I learned earlier this week via Brilliant Mind, Broken Body that today, in addition to being my parents’ wedding anniversary, is blogging against disablism day out there (out here?) in the blogosphere.
At first, I wasn’t going to participate because I don’t think of myself as having a disability: I’m basically physically healthy and mobile, have never been diagnosed with cognitive or emotive impairments, and am mostly able to move through life on a day-to-day basis without special equipment, medication, or modification of my surroundings.
But then I thought a little more about the words “disability” and “ability,” and what they mean as we move through our daily lives. And realized I have some thoughts on the subject I want to share. (As I type these words, I can feel the rippling echoes of non-surprise from friends and relations emanating out across the internets).
So here’s what I’d like to talk about this day of blogging against disablism/ableism (depending on which side of the pond you’re on): the fact that, today, I am able, but I have not always been able, and I certainly won’t always be so.
And what that awareness, the fact of moving through the world as a person who is able (today), means to me.
As an historian, I am trained to be aware of changes over time, and of the ever-changing nature of “common sense,” of our understanding of the world around us and the categories in which we put things. Including things that we imagine to be immutable. In short, our understanding of what it means to be “able” and “dis-able” is fluid and contextual, rather than fixed. When we speak of ourselves or someone else being “disabled,” we conjure up in our minds, in collective understanding, what it means to be “able,” what it means to embody or emulate able-ness.
This is not to say that disability is an illusion. To me, disabilities are a complicated mix of self and society. They are made up of the gaps between the desires we have as individuals to be and live a certain way and the cognitive, emotional, and physical resources we have to fulfill those desires. They are made up of the gaps between the pressure we are under to be and live a certain way, and the resources we have to meet those expectations.*
But nevertheless, I think it’s incredibly important to remember how much we define “disability” by measuring individual people against our vision of “ability” — and how much “ability” is, in turn, defined in this day and age, but the ideal of a physically healthy (dare I say “flawless”), cognitively efficient and rational, and emotionally “well-adjusted.” That is to say a a youthful adult capable of being an efficient worker whose personal needs are such that minimal (if any) adjustments need to be made by the people or social and physical structures around them as they move through the world.
The “able” person in convenient. The “able” person is economically productive, appears entirely self-sufficient (an illusion, as every human being in modern society is in some measure dependent on other human beings), is uncomplaining, intellectually adept without being challenging, with a healthy respect for the Powers That Be.
Ableism is structural and cultural acceptance of this model.
Ableism means policing each other and policing ourselves to ensure that we continue to accept and strive toward that model of able-ness.
Ableism means that we punish each other and ourselves for failing to approximate this ideal of able-ness in our everyday lives.
When I move through the world thinking to myself “today, I am able,” I am trying to remember that ableism exists: that the messages I am inundated with, the pressures I feel, pushing me towards approximating that ideal are culturally created rather than immutable. That I have the freedom to accept or reject those expectations (though rejecting them does not come without social penalty, since we all police one another in this regard). That I can choose whether I police myself or other people according to those standards.
And here’s the kicker. Today, I am able. Today, I can more or less approximate able-ness. I am mostly physically healthy (and what physical ailments I suffer from, there are corrections and cures readily available to me). I am young (but not too young), and have socially-acceptable skills and aptitudes which give me access to respected institutions of learning and places of employment. I am able to meet the expectations of my employers and other people who hold positions of authority in my world, and can tailor my social demeanor in ways that make me unobtrusive and outwardly inoffensive to the majority of people.
But all of these things: they’re just luck of the draw. They’re highly contingent, fluid, liable to shift beneath my feet. Someday, inevitably, I will become less able to decide whether or not to approximate able-ness. Because I will lose my ability to approximate. The choice will be taken away.
In a blog post last year concerning the dehumanization of children in the feminist blogosphere, I quoted historian Gerda Lerner, who reflects, in her book of essays Why History Matters, on why all human beings should care about hate and discrimination in myriad forms. She writes
All of us, ultimately, will join one of the most despised and abused groups in our society–the old and the sick (17).
What does it mean, to me, to move through through the world with the awareness that I am (only temporarily) able? That I am (only temporarily) acceptable to those in power? It means that I carry with me an awareness of, and gratitude for, the way in which my able-bodiedness gives me access to the world in myriad ways. It means I am aware of the contingency of that access.
And, in what might seem to many of you a counter-intuitive leap of faith, the knowledge that I will lose access someday, no matter how much I scramble to preserve it, frees me from the existential anxiety of that failure.
Knowing already that I will means that it’s untenable to build my sense of self-worth on the foundations of able-bodied privilege, for if I do that, then knowledge of my worth will vanish the minute I develop a debilitating illness, lose my hearing or eyesight, lose mobility, experience diminished stamina, flexibility, memory — all of the things that (as an adult) I have come to take more or less for granted.
Knowing that we will all fail, in the end, to measure up to the imagined ideal of able-ness means that it is unconscionable for me to police and punish others for likewise falling short. Their humanity is so much more than their emulation of an impossible norm.
When I was a teenager, and attended church for a few years, there was a woman there whose son was struggling in the school system. He’d had been diagnosed with various social and learning disabilities and she was really anxious about his future growing into an adult who had to fend for himself. She tried hard to remember, she said, the words of the prophet Micah (6:8). I’m not usually prone to quoting the Bible, but I think this one is worth sharing
He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good;
and what doth the LORD require of thee,
but to do justly, and to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with thy God?
The Powers That Be in the world work hard encouraging us to forget that this is all that is required. That to be a worthy person, what counts is to be just, merciful, and humble. That everything else is, in the end, mere details.
And while we live every day with the reality of a world that forces us (in some measure) to comply with the expectations of the Ideal of Ableness, we can refuse to be held hostage by that ideal: we can name it, and recognize the limits of its power, and choose to focus instead on calling out and correcting injustice (including injustices wrought upon ourselves), on rewarding acts of mercy and compassion (including our own), and encouraging (and practicing) humility: the realization that, in the end, we are all unable to make it alone.
Today, I am able. Tomorrow, I will be no longer. But I will still be a person of worth. And so will you.
*What we do to bridge those gaps is likewise complicated, and not the subject of this post. I just want to say here that while I believe we in some measure construct disability and ability through cultural narratives, I absolutely do not mean to imply that medication, psychotherapy, and other personal solutions have no place. They are of incredible help to many people, and I have family and friends for whom such solutions have been essential to their wellbeing.