3 Ways Disabled People Can Respond To Ableism


An important thing to understand about ableism that disabled people have limited choices in how to respond to it.

Two main questions dominate most discussions about ableism. One is about what does and doesn’t “count” as ableism. The other debate is over how people with disabilities should or shouldn’t respond to ableism. The first is an interesting and sometimes important semantic question. The second is more practical, especially for disabled people who actually have to deal with ableism every day.

Every disabled person responds in their own unique way to ableism. But it helps to group these possible responses into a few broad categories, which can in turn help disabled people think about how they want to respond to ableism in different situations.

But first it really is important to at least settle on a basic idea of what ableism is – not just in theory, but in real life. The two most common kinds of ableism are annoying, discriminatory, and offensive behaviors and comments by other people, and structural barriers, organizational habits, and built environments that make life harder and the world less accessible to people with disabilities.

Ableist comments and behaviors include strangers shouting things like, “You got a license for that thing?” or “Don’t run over me!” at someone in a wheelchair or mobility scooter. It also includes more physical situations, like someone who not only offers to help someone on crutches get through a doorway, but insists on helping even after the person says no. Both situations can cause a combination of annoyance, humiliation, inconvenience, and sometimes even danger.

Accessibility barriers are less personal, but just as much of a problem in their own way. They include restaurants that still have steps at the entrance and tiny, narrow restrooms, town sidewalks that are constantly in poor repair or covered with ice and snow in the winter, and stores in old downtown buildings with few if any modern accessible design features. Almost 33 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act, inaccessible architecture still isolates disabled people and drastically narrows their choices as workers, customers, and citizens.

So, how can disabled people respond? What options do disabled people have when confronted with either interpersonal or concrete ableism? There are scores of specific tactics, but arguably three main strategies. Each has advantages and disadvantages.

1. Ignore and avoid

For better or worse, this is probably the tactic most disabled people choose, or feel they can choose, most of the time. They simply refuse to answer or acknowledge annoying or offensive ableist comments. They do their best to dodge unwelcome physical interference or procedural impediments as gracefully as they can. They “go along” just to get awkward, ableist encounters over with as quickly and safely as possible. Many disabled people “choose” to go to different restaurants, stores, and other places that are more accessible. They stay in when the weather is bad. Whenever feasible, they don’t even try to venture into areas they know are likely to be inaccessible or unsafe.

The main advantage of this passive approach is that there is less confrontation. Putting up with something unpleasant in order to get through it is sometimes better than objecting, which tends to drag the misery out. There is also less risk of longer-term negative consequences from unfriendly encounters, if the disabled person involved just lets things slide. And there are at least some social rewards for being regarded by others as an especially stoical, low-maintenance, easygoing disabled person, rather than a chronic complainer.

But there are many disadvantages to ignoring and avoiding ableism this way. There is social isolation when disabled people restrict their own interactions, and from coming across as notably passive and aloof to others. There are the long-term toxic effects of always keeping anger and frustration under wraps. Disabled people also lose physical freedom, mobility, and opportunities when they just give up on whole sections and benefits of their communities because of unaddressed accessibility problems. And there is even more serious harm when ableism and inaccessibility prevent disabled people from taking care of their medical, legal, and financial necessities.

There is certainly something to be said for the day to day practicality of “going easy” on ableism. But this kind of agreeability comes with costs that build up over time, and which many disabled people come to feel are much too high.

2. Anger

Instead of opting for passivity and avoidance, most disabled people at one time or another release their true feelings and confront ableism. Sometimes it’s just a bit of eye-rolling or cutting sarcasm. Other times it’s more straightforward objections and expressions of frustration and hurt. Some disabled people choose to go out of their way to make it clear that even unintentional and impersonal ableism, like inaccessible buildings and discriminatory rules, are personally harmful and infuriating. They want people to know that ableism is personal, whether or not it’s meant to hurt or exclude.

The chief advantage of responding to ableism with anger is that it’s usually the most authentic response. Holding back anger too often makes a disabled person feel false. Eventually, they may start to lose their sense of worth. If nothing anyone does to them matters, even to themselves, they may start to feel like maybe they don’t matter. Of course, whether anger in any given situation is justified or not is always debatable. But honest, unfiltered emotions have a validity of their own. It can also be healthier to let off at least a little steam in the moment, instead of letting it build up and explode in much more messy ways later on.

On the other hand, anger has pretty obvious downsides, too. People don’t like anger. It hurts them and makes them feel guilty, which then leads them to be angry right back. Anger is alienating, and many people with disabilities feel they can’t afford to alienate people, especially those they rely on both for desired opportunities and essential help. Anger is also hard to control. Few of us are able to think at our best when we are truly, freely angry.

Broadly speaking, anger is underrated as a response to ableism. But while in many ways it’s necessary and healthy, it’s also volatile, and can be counterproductive if not handled with care.

3. Advocacy

The third main option for responding to ableism is in a way a combination of the first two. It’s anger at discrimination or disrespect, transformed not into passivity, but into calm and purposeful action. Advocacy is when disabled people confront ableism in ways designed to reverse it. Disabled people explain why certain comments are uncalled for or unhelpful. They point out what specifically makes policies discriminatory and environments inaccessible. They suggest more appropriate and respectful ways to engage with disabled people.

Effective advocacy for people with disabilities means making the right people aware of accessibility problems and how they can and should be fixed. It also means developing a personal approach that they are comfortable with and can stick to every time, to make a more consistent case for permanent change. It’s harnessing anger and frustration to power positive action.

Successful disability advocacy solves specific individual problems, and can actually reduce the incidence of ableism. Even when it isn’t immediately effective, it helps channel and process anger in more positive ways. Advocacy can also teach people about ableism without making the lesson too personal or wounding.

Unfortunately, advocacy doesn’t always work as advertised. It often takes a very long time and a lot of tiring physical and emotional labor to show any positive effect. People and institutions learn to absorb polite, civil, by-the-rules advocacy. They find it fairly to handle disability advocacy with respect and apparent concern, but actually do nothing. Advocacy also requires complex partnership with other disabled people and allies – and that is a challenge in itself.

Advocacy is in some way the ideal response to ableism. But it’s harder, and the rewards are more fleeting.

Maybe the most important thing to remember is that disabled people don’t always feel like they have a choice in how they respond to ableism. Some feel like they have to be chill and passive no matter what, or they will be hated and abandoned. Some experience ableism so extreme and demoralizing that lashing out in anger feels like the only rational reaction. Others feel tied to advocacy, as if it’s a moral duty for disabled people.

The best thing anyone can do, disabled or not, is to allow disabled people enough space to choose the responses to ableism that work best for them.

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