Ablism: The Not-So-Subtle Art of Avoiding Tough Issues

This past Sunday, I got to have a really nice–though too brief–phone conversation with a good friend of mine, in which my friend gave me warming praise for my revolutionary congregation writing, as well as a lovably packaged critique. The critique went something like this: “I like your writing and I’d love to read what you think about ablism. Its absence seems pretty stark in your posts.” Now, in my opinion, that is a skillful critique. Positive, engaging someone with an interest in their opinion, while also pushing them to grow further into their values. Magnificently done.

And my friend was absolutely right. I had actually been triggered to a similar thought in Part 1 of the congregations piece, when I mentioned churches having disability accessible spaces–I began thinking about how lonely that one little mention of ablism is in this whole blog of mine. And with my friend’s push on Sunday, I’ve decided to do something about that. I’ve started re-reading Eli Clare’s work, and my co-worker Sunny just let me borrow their Disability Studies reader from college. I do think the absence is stark, and I can bodily feel that it’s deliberate. Similar to my absence of deep discussion around transphobia and trans liberation, ablism is one of those areas where I get physically uncomfortable talking about it, both because of the trickiness of language and the fear of speaking wrongly, as well as the lack of time and energy that I’ve put into studying it.

The absence is particularly jarring for me because I really agree with an important theoretical observation that I believe my friend Bruin (was it you, Bruin?) made to me: that ablism is the canary in the social movement coalmine. The idea is that if a social movement or a movement organization fails to make good space for people with disabilities, that is a strong negative sign for the long-term sustainability or liberatory quality of said movement. I think this observation is brilliant, just totally right on. Because the same skills and structures that it takes an organization to be less ablist are much the same skills and structures that make it responsive to issues of abuse and sexual violence, to issues of self-care and burnout, and to issues of power hoarding and space sharing. They are the skills of patience, consideration, listening, and caring. Particularly because of the vast diversity of disabilities that exist in our current society, the flexibility that our movements require to meet the anti-ablism challenge is powerful preparation for the flexibility that our movements need for thousands of other issues and tactical challenges as well.

Okay, so if I really totally believe this, then why such a low prioritization of study and work on ablism? Hypocrisy, of course! While I believe it theoretically, I think that I’m embodying the contrary, ablist reaction of thinking that addressing ablism is too hard, that it’s not worth prioritizing, that it’s not a core issue…and even that god-awful default defense of the status quo: that talking too much about ablism is divisive. Additionally, in my secondary reaction to my friends critique I found myself thinking, “but that’s not an issue I know about or have experience with, that’s something that other people are blogging about.”

It’s this last thought that I want to talk about today, with the other stuff coming later as I read more.

It’s incredible how, in the areas where we are privileged or where a deeper critique frightens us, we can ignore constantly lived realities that are staring us in the face. That’s the case with ablism. I seriously can’t believe that I think ablism is not an issue that I’m dealing with, when actually it’s all around me!

First of all, my own chemical sensitivities, and the fact that almost all perfumes and chemical smells give me an instant headache…and thus that I have headaches weekly.

Then, there’s the youth organization where I work, and the deeply challenging politics of unspoken and unseen learning disabilities and how youth hide them, but then are lightly teased about their behavior…but it’s never politicized beyond calling out the teasing, and we adults don’t know what to do because we don’t want to put a youth on blast by naming it as ablism, but then it also never gets talked about. This has been an issue for years, and I think about it every time certain youth are in the office, but our inaction and our lack of strategizing around it is actually pretty terrible!

There is my last post about being put into gifted programs at a young age…and the whole flipside of that of people who I’ve loved who were put into remedial programs, medicated, sent to tutors, etc. Their experience also made me hate the system that separated us…yet I never considered it ablism??

There is Glendi’s hospitalization, the months of healing afterwards, and the patience I occasionally lost as the weeks of taking care of her went on. And there’s that question that Glendi hoarsely voiced the day after the emergency, about whether she was broken.

There is Glendi’s friend and college classmate in Guatemala who, after a bus accident 6 years ago, is paraplegic and who lives in this tight, winding little cobblestone alley and almost never leaves her house…and has been systematically shut out of the teaching profession that she was previously in.

There are my friends who write and talk and think brilliantly about disability and ablism, but who are also living much deeper realities ablism than I am. I think about them, and I think about supporting them, but it’s sadly typical that I haven’t take the step of really applying the politics beyond it being something that’s sort of “their thing.”

Then, there is the really, really big reality. The daily family issue. The unspoken tension underneath much of the suffering in our Guatemala family. There is Glendi’s dad’s condition. As a man with type-2 diabetes who now also faces kidney failure, he has been unable to work for 3 years now, and the pain and shame of him not being able to contribute financially to his family has been a defining frame this whole time. In the mix of poverty and manhood and rural pride, the ablism piece has been there this whole time, but I’ve been missing it! All of the embarrassment that gets expressed, the exasperation with life and the questioning of what living really means. The softly spoken question, so wrapped up in ablism, of when is the time to give up, stop operating, pull the plug. And for us, with the economic power in the situation, to miss this piece is profound. Man, this is big.

This is bringing up a lot of questions for me, and a lot of feelings. But I think this is the point where I need to quiet down, do more work, and do more reading. This was sort of just a first clearing of the lot lot before building the foundation. The additional building will come slowly.

I am so thankful to my friend for the push to be thinking about this, and I’m excited for Eli Clare’s Exile and Pride to arrive in the mail. As hard as it can be sometimes to overcome the initial hump of defensiveness, I love realizing the places where I need to stretch myself and grow.

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi