“Ism” is Code for Supremacy
While White America was reckoning with the realization that the Matrix does not exist and that our entire infrastructure is built from the bones of slavery (figuratively and literally), I have spent the past few months following influencers in the disability community and having an epiphany of my own.
Although I’ve been mindful of disability and accessibility my entire life, my latest realization started back in July as the American Disabilities Act (ADA) turned 30. At first, I was taken aback because I thought surely the ADA was older than I am. One of my best friends from high school has cerebral palsy and is legally blind. I remember all of the accommodations that she had—tutors, lessons on tape, extra time on tests—and I thought it was amazing that our school made these things available to her. I did not know then that the ADA was merely a toddler and that our school’s thorough compliance was an outlier for the experience I have heard from other disabled friends our age.
When model Tatiana Lee posted her features in Forbes and Apple to celebrate the ADA anniversary, I realized that I was reading these stories with a different lens than I ever had before. What it was, I couldn’t place my finger on it until she posted an Instagram story on internalized ableism, which are the disparaging things disabled people say to themselves.
“A lot of this sounds similar to the things victims of abuse and gaslighting say. I suppose they are rooted from the same tree, so I guess ableism is a form of abuse,” I said to her. She quickly responded.
“Any form of discrimination is abuse, ableism is discrimination against people with disabilities and internalized ableism is when you inflict that discrimination on to yourself because it’s what society has told you is true. Which yes, is all rooted in White supremacy. Ableism, sexism, racism, homophobia and transphobia is all the same, just in different forms.”
My mind broke open in the most beautiful ways after reading that. As a mixed race woman, I have certainly faced discrimination in my life. But my ableist mindset kept me from seeing that I certainly have also discriminated against others. In spite of the fact that I have friends with varying disabilities and levels of mobility, I was experiencing the same moment of having my blinders pulled off that my White friends were just a month prior. “I have disabled friends” was not a pass for me not to be fully aware of how much we completely exclude those with disabilities from equitably participating in our society, and how much our system reinforces that mindset.
I just finished watching the season 4 of This Is Us and I really struggled through the last half of the season. (Spoiler alert ahead for those of you who haven’t seen it.) At the beginning of season 4, Kate and Toby welcome a premature baby boy. He’s just over two pounds and spends his first weeks in the NICU. I wasn’t sure where they were going with the story, but I knew that I was going to be extremely pissed off at the writers if they took it in the direction of infant loss (only because Kate had been through so much in her life, she really needed a damn win).
Instead, we learn that baby Jack is blind, and much of the storyline for Kate and Toby is them not just adjusting to life as new parents, but adjusting to life with a disabled child. Fast forward to the middle of the season and their marriage is on the rocks and Toby makes a comment that seeing Jack just makes him sad. Kate is clearly hurt by it and isn’t sure how to handle it because she doesn’t understand why Toby can’t just love their son with his whole heart.
By the end of the episode, Jack seems to be responding to the twinkly lights that Kate had hung and Toby gets excited. Excited to the point that he had hope that his son would gain his sight and he started researching if a miracle was possible for Jack. By the end of that episode, I was livid.
How could the writers not use this incredible opportunity to change the narrative here? The story suggests that a parent struggles to love and bond with their child because they were born with different abilities than another. I know that this story is all too real because that’s how society tells us to react when our kids aren’t perfect. We’ve created this idea of what a “perfect pregnancy” and “perfect labor” and “perfect baby” should be that when these expectations are not met, we are disappointed and have to go through a period of grief before finding acceptance. This is what Toby was experiencing. He was grieving the loss of the life he imagined with a son who didn’t have a disability, which made him miss out on fully enjoying his son’s first year of life.
My friend Jennifer recently explained that the medical community exacerbates these expectations and emotions in parents. As a member of the Deaf community, she shared that hearing parents with Deaf children are immediately given ways to correct the “problem” by way of cochlear implants, surgeries or hearing aids. While there is nothing inherently wrong with these tools, the fact that it’s the first response to offer up to parents of a child with a disability reinforces the idea that these babies are somehow broken or defective, when anything could be further from the truth. Rather than suggesting the parents learn sign language to communicate with their child, doctors provide a menu of corrective options to try in hopes that the child’s Deafness will not be an impediment. Searching for a cure for cancer is healing an illness. Deafness, blindness, and limb differences are not illnesses that need to be fixed.
Our medical community has taught us to look at people who are disabled as broken or less than in other ways as well. The lifetime cost of medical care is exponentially higher for people with disabilities. The overall cost of living is higher too, since people with disabilities get discriminated against in the workplace, and in some states, it’s legal to pay them less than minimum wage if they are receiving benefits from other programs.
Today, another friend and disability advocate was talking about accessible housing (or the lack of) on her Instagram stories and how completely privileged her family was to be able to find a house, gut it, and build it fully accessible for their middle daughter, who is in a wheelchair. The process was ridiculously expensive, and most adults with disabilities could not afford to do that, between lack of quality work and the threat of losing benefits if they make too much money. Horrifying.
As we work to tear down this system of “isms” that allows women to be paid 2/3 of what a man is paid and Black people to be lynched publicly or legally enslaved, let’s not forget the biggest minority among us: the disability community. We need to build a system that doesn’t sort people into buckets of discrimination and decides who gets to try to live a good life and who can merely hope for one that is modestly humane. To do this, we need to start with acknowledging that we are all different, and that’s what makes us an amazing species.