“The ADA defines a person with a disability as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity. This includes people who have a record of such an impairment, even if they do not currently have a disability. It also includes individuals who do not have a disability but are regarded as having a disability. The ADA also makes it unlawful to discriminate against a person based on that person’s association with a person with a disability.”
There are many different types of disability: mobility, sensory, psychiatric, learning, developmental, intellectual, etc. There are also visible and invisible disabilities. In our culture, the basic image of a disability is a wheelchair user. While this is an important part of the disability community, the majority of the disabled community are not wheelchair users. Many have invisible disabilities. 1 in 5 Americans have a disability. This means that just about everyone knows someone with a disability, though they may not know that they know. Being disabled is incredibly stigmatized. Many people are not “out” about their disability. It is understandable why they would not be given the amount of discrimination that people with disabilities are subjected to. Ableism is the name for prejudice, discrimination and oppression directed against people with disabilities. While it is somewhat known, there are mnay people who have never heard the term ableism. This needs to change as we need the language to call attention to systemic discrimination perpetrated against disabled folks.
Ableism is like weightism. It is a form of discrimination that is all too often ignored by even social justice activists. We do not have the attention that is garnered by race, gender or sexuality. This bothers me given the extent of ableism in our society today, not to mention the amount of disabled people in our society – 20%! I am disabled. I have a mobility disability related to rheumatoid arthritis and peripheral diabetic neuropathy and frequent pain in my knees, ankles and feet. I deal with several chronic illnesses, the most difficult one being Type II Diabetes. I have multiple psychiatric disabilities, with depression being the most pronounced among them. These disabilities affect my functioning each and every day. It limits multiple life activities. It impacts my ability to get from place to place in a timely manner. It affects my ability to climb stairs. My depression affects my ability to get out of bed, to function, to go to work, to do my work, etc. Sometimes I don’t know which is worse, but the two often feed off of one another. My blood sugar can greatly affect my mood and I have to test my glucose and take a shot every day of my life.
I feel uneasy “coming out” as disabled. It is so incredibly stigmatized. It says a lot that I feel more comfortable coming out as transgender than I do coming out as disabled. Mental health diagnoses are particularly stigmatized. Discrimination against mentally ill people is known as mentalism or sanism. We so often walk through the world feeling alone with our mental illness and continuously confronted with mentalism and sanism but there are TONS of people who are also dealing with mental health challenges. Sometimes I wish everyone that had an invisible disability could suddenly get a blue dot on their forehead so people could truly get an understanding of how widespread invisible disabilities actually are.
Disability is a fundamental part of the human condition. It is “natural” and “normal” to be a person with a disability. What is unnatural and abnormal is the societal obsession with “perfect” bodies. What is unnatural and abnormal is the fact that not all buildings and programs are accessible to all people. Disabled people are not defective. We did not come out of the womb damaged or become damaged. We have an impairment that limits one or more major life activities. Disability should be seen as part of the diversity tapestry of our culture and it should be celebrated, not denigrated. We need to be defenders of disabled people and learn to fight ableism in all its forms.