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Changes, and Ableism

March 2, 2013

This was a post that was difficult to write.  That’s not the exclusive reason that it took so long (a magical concoction of laziness, distraction, and a dash of actual preoccupation helped) but it definitely was an obstacle.  It may still turn out kind of rambly and tangential, apologies ahead of time.

So this blog was originally meant to be focused on racism and the perspectives of it from my own snow-white background.  I quickly learned two things from it.  First, that I really don’t know enough about racism to dedicate a blog to it, even as regards my own privilege.  Reading requireshate and angryblackwomen in between raging impotently at comment threads somehow wasn’t enough.  Second, that it is rightfully very difficult to speak exclusively about racism without recognizing the intersections between it and other means of prejudice and oppression.  This is perhaps especially true from my perspective of nearly overwhelming privilege regarding many of these institutions.

Consequently, even though it really only affects me, I’m not going to be restricting content according to that original model.  I will still be primarily concerned with dissecting the privileged perspective (regarding my own posts, not that of hypothetical commenters), and using that reflection to try and overcome my own hobbles in both thinking and writing.  I will also be endeavoring to, when I’m not sure how I feel about a thing or am stuck somewhere in my thinking, simply post a question.  I fully encourage any readers to answer, pontificate, deride, or even ask their own questions.  Moderation continues to be light, but not absent.

That all being said, onto the meat of the post.  Something I’ve been struggling with greatly is ableism.  Specifically, I have used and continue to use ableist language–even more specifically, I say “retarded” an awful lot.  Like…really a lot.  And each time I cringe and yet…not sticking.  I don’t know.  I’ve met fair success with excising several other common words from my daily vocabulary, some more than others, but this one I’ve somehow resisted.

Before I get too much further with this, my own background with ableism and why this is a somewhat challenging post for me to write.  I am able-bodied, my family is almost entirely able-bodied, and there is no particular genetic predisposition in my family towards defects (not sure how I feel about that word).  Mentally, early-onset dementia has increased significantly on my grandfather’s side of the family, but nobody that I’ve had great exposure to besides my great-grandmother, who was old before I even met her.  This position of normativity has presented us as a family–and me specifically, of course–with an unfortunate tendency to try and brush other, less “obvious” afflictions under the rug.  There is a certain predisposition to excuse, ignore, and dismiss such behaviors that might otherwise indicate chronic afflictions such as bipolar disorder, ADHD, and autism, often consigning them to flaws of personality or self-discipline instead.

This can of course be damaging, both to those who never receive treatment and those laboring under the onus of diagnosis.  When certain circumstances in my youth required that I be committed to a local mental hospital and, later, when a much more professionally apt psychiatrist finally diagnosed me with chronic clinical depression, there was a lot of pooh-poohing about medication and therapy.  There was also, it took me about 15 years to realize, a lot of internalizing of the language and perspectives of self-deprecation.

It’d be really easy to slide into a long story of my own personal struggles, etc, but while blogging is of course an inherently selfish medium I do want to eventually get to the point.  So, suffice to say that depression is quite a lot like Sisyphus’ boulder, except that the weight is oneself and the terrain is littered with reasons why you shouldn’t need help to stop being sad.  My background of low-income combined with this internalized litany has meant a lot of time not being on meds, including right now.  The point being that I should understand that language can have a devastating effect on even daily coping.

Other experiences (obviously second-hand) with disabilities include a friend and client from when I first decided to go back to school.  An older man, recently blind, I read for him and tutored him in math, through the local Department for Rehabilitation.  I learned a lot from him about depictions of sensory disability, including the both obvious and insidious damage from the common tropes of super-sense replacing lost sense.  He also knew his way around San Diego blind better than I did with a map in my lap.  Much more recently, I’ve fallen into the periphery of local Deaf culture.  I took an ASL class last summer for fun and really found a love for the language, and besides the class itself (which was as much about introducing hearing students to Deaf culture and community as the language) I also got on very well with the teacher, a Deaf-from-birth woman who’d grown up locally.  She suggested me to my teacher in fall, as I was transferring schools, and the latter took an interest in including me in more culture discussions and getting me involved in some of the local meetings.

So I have about as little excuse for being unsympathetically ableist as an abled man can have, if there are such things as excuses for it.  It’s not even a almost-kinda word like “idiot” or “dumb,” but something I know full-well is offensive.

I’ve discussed with other people the entitlement I have felt in the past to, in essence, being able to insult somebody.  To having words that I can use to belittle and deprecate.  I recognize that false entitlement, in myself and others.  The whole tantrum of “Well why don’t you just make a list of all the words I CAN say then?!” is a squall that I can at least say I haven’t fallen into, but it was a near thing.  Understanding that is what helped me pull away from other word use–I mean, it was only within the last five years that I understood what a “gendered slur” meant.

So I guess the point of this post is, does anybody have any good advice or shareable experience?  And, perhaps more importantly, this is also an apology to anybody who’s been stung by words what I know better than to use.  I promise I’m trying to get off your foot, as it were, but I respect that doesn’t do you much good right now.

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