|Able. Nuff said...|
That now famous line is glaringly appropriate as I reflect on an educational series I recently began participating in. That two-day conversation of sharing and learning focused on issues related to persons with disabilities and oppressive practices known as “ableism.”
My understanding of ableism is that it’s a form discrimination, intentional or not, directed toward persons with mental and/or physical disabilities. Attending that training was, at least in my mind, more a refresher course in overall intolerance and acceptance than a space where I’d learn anything new. Boy was I ever wrong.
As I waited for the session to start, I confidently recalled countless other trainings, seminars and learning labs I’ve attended, each designed to up my IQ on topics ranging from racism and poverty to sexism and LGBT issues. And each time I completed a training, I felt adequately prepared for whatever would come up at the next round of work. (I can just hear my social justice allies muttering, “There you go again.”)
From the beginning I felt out of my league. This was going to be about more than wheelchair access and impolite stares. Nearly half the people in the room had a disability. That got me thinking about how our ‘abled’ society has done a superb (I use the term with disdain) job warehousing, marginalizing and just plain ignoring disabled persons, rendering them for all intents and purposes invisible.
The group brought up issues almost immediately that let me know just how superficial my understanding was about this important human rights issue. Early in the session, a bearded guy with cerebral palsy shared his experiences as a disabled person. He unnerved me as he spoke and here's why.
I've been around persons with cerebral palsy before and was familiar with its effects on the human body. What rattled me was the fact that as I listened to him speak; it took an incredible amount of effort for him to communicate – at least from my perspective. As he slowly but surely expressed his thoughts to the room, I found myself lost in a self-centered fog over just how much privilege I have. I am able to communicate with people without even thinking about it.
I make my living as a communicator; writing and speaking is what I do. As I sat there I thought, what if I was in his shoes? For a time I tumbled down a bottomless pit of self pity, racked with shame and guilt. Why? Because it was hitting me in the face none too subtly that all of my life I had taken for granted my ability to do things that for others might be an incredible challenge.
Me – with all my racism training and reading about sexism and working with organizations focused on poverty and studying about gay rights – possessing near ignorance about what it truly means to be disabled in American society. There I go again.
Fortunately, with the help of the bearded guy and others, their sharing, along with mine, I climbed my way out of that dark emotional hole. I’m still a work in progress, but have an emerging insight into the disabled community and its rich, complex reality. I also have acquired a great deal more understanding about the insidious nature of ableism. One thing I know for certain is there’s a lot I still don’t know but look forward to learning. I plan to get that knowledge through books, the educational series I’m participating in, and meaningful conversations.