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Stop Making Assumptions About My Abilities! – My Recent Encounter with Ableism

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Ableism – A form of discrimination against people with disabilities. A social prejudice.

When a disabled person experiences ableism, it can evoke a myriad of emotions such as anger, hurt, self-consciousness, and dehumanization.  When ableism comes from those we expect to “know” better, medical professional like doctors and nurses, and helping professionals, shock waves travel through our bodies we immediately wonder how many other disabled persons had this individual said or done these offensive things to?

My Recent Encounter with Ableism From a Medical Professional

It has been a long time since I had experienced ableism, and it came from a medical professional who was providing care to my Grandmother.

I know that I have mentioned my beloved Grandmother (“Big V” as I have dubbed her on the blog), and how much she means to me.  Over the last year, I have noticed changes regarding her mental health status, particularly her dementia.  Everything came to a head last Monday when she fell out of the bed, and had to be admitted to the hospital.  Thankfully nothing was broken, but her functioning and abilities wax and wane, and she now requires assistance to get around the house to do her daily living activities.

Due to the changes she is experiencing both mentally and physically, we are seeking home health services so that she can remain in the home for as long as she can.  (Individuals who are able to receive such care at home fair better than those who are institutionalized, mainly because they are in their “comfort zone” at home and are not in a cold, foreign environment like a hospital or nursing facility.)

The day after my Grandmother was released from the hospital, the home health nurse came to do an evaluation on her, and her health needs.  Before the nurse arrived, they called to see if anyone was home; I answered the phone, and stated that I would be at the house.  I also mentioned that my aunt, who is also a carer for my Grandmother, will be dropping in at some point to introduce herself and to learn more about what services my Grandmother could receive from their program.  The nurse understood all of this, and proceeded to make plans to arrive at the house in 15-20 minutes.

When the nurse arrived, they came in, and did an examination on my Grandmother.  When they completed this task, they asked when my aunt would be arriving, since they assumed that I could not be of more assistance to them than answering the phone and opening the door.

I told the nurse that I was a social worker, and that I would be the one answering questions about my Grandmother’s care.  Their response were along the lines of:  “Oh ok, that’s fine.  You know all about this, then.”

After that moment, the nurse continued to be very polite and interactive, and they understood the concerns I expressed regarding my Grandmother’s health condition, and her ability to remain home versus being in a rehabilitation facility.  The nurse took my observations into heavy consideration within her evaluation, and shared information for possible options of care.

Why The Nurse’s Question Was So Problematic

From the question posed, I knew instantly that they had disregarded my ability to be an active participant in my family members care – all they saw was a disabled woman who could not possibly assist with someone else’s care when they had their own health problems to attend to.

Any time someone makes such gross assumptions about my capabilities, functioning, mental status, and/or abilities, it lights a fire deep within.  That fire roars ferociously because I instantly realize that person has sized me up based off what their eyes can see, which is a wheelchair-using black woman who is under 4 feet tall.  They have categorized me as “useless,” “helpless,” an “invalid,” or having intellectual limitations where I cannot communicate or express myself as what is considered “normal.”  In my case, all of these assumptions are WRONG, and places me in a vulnerable position of being discounted as a full person, and having whatever uniqueness I do possess be deemed “negative” or strange.

The Double-Edge Sword of Being Disabled & Educated, & How this Creates an Unintentional Divide

The gross assumption made by the nurse about me is not the sole issue here – the fact that I had to disclose that I was a social worker was problematic as well.  Though I am very proud of the fact that I have had the opportunity to acquire an education and begin building my career, I know that these achievements are a double-edged sword for me as a disabled person.

Able-bodied people tend to unfairly judge disabled people based off their abilities, particularly whether they are or are not able to be “productive” members in society.  If a disabled person is able to attend school or attain a diploma or degree, acquire and maintain employment, or do other activities that are “expected” of able-bodied persons to be deemed “useful” to society, then that disabled person is considered “good,” “likable,” “able to beat the odds (inspiration porn motivation),” and “the ideal cripple.”

When a disabled person is not able to accomplish such things, they are viewed as being “lazy,” “wasting their life,” “not trying hard enough to be a successful disabled person,” “letting their disability dictate their life,” “using their disability as an excuse or crutch to not do more,” and other myths that the disabled person may internalized about who they are and their worthiness as an individual.  Such internalizations will not only affect that person’s self-esteem regarding their personhood, but also their disability status.  Self-hate is prevalent within our community, and it usually stems from the ableist statements and mistreatment we endure from the able-bodied individuals we interact with.

Why This Divide Benefits Our Oppressors

To divide us as a people based on our perceived abilities and accomplishments is detrimental to our chances of becoming a unified front to fight against ableism.  It hurts our willingness to band together because we become distracted by able-bodied people marking us as “good” or “bad” disabled people.  Every oppressed group has these “dividing markings” (as I like to call it) that runs deep within that population; for example, within the Black community, our major “marking” is colorism – “light-skinned” versus “dark-skinned.”  These dividing markings serve the oppressor (the majority) by making their standards of beauty, functioning, etc., the “norm,” and erroneously labeling individuals who do not fit that norm as “ugly,” “dysfunctional,” or “sub-human.”  Those mislabelings create the perfect breeding grounds for self-hate, and an inability to love the bodies and minds we possess that are perfectly imperfect.

Why This Kind of Ableism Is Not An Isolated Incident

Every day, disabled advocates online, as well as those I interact with, disclose the unbelievable and offensive ableism thrust upon them.  A day before my own experience, a dear friend shared with me the ableism they endured while at a banking institution.  They were trying to address an issue with their finances, and they had a family member accompany them on this errand.  The bank manager at the establishment refused to look at them while they were answering questions pertaining to their issue.  The manager made contact with their relative the whole time, though the relative was not answering or interacting on my friend’s behalf.  To be completely ignored in such a disrespectful manner was obviously upsetting, and something that NO ONE should experience by a “professional,” or layperson.

What Can Be Done About Ableism?

I decided to share one definition of ableism as the headlining image for today’s post because it is key for individuals to understand what exactly it is in order to appropriately address, and extinguish it from our society.  Ableism is a prejudice based off fear, ignorance, and mistruths about who we are as a people.  Those beliefs become harmful when they manifest into discriminatory practices that prevent us from gaining equal access to healthcare, education, and employment opportunities; refusal to respect our rights and personhood; and stymie our chances of having positive and accommodating interactions within our environments.  Able-bodied individuals have to be aware of the prejudices they hold against us; it is NOT our job to do that for them.  Our chief responsibility is to call out ableists who discriminate and demean our existence; remaining silent signals our “approval” of such actions when we fervently oppose them.

I do not have the magic “potion” to cure ableism, but sharing incidences when it happens to me is one way to self-advocate, and raise consciousness to individuals, professionals, and allies that ableism is REAL in 2015, and damaging to those it targets.

Ramp Your Voice! About Ableism

If you are a disabled person, how has ableism impacted your ability to embrace your disabled status?  Why do you think it is so hard for able-bodied people to believe that ableism is as serious of an “-ism” as racism or sexism?  What can we do as a community to raise consciousness about the devastating effects of ableism to rid our society of it once and for all?

Allies, what can you do to step up efforts to bring attention to ableism?  Are you aware of your own ableist views and prejudices against the disabled?  If so, how did you overcome them?  If not, what actions can you take to be more accepting and truly empowering as an ally?

ACTION TIME:  Share your experiences, thoughts, and comments below!

About Vilissa Thompson, LMSW

Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization she created to establish herself as a Disability Rights Consultant & Advocate. Ramp Your Voice! is a prime example of how macro-minded Vilissa truly is, and her determination to leave a giant "tire track mark" on the world.

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