Deconstructing Ableist Statements

Ableism is kind of insidious. It’s one of those isms that are often perpetuated by very well-meaning people who intend to be kind. I think it’s often based not in hatred or fear, but in a lack of understanding. Well, okay, sometimes it’s fear, I’ve had a few people admit that I made them uncomfortable because of my disability. (And before anyone criticizes this, don’t, I admire the hell out of someone willing to admit their discomfort and talk to me about it so we can work through it)

That’s part of why I write about it with increasing frequency. If it’s based in misunderstanding, then the best tool I have to fight against it is to get folks to understand.

So, I’m going to talk about some well-meaning sentiments that I have encountered. A lot. By good people, by people doing their best to be kind, and not really thinking through what they’re saying. So, if you’ve said any of these to me or anyone else who is disabled, don’t feel bad, don’t apologize, just think about what I’m saying.

“If I lost my sight, I could never cope.”

When people say this to me, they think that they’re complimenting me on my ability to cope. They mean well. I’m convinced of this. But what does it really say? That the blind are, at base level, less able to live a fulfilling life.

It would be like me talking to someone who was 5’1″ and going “Gosh, if I were that short, I don’t think I could cope.”

It’s true that some people are better at learning coping mechanisms than others, but that’s true of all humanity. Also, I firmly believe that we are utter crap at determining what we can, and can’t, cope with.

“I’d rather lose (insert sense/function here) than lose my sight.”

This is the one I really, truly hate. Of the bunch, it is the one I’ve never been able to just shrug off. Is being blind ideal? Of course not. Of course it poses it’s own challenges. But it’s not the end of the world. It didn’t end my life. In fact, I have been far more of a contributing member of society since I lost the majority of my eyesight.

Loss of a sense or function is not a life sentance to misery. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to spend the rest of your life as some poor, pitiable thing that is less than human, but that is what this sentiment makes me feel like you see me as.

“Wow. You hold down a job? You’re so strong/brave/incredible.”

Uh. Would you say that to literally anyone who wasn’t somehow disabled? Unless they were already holding down a job (parenting included, that is absolutely a full time job). But would you say that to anyone else? I doubt it.

It’s not miraculous, though I was more or less led to believe that this was the case. I remember attending a week-long career thing for the visually impaired and blind, and the careers they introduced us to were not particularly aspirational. Or varied. It was not the encouraging, uplifting week they thought it was.

Yes. I work. Part-time, yes, but the reasons for that actually have nothing to do with being blind and everything to do with other health issues. The education for this career was challenging, but the job itself? Not at all.

“You’re so brave.”

This is close to the last one, but I want to talk about it specifically. Blindness in particular seems to have this weird mystique about it. Somehow, we are portrayed as noble martyrs. Poor, brave souls.

We’re not. I’ve known some blind people who are jerks. I’ve known some who are manipulative. Some who aren’t particularly brave or strong. Kind of like humanity as a whole.

At the end of the day, we’re just people.

Now. Here are some things that aren’t awful. Actually, I like hearing these.

“Here, look at this picture.”

People always react with such chagrin when they say this and either realize what they’ve said or had me gently explain it. And I try to be gentle, because I know they’re going to kick themselves about it. (Or laugh, the awesome people laugh)

Showing pics to friends and family is a normal thing. By automatically trying to show me one, you are telling me loud and clear that you think I’m normal.

I am normal. Weeeell. More or less.

“I keep forgetting that you’re blind.”

Good. I want you to. Or, if not forget, then not have it be the first thing you think of when you think of me. Think of me as a blogger, a massage therapist, the person who likes to dye their hair purple, the chick with the unicorn on her bag or just a friend.

“You’re good at (insert thing here).”

So long as “for a blind person” doesn’t come before or after that statement, I love it. If you want to compliment me, do it without any qualifying statements. This one absolutely applies to those outside of the disabled population. “For a woman” “For a gay man” “For a black person”. None of these should be included as qualifying statements. I’m a good massage therapist. Period. End of sentance. Not despite or because I’m blind.

At the end of the day, it’s easy to brush all of this off when you’re not living it. They’re just words, right? Does it really matter?

It does, because I hear this stuff all the time. Seriously. All. The. Time. The more you hear it, the easier it is to believe the undertones. I mean, I’m 44 years old and It’s only in the past year or two that I even started to question the validity of this kind of thing. Because I’d heard it so much, from so many people, that it must all be true.

All of those people meant well. You meant well, if you ever said these things. Meaning well doesn’t negate the impact, though. All I ask is that you think about what you’ve read, and perhaps start catching yourself before you say these things.

Like always, I urge you to be kind to yourself and to those around you. Times are hard. You deserve kindness. So do those you meet.

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