,” and Philippians 2:2 which says “complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” spoken in sermons and Bible studies, and I presumed that it was only a “Christianese” term, or religious jargon.

As a Christian, these verses hold a very special place in my life and in my faith journey. But I’m learning that what I thought of as “church words” have meaning outside of Sunday mornings, too.

Unity is one of those words. And it fits perfectly into the conversation of accessibility and disability equality.

Unite For One Goal

Pop quiz! (Don’t worry, I’m not actually grading you).

What is the goal that this series is trying to achieve?

If you said accessibility, you get a half point. No, you’re not wrong—it’s in the title, after all! But there’s a vital component that’s missing which can fill in the blank and help us gain a fuller picture of how to reach for and achieve accessibility.

This series was born out of and exists to explore ways we as a society can be more accessible, both in a physical context and in our attitudes and beliefs about disability and the people living with disabilities. It’s designed to lay a foundation upon which we can build a more accessible world in which disabled people are valued, prioritized and held as equal.

It hopes to encourage all people, able-bodied and disabled alike, to work together, bring together each person’s unique contributions in pursuit of making our world more accessible for all the people who live in it. Because when the abilities, skills, talents and passions of people come together, working toward a single, unified goal, I believe so much more can be accomplished.

Remember, if you can [I’ve tried to block it out, to be honest] when you were asked to work on a project as part of a team. These encounters were at best frustrating, and at worst, infuriating, in part perhaps because of who I was partnered with but more so because of how divisive the group usually became; one member would work harder than others, one would be late getting their portion in, and the final project would be the opposite of a cohesive team effort. At least I hope your experiences haven’t been like many of mine. But regardless, we’ve all been there.

And whether it turned out positively or negatively, it makes a point that can’t be ignored or undervalued when trying to create an accessible and inclusive world, and it’s the one, undeniable condition that holds us back from reaching it:

We need to work together to make it happen.

Unite As One People

For the body does not consist of one member but of many. / If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. / And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. / If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? / But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. / If all were a single member, where would the body be? / As it is, there are many parts, / yet one body. / The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” / On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, / and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, / which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, / that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. / If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” — I Corinthians 12:14-26

The Apostle Paul wrote these words two thousand years ago, yet, it amazes me how every verse in the Bible can apply to life today in 2022.

Some may find it a bit ironic, but I find it entirely fitting to use a body as the image of unity to talk about people with disabilities.

The body is the perfect image for how people need to come together to achieve accessibility, equality and inclusion. Able-bodied, disabled, people of all different backgrounds and experiences, need to come together and bring their unique gifts and abilities.

I wrote a poem as a teenager which is too cringy to post here, but it was inspired by the Bible passage above. Called “I’m a Hand, What Are You?” I likened myself to a hand because of my skill with the written word, and I asked my readers [who I believe have only ever been my parents], what part you see yourself as and what you bring to the body.

And I’m going to ask the same question now: What do you bring to the fight for accessibility and equality?

Disabled people are still fighting for accessibility and equality in 2022, which means there is clearly something missing. It isn’t that we are incapable or dependent on others, not because of our disabilities, but simply because we are human.

Humans were created to need each other. We were never meant to be alone. That’s why we crave community, friendships, relationships and connection so deeply. It’s a human need that is in each and every one of us, and with so many things that divide us, this is one thing that humans everywhere can understand and share.

More than asking for physical accommodations, we’re asking for relationship. We need allies, people who see our value and are willing to step out of their comfort zones and fight alongside us.

Of course, our goal is to increase accessibility in our communities for people with all kinds of disabilities, but we are also striving to change the attitudes around disability. Don’t you see? The one leads into the other: when people believe disabled people are worth it, making the world accessible for them becomes a value and not an inconvenience or an accommodation.

But this doesn’t mean that there won’t be challenges. It also is not a guarantee of reaching the goal: after all, we are only humans, and humans are immensely flawed creatures, and even working together does not guarantee success. (The Tower of Babel, anyone?] Because really, what do you get when you put a bunch of imperfect humans together?

Life.

Not exactly the best punch line, but true nonetheless.

But challenges and all, I believe the fight is worth it and I believe we can accomplish great things if we work together. I don’t write to further divide able-bodied people from people with disabilities; we are all people, and my deepest hope and passion is to work to close that divide.

But I am only one person and one voice in the fight. Will you help? Will you be an ally and fight for equality with us?

And in the words of a teenaged Rhianna:

“We all have different parts to play
It’s what God wants us to do.
But still one question I have now:
I’m a hand, what are you?”

[CRINGE!]

Well, my friends, there’s one more post in our series. Stay tuned to find out what Y is all about!