I’m a little nervous to post about ableism because it’s something that I’m not very familiar with. I am more comfortable posting about topics I’ve researched thoroughly, discussed at length, or experienced myself. But this site is about being better, and I definitely want to be better at understanding, noticing, and minimizing ableism.

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(image & definition from: whatisableism.tumblr.com)

When I’m out in the world, I don’t notice whether the space I’m in is accessible to everyone. When I attend an event, I don’t notice whether disabled people are represented in any way. I haven’t considered what it would be like for a person with hearing-impairment to try to enjoy podcasts.* There’s a lot I just don’t think about. Fortunately, I’ve come across some resources that are helping me to grow in my awareness.

The What is Ableism Tumblr is a great resource for learning more about ableism – what it looks like, how to unlearn it, and the disconnect between the disability community and the liberal, progressive and left activist scene.

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PODCASTS

  • The Liturgists – Ableism: It’s all about “the conscious and unconscious ways that people tend to discriminate against disabled people.” This podcast was the push I needed to work on this post. The episode shared stories from Ginny Owens about her experiences as a blind musician living and working in Nashville, and from Heather Avis about her children with Down syndrome and how people respond to them, and from Michele about her perspective as a queer, intersectional, disabled activist. The topic of this one is broad but they definitely focus on two very specific experiences of disability (blindness and Down syndrome). Even the descriptions of the children with Down syndrome focus especially on the beauty of it, and not as much on the challenges which are also important to acknowledge. The episode has limits, but it is still a helpful intro or reminder on the idea of ableism.**
  • Sporkful – Dining Out in a Wheelchair: “When you go out to eat, do you notice how high the tables are? In a restaurant’s bathroom, do you notice how long the handles are for the hot and cold water? Probably not. But if tables are too low, a person in a wheelchair can’t get close enough to the table to eat comfortably. If the faucet handles are short, they may be just out of reach. When you’re in a wheelchair, dining out is far more complicated.”
  • Longest Shortest Time – The Secret Life of a Deaf Superhero: This episode interviews the author of a (semi-autobiographical) graphic novel called El Deafo. “Before Cece Bell turned five, she got really sick and lost her hearing. She suddenly had to learn how to navigate the world of school, friendships, and family, through her hearing aids and lipreading.”

In listening to any of these podcasts, just keep in mind that none of them speak for all people with disabilities. They can serve as an important tool in creating awareness and helping listeners learn more about what it is like to have a disability. But they are just one step in developing empathy that leads to action.

Speaking of Ginny Owens, she has a great set of videos on youtube called How I See It that explain how she does stuff like choosing clothes, putting on makeup, and using an iphone.

TV & FILM

In doing further reading on ableism, I came across a term that was new to me. Cripping up is when non-disabled actors portray disabled characters. Examples would include Leonardo DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Eddie Redmayne playing Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, or Kevin McHale playing Artie on Glee. I’m embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t thought much about this until now. In fact, I was part of the problem because, at least with Leo, I thought it was evidence of good acting. I know! I’m the worst!***

“But is this as harmless as mainstream audiences seem to see it? While “blacking up” is rightly now greeted with outrage, “cripping up” is still greeted with awards. Is there actually much difference between the two? In both cases, actors use prosthetics or props to alter their appearance in order to look like someone from a minority group. In both cases they often manipulate their voice or body to mimic them. They take a job from an actor who genuinely has that characteristic, and, in doing so, perpetuate that group’s under-representation in the industry. They do it for the entertainment of crowds who, by and large, are part of the majority group.”

Frances Ryan, The Guardian

Good point.

I’ve watched a couple shows that have been great in creating awareness for me. Most recently, I’ve been watching Speechless about a family that includes a teenage son, JJ, who has Cerebral Palsy. JJ is in a wheelchair and uses a board and head-mounted laser to communicate and the show revolves around the family and their relationship with his aide who serves as his voice. The great thing about Speechless is that the star who plays JJ, Micah Fowler, actually does have Cerebral Palsy. Besides being a fun family sitcom, it also helped me understand how non-verbal people who cannot use sign language are able to communicate. I honestly had no idea before seeing it on Speechless. (You can listen to the show’s creator talk about it here.)

speechless (Photo via Washington Post)

I have also been known to watch the cheesy family show Switched at Birth. (The premise sounds interesting, doesn’t it?!) One of the main characters is deaf so there’s a whole community of characters who are also deaf. While the main deaf character is played by someone who does have some hearing, the other deaf characters are played by deaf actors. I am aware that the show is definitely not a perfect representation of the deaf community (the way sign language is used, for example) but for me, at least, it was a good reminder of the unique challenges faced by people who experience hearing impairment. And like Speechless, I think it’s awesome for them to have representation. From what I can tell, it’s a step in the right direction toward a more inclusive media that actually represents all people and not just those in the majority. This is great for people who will hopefully feel represented, but also for viewers in the majority who may not have personal relationships with individuals who have disabilities. Hopefully the creators of new shows and movies will see the success of something like Speechless and incorporate the full diversity of characters that exist in real life.

So there you have it. An intro to ableism.


*You may notice that the links to podcasts I’ve listed include transcripts of these episodes. This is great for people who aren’t able to hear the audio, but unfortunately these transcripts are not always available for each episode and certainly not for every podcast out there.

**During their discussion of Down syndrome, Michael Gungor mentioned Crispr, which I had never heard of. Never fear! There’s a Radiolab episode for that.

***IN MY DEFENSE, I haven’t seen the movie in ten years at least. And I’d like to think that maybe my views have evolved since then.

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