For some, having a disability can be exhausting enough because of the physical and mental toll it can take on the body. Although I have a physical disability, I’m fortunate it doesn’t impact me in that way. That’s not to say that it’s not exhausting; it’s just external things that I have to navigate as a person with a disability that makes it so.
In recent times we are starting to see positive media representation of people with disabilities. For example, women appearing on the cover of magazines, on the fashion catwalks, and so on. It’s been pleasing to see the discussions moving away from the notion that, incredibly, a woman with a disability is on a catwalk or a magazine cover, to one of acceptance. That is, although we may have a disability, we are women too. Although we have seen this progression, the air of ableist discussions persist.
Recently on LinkedIn, there was a post on a leadership page featuring a disability activist. Having not seen a post like that on this page, I commented that as a person with a disability, I was pleased to see this kind of post. Not only was it celebrating this woman, but it also assisted in the normalisation of people with disabilities. My comment received many likes, but it wasn’t long before my happiness of positive representation turned to a feeling of disgust and wanting to crawl into a hole. This feeling of disgust was two-fold. I was disgusted at the comments I was reading and also disgusted at myself.
Why was I disgusted with myself? Well, this is where the exhausting part of having a disability comes into play. Although I have no reason to be, I was disgusted with myself because I am a person with a disability of which the comments were targeted. Comments filled with ableist rhetoric like “don’t see the disability, see the ability,” “the only disability is a bad attitude”, “look at her! What an inspiration!”, “she’s differently-abled”, “I don’t even see the disability,” and so on. On top of that, because of my long-standing internalised ableism, I had to call on my peers in the Disability Leadership Network to read the comments to see if my offence was legitimate, which it was. I was disgusted with myself because I had gone from feeling happy the disability community was being represented for what we do, then feeling like nothing more than a person with a disability “giving it a red hot go”. These feelings are extremely exhausting — going from feeling like a human being to feeling like nothing but an object that people are unconsciously using to perpetuate a stereotype.
I spent a lot of time commenting on the thread in question, trying to point out to people that “see the ability, not the disability” and other ableist quotes are dangerous because they seek to place us in a box, rather than look at the multifaceted experiences we have. We are people with disabilities, AND we have abilities. Having one doesn’t cancel out the other.
As a society, we are all learning. I’ve had decades of internalised ableism that I am still unpacking. For those of you who have read this far, here is some homework for you:
The next time you go to comment on a disability-related meme, article, or post, ask yourself if your comment is based on a stereotype. It’s ok if you don’t know. Many of our beliefs are based on stereotypes that have been so ingrained into society that we don’t even see it as such. Questioning what we think we know to be fact is the only way to breaking down some of the invisible barriers that exist.