Thursday, July 28, 2016

Disability and Ableism

I don’t like conflict. I mean I really don’t like conflict. In the last few years I’ve developed a fun symptom where if I get really angry or upset, my blood pressure drops and I run the risk of passing out. As a result, I’m now a pretty calm person and I avoid potentially emotionally-laden conversations, especially online.

But there have been certain discussions lately that have been harder to ignore. The film Me Before You has prompted a lot of people to make comments about how they would kill themselves if they were to become disabled, in arguments defending the film.

I find it baffling that any reasonable, modern person would consider this an okay thing to say. My initial instinct was to avoid dealing with this, but when a comment of this nature was made on my facebook, I saw just how widespread and accepted these ideas are, and realised that most people don’t even understand that what they are saying is harmful. As difficult as it is for me to talk about this stuff, I can’t expect the world’s perception of disability to change if I am not willing challenge to it.

Saying that you would kill yourself if you became disabled, is not any different to saying you would kill yourself if you were gay. I understand that this may be confronting to hear, but that doesn’t make it any less true. The only difference is that one of these statements is considered socially acceptable to say, despite the hurt it causes, and one of them is rightfully condemned because of its harmful nature.

To be really clear, I am not against the idea of euthanasia (I am not necessarily for it either, but this is not what this post is about.) If you say you would kill yourself if you were to become disabled, you are not talking about euthanasia, or even talking about your own life, but instead about your perception of what a disabled life is. Whether this is your intention or not, you are effectively saying that you do not believe disabled people’s lives are worth living. Effectively saying my life is not worth living, that killing myself would be a reasonable decision.

Online, posts are read by able-bodied and disabled people alike, and in all likelihood at least one of those people is struggling to find reasons to stay alive right now. A major life change, like a new disability, will often involve a process of grief, and suicidal thoughts may be a part of that. That stage of adjustment and grief is not what life with disability is going to be like forever, but it’s hard to know that when you’re in middle of it. If someone was suicidal because of depression, personal crisis or any other reason people would give them support and list reasons to live. However somehow it’s seen as okay for people to publicly state that they would kill themselves if in that position, when it comes to disability. Depression can be feel just as debilitating as a physical disability, yet it would not be okay to say “I would just kill myself I were depressed like you”. If these types of comments were made about any other issue, they would be labelled as bullying, and removed from forums.

To come back to my earlier point, there is absolutely nothing, NOTHING, wrong with being gay. There is, however, something difficult about being gay in a world that contains homophobia.

There is also nothing inherently bad about being disabled. But there is something very difficult about being disabled in a world that is set up for, and rotates around, able-bodied people.

I’m going to say that again, because I get that for some people this will be a perspective shift that is difficult to make. There is nothing bad about being disabled, it is the world which we all create and contribute to which makes it feel that way.

There will be no choice over whether or not you become disabled in your lifetime. Illness or injury may strike, and the results of that are out of your control. It is within your control, however, to influence what type of world you would end up disabled in. People feel like they would kill themselves if they were disabled, because they live in a world where that is an okay thing to say. Where accessibility is an afterthought, where disabled people are seen as un-dateable and un-hireable. Where getting even the most basic of needs met requires fighting red tape in underfunded and broken health, welfare, and social service systems. Where, as a disabled person, the only representation you see of yourself in film is where the characters kill themselves because they don’t feel a life like yours is worth living, and where able-bodied people walk out of the cinema loudly proclaiming how lucky and grateful they are not to be like you.  

This does all add up to feeling like the world supports your right to die, more than they are willing to support your right to live.

This week 19 disabled people lost their lives, and 25 more were injured, at the hands of someone who is reported to have said he was trying to rid the world of handicapped people. I’m sure many people would like to dismiss this as the actions of someone deranged, but I’m not sure I can do that so easily. I can’t help but draw mental comparisons to the climate of ableism we live in, and the violence that stems from the climates of racism and homophobia.

Instead of saying that you would kill yourself if you became disabled, how about doing something that would make the world more liveable for disabled people? How about changing things, so that suicide doesn’t feel like the only option.

I know, it seems like an unreasonable ask. You are just one person, and you can’t possibly change things when the entire world is set up for able-bodied people. But every little change can make a difference. Even if it’s just to one person.

•    If you are setting up an event, is it possible to use an accessible venue? I often hear “but will disabled people even want to come to this?” – if you want to go to it, it’s likely someone with a disability will want to as well. If you can’t find a suitable accessible venue, ask the venue you do use what provisions can be made for people with disabilities attending. This doesn’t need to be an argument, sometimes all it takes is someone asking the question to draw attention to the issue. If you decide not to use a venue because it’s not disability-friendly, tell them that’s the reason – bringing it to their awareness gives the owners the opportunity to do something about it.

•    If you are an architect, game developer, business owner, webmaster, theatre creator – anything where you are creating something – are there ways to make your creation more accessible? If you’re not sure, is consultation with people with disabilities possible? For example, is there really any reason to make the main entrance stairs instead of a ramp, or is that just what you’re used to? If you are not in charge of making these decisions, can you challenge the person who is to think about these things? Lack of accessibility is often an oversight, rather than an intentional snub, and bringing it to the front of people’s minds can make a huge difference. I know I could probably do better on making the websites I run more accessible – this is a small thing, but it’s a change I can make.

•    Try not to get angry or defensive if someone points out that something is not accessible. I was shocked at how nasty people became when it was pointed out that Pokemon Go is not accessible. I know you all love catching Pokemon, and there are some great things about the active nature of the game, but that doesn’t change the fact that it isn’t accessible for everyone. It’s okay to enjoy things that aren’t disability-friendly. It’s not okay, however, to get defensive, chuck a tanty and spew horrifying abuse when the lack of accessibility is pointed out to you. Disabled people do not need to “just go off and die” because you think it might interfere with your fun. Accept it, help look for workarounds if you can, and keep accessibility in mind the next time you are creating something.

•    Challenge people if you hear them say derogatory things about disability. If you wouldn’t put up with racism, sexism or homophobia, don’t put up with this either.

This has been a hard post to write, and I accept that not everyone will agree with what I’m saying. Other people will have different perspectives on these issues, and that’s okay. Again, I am not making judgements about euthanasia itself here. That is a completely different issue. My hope is just that one day, disability won’t be that big of an issue, because the world will have figured out how to make it work. I know that the things I’ve suggested here won’t change the world, but they are a start.

Thanks for reading,
Little Miss Autoimmune

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