7 Ableist Behaviours and How to Stop Them
There are many articles and videos on this subject created by disabled people themselves. Some good examples are:
- "5 Ways Able-Bodied People Can Do Better By People in Wheelchairs"
- "7 Things Never to Say to People With Disabilities"
- A Reddit thread where disabled people talk colloquially about experiences they've had with well-meaning (but ignorant) able-bodied people
But, I figure it always bears repeating how to recognize and stop implicitly ableist behaviour. Since working as a personal service worker (PSW) for two women in wheelchairs, I've noticed, even as an able-bodied person, some glaringly ignorant things that regularly happen to them in public. Here is a brief list of some ableist behaviours that you can easily spot and eliminate (phew!):
Most people know better than to gawk at people with disabilities (or anyone who is different than them), but this still happens all the time. It's natural to be curious about people who look different, have different methods of mobility, speech, etc. but DO NOT STARE AT THEM. Have you ever had somebody stare at you intently, against your will, for a prolonged period of several seconds? Wasn't it uncomfortable? Now imagine if they looked at you as if you were some sort of weird science experiment. How much more uncomfortable would that be? I'm guessing it'd be a pretty dehumanizing experience, and yet this happens to people with disabilities constantly. Your curiousity isn't more important than someone else's right to exist comfortably, so try to notice when you or someone you're with is gawking, and make the effort to look elsewhere.
2) Pity smiles.
In a similar vein, many people smile at people with disabilities out of pity. Now, I'm not saying never to smile at people with disabilities; just don't ONLY smile at them! There's a huge difference between a casual smile and an awkward pity smile from strangers on the street. The difference is in the eyes: the eyes of pity smilers look like they're staring at a wounded kitten. Disabled people are not wounded animals requiring your help, nor are they charity cases requiring your pity. Please keep your weird guilt to yourself.
It's truly baffling how many people straight-up act as though the people with disabilities around them do not exist. Case in point: I sit in and take notes for a university class one of the women I work for is enrolled in, and one day the professor instructed the students to get into small groups for an exercise. The people sitting near us did ask her to join their group, but then proceeded to ignore her completely (despite the fact that she was the only one who had done the reading), preferring instead to paraphrase randomly from the textbook. After everybody was instructed to go back to their seats, one male group member realized that they hadn't put her name on the assignment. He then tapped me on the shoulder and asked me what her name was. Bewildered that this was even happening, I simply told him her name so he would go away, but she was sitting right beside me.
He could easily have asked her directly, but he didn't. I'm sure he didn't realize what he was doing, but that is hands-down one of the most ableist things I've witnessed at my job. Don't be that guy! Engage with people with disabilities just as you would with able-bodied people. Physical disabilities are often separate from developmental disabilities, so don't assume that a physical difference must mean that someone is not as intelligent or aware as you are (a developmental disability is still not a reason to ignore somebody).
4) Holding events at inaccessible venues.
t's easy as an able-bodied person to forget that some people can't climb stairs, get up ledges, or fit in tiny elevators. Not everybody is in the position to plan events for groups and organizations, but if you are, make sure that the venue is accessible to people with disabilities. That means, amongst several considerations, that the event is situated on a main floor, with ramps available (or on a higher floor if there is a ramp and a reliable elevator), that there is enough space to maneuvre around the room easily, and that there is American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation available. These are some of the bare minimum standards for accessibility, but you can easily find more detailed lists of accommodations to consider by doing a quick google search.
5) Unnecessary use of elevators.
Constantly, I see swarms of other able-bodied people filling up elevators in malls, subway stations, and other buildings for no particular reason other than the fact that they were too lazy to take the nearby (functioning) escalator or walk a bit farther to find some stairs. It's laziness at its worst, because when able-bodied people decide to take the elevator en masse because it's closer or more convenient, sometimes they end up forcing someone in a wheelchair to wait for several minutes and several elevator cars full of people before they can finally get in. Don't be obnoxious; take the stairs!
6) Entitlement to public space.
As able-bodied people, we have a much easier time of navigating our way through a busy crosswalk or intersection, so if someone in a wheelchair comes your way, make the effort to move aside a little to ensure they have enough room to pass you. We take up less space walking than they do in their wheelchair, so it's more logical for us to move (physics, people). Many able-bodied people walking down the street just keep going, as if they expect the person with a disability to dematerialize and then re-materialize past them (re-read #3 about not ignoring people with disabilities). That's not how life works, so scooch over.
7) Threatening to kill yourself if you became disabled.
This isn't something that (most) people would say in the presence of a person with a disability, but I have heard people around me say this while I was explaining my job to them What the hell kind of response is that?? I understand that nobody who is currently able to walk, feed themselves, etc. would enjoy losing those abilities, but that doesn't mean that if you were to become disabled, the next logical step would be suicide. You can still laugh, love, watch movies, read, listen to music, interact with your family and friends, and much more when you're in a wheelchair. Saying you'd rather be dead than disabled tells disabled people that you don't think they can live as fully as you do. Hint: they can (and do).