In case you are not familiar with the term “ableism”, it is like racism except towards the “less abled” (a.k.a. “handicapped”), which includes both the physically and mentally “disabled”. The reason I’m overusing quotation marks here is that the terminology and the concepts it is meant to portray are very confused, misused and misunderstood by most people, and a lot of these terms (and others) are starting to be viewed as slurs or at least slightly insulting and incorrect words.
The Social Model of Disability
Why is someone handicapped? Their “damage”, right? Well, yes, but no. First-of-all, calling a person “damaged” is both rude and for-the-most-part incorrect. I guess I could understand someone losing leg functionality through an traffi c accident would feel “damaged” (I mean, they literally were in this case), but if that same person had been born without the ability to walk in the first place, “damaged” would not be the correct word.
Now, you might name me pedantic and a member of the PC police – both of which I am, but that is beside the point – for trying to make such minute corrections, but I am trying to make a point here! Because what is the standard for being “able”? Well, by what the legs’ functionality is supposed to be, right? Or by comparison to what most other people are capable of, yes?
But herein lies the problem, because we are both very selective in applying this standard, and very thoughtless in the way we have built our society and our attitudes towards what it means to be “able”.
Because, as weird as it sounds, there is nothing inherently handicapping with what we refer to as “disabilities”. It is all circumstantial and context based.
Whether someone can walk or not would not mean jack-shit if we all used hover-chairs such as the ones in Pixar’s “Wall-E” to get around. If we all literally floated through life, people that cannot walk would be able to do most of everything that the people who walk can.
“But aha!” you might say. “You wrote ‘most of everything’, not ‘everything’. That person is still disabled.”
Well, no. If walking is a little used skill that is only relevant in certain contexts, then not being able to walk is not a handicap. Am I handicapped for being short just because I cannot reach the top of the fridge? No. Are you handicapped just because you cannot play the flute? No!
You might think I am cheating with that last example but imagine a society that communicated through music. You might believe that not being able to play an instrument would be a handicap then (and throw in the hover-chairs, and a legless person who can play an instrument would suddenly be less handicapped than a legfull person who cannot), although you probably also think that this example is ridiculous.
But we DO live in that society. Just swap out music with “reading and writing” and you can see why dyslexia is considered a “handicap”. I find it particularly funny and illustrative that dyslexia is called a “learning disability”, because we so heavily depend on reading and writing for our education (and communication) that not being able to read and write (or being slow or bad at it) is considered a significant handicap.
But no one was handicapped with dyslexia before reading and writing was invented, even though potential dyslexics presumably existed back then, too. Dyslexia is a learning disability only because we allow it to be. Dyslexia IS NOT a learning disability. Or rather, it is, but only because the artificial structure of society so heavily relies upon reading and writing. There are other ways to learn. Learning by doing, learning by being taught verbally, learning by observing, “reading” through audiobooks, “writing” through dictation or speech-to-text programs, etc., etc., none of which is impacted by dyslexia. But because we do not make the proper accommodations, dyslexics are made to feel stupid even though they are no more or less intelligent than the general population.
To quote mentalhealth.org.uk, “the social model of disability proposes that what makes someone disabled is not their mental [or physical] condition, but the attitudes and structures of society.”
Dyslexia (and being legless too) is a handicap because we think of it that way and because we allow it to be that way. We have structured our society around being able to read and write (and walk), we have insufficient resources to help dyslexics adjust to the social expectations, and we have BY FAR not enough education and resources to help and educate non-dyslexics about how to adjust to dyslexics.
Society Creates Disabled People
The headline above has two meanings. The first one should be obvious if you didn’t somehow skip the first part of this article. The second one is the point of this next part.
Now, I believe I could talk about almost anything that is considered a handicap here – both physical and mental, both “extreme” and less so – and show how it would not be a disability if we structured our society differently. Almost everything has tools that either already are developed and distributed or could be or would be if we put more resources and thought into it. Deaf? Closed captions help a lot for video. Blind? Guide dogs, audiobooks and white canes come to mind. ADHD? Do not create an entire educational system requiring them to sit still and focus on one thing for hours on end. Even mental conditions that most people would consider more “extreme”, such as schizophrenia, can be context dependent. How early such things are discovered, how the people around them
treat them and how everyone is educated about it are part of determining how well people with the condition can take part in society.
Severity can even be influenced by the local culture, as the “voices” some people hear are generally malevolent in the United States but more benign and playful in Africa and India, according to Stanford.edu. But I will talk about what I am the most familiar with. Autism, or more specifically high functioning autism, to argue that it is the structure of our society that (at least to a large degree) creates disabled people by how we define them and how we treat them.
Autism is a spectrum, a spectrum meant to say how “functional” you are, and
this can vary heavily between people.
As I have already argued, what “functionality” is defined as is largely dependent on how our society is made to work and what is required to live in it, but even in the case of “high functioning” autism, society often create problems where there are none, problems that go beyond how we have defined this disability.
There is a concept used by autist advocacy groups called “autistic burnout”, which, according to spectrumnews.org, is a state of intense physical, mental and emotional exhaustion that is often accompanied with loss of skills and an uptick in autistic traits and symptoms. The cause of the burnout is attributed to the fact that autists must navigate a world that is designed for neurotypicals (i.e. “normal” people), a world that does not cater to autists or even care about them, really.
Because social interaction can be exhausting for autists (and neurodivergent people in general). Autists have to monitor their behaviour, avoiding “stimming” (repeated movements such as rocking or flapping hands) and making sure to keep and maintain eye contact (even though that does not come naturally and can even be very uncomfortable) so that they do not get labelled as “weird” or “awkward” or “annoying”. They have to actively work hard to learn the rules of body-language and inferred or metaphorical speech. Meanwhile, non-autists are allowed to be oblivious to autistic people’s needs. It is the autists who are expected to almost unilaterally adjust their behaviour to accommodate neurotypicals, even though it is usually easier for NTs to adjust to autists, even though it is the NTs who are considered “healthy”. Imagine someone with a limp being expected to keep up with someone without one, and it is probably easier to see why this is ludicrous.
Because of all of this, a lot of autists who are labelled “high functioning” prefer to call it “high masking”, because what is expected of a high functioning autist is to blend in – to actively work to erase or hide autistic traits. And this takes a considerable amount of mental energy and effort. Autistic burnout happens when this toll has reached its breaking point and results in a collapse that can last everywhere from a couple of days to years. This burnout happens for the sole reason that autists are taught to expend an often-tremendous amount of energy on hiding who and what they are; to work against their neurodivergence rather than with or around it. For the soul reason that autists are often forced or pressured or always at least expected to try to be or imitate what they are not, rather than teaching non-autists to be understanding and accepting, rather than helping both autists and non-autists how to make adjustments or accommodations towards each other.
Thus, more problems and disabilities are created where there should be none. And the ways in which autists are potentially MORE ABLE than abled people – of which there are many – are not given room flourish.
And autists are not the only ones expected to mask and adjust unilaterally. We are taught little about how to interact with neurodivergencies in general (or physical disabilities, for that matter), such as ADHD, OCD, dyslexia, Tourette syndrome, epilepsy, schizophrenia, etc. The adjustments made (if at all) are local and not universal. Neurodivergent people are given “special education”, which is usually insufficient and commonly not early enough, and often even helps to alienate neurodivergent people further (just remember what you yourself probably thought of people given “special” education).
Neurodivergents might be given medication, yes, and even sometimes money and assistance to help adjust to and live in our societies, but that they are living in a well -developed and well-funded welfare state AND assuming it is even noticed in the first place, as most parents, teachers or people who would be in a position to discover neurodivergency early in a child’s life do not know what the signs are and often enough do not even know to look for them in the first place. Society at large is oblivious at best and actively malignant at worst. In these Covid19 times, some parts of our society are actively and openly dipping into eugenics, with some US states “[making] it clear that people with cognitive issues are a lower priority for lifesaving treatment”, according to propublica.org. It is perhaps not hard to see why depression, anxiety and exhaustion is very common in neurodivergent people of all kinds. These often feel like features of neurodivergence, not bugs, and they are MADE features by how trash-shit anyone who diverges from the expected standard is treated.
What we SHOULD be doing, is teaching neurotypicals and neurodivergents alike to be respectful and knowledgeable about each other. How to recognise the signs and how to make the PROPER adjustments to EACH OTHER. This should be taught in school to everyone. A neurotypical should be taught to respect and accept an autist’s aversion to eye-contact while talking. An autist should be taught how to assist an epileptic having a seizure. An epileptic should be taught not to be afraid of someone hearing voices that other people cannot hear. We should all be taught how to interact with each other respectfully and with some amount of base-line knowledge of what challenges different people face, whether they are of a physical or of a mental nature. We should be taught that disabilities exist because of how we have allowed our societies to be designed.
We are all ableist because we were made that way and kept that way by how we neglect and mistreat people who do not fit the socially constructed definition of what it means to be “able”.
The good news is that social constructions can be socially constructed differently. By restructuring how we educate and integrate and accommodate where needed, we can make ableism disappear.
The bad news is that we just do not care.
Written by Emil Olai