Ableist language is more pervasive than we think. Join us to explore ways to recognize ableism in our lives and revise our vocabularies.
My journey into ableist language begins like most journeys do, with a story. My exploration into ableist language began relatively recently, which may seem strange considering I teach composition and rhetoric. As a disabled person, I was, and have been immersed in the disability community since I came to terms with my disability. It has become an integral part of my pedagogy and my research. But it wasn’t until a particularly harrowing trip to a disabilities studies conference that I realized the importance of anti-ableist language
My Pre-Conference Lesson In Ableist Language
I was flying into Albuquerque with midnight as my ETA…and, of course, my session was bright and early that next morning. As the night progressed and the connecting flights kept getting delayed, my ETA kept getting pushed up. I was starting to get nervous. I didn’t want my hotel reservations to get cancelled and I didn’t want to miss my time slot altogether. So, I was constantly on the phone with the hotel, emailing the conference moderator.
I need to offer some context here: As a disabled person, each airport (there were several) assigns you a contact person to help with your bags and to help you navigate the airport. I had made it to my second layover and I was sitting in my wheelchair. I also happened to be on the phone with the hotel, pleading with them to hold my reservations. My contact person approached me, crouched down to my eye level, put his hand on my phone and said in a slow, almost singsongy voice, “Let’s take a break from phone time, okaaaay?? Where are you heading, sweetheart? I need to tell the nice man over there what airport you’re going to.”
I told him, “Excuse me, I am on the phone trying to save my hotel reservations. I’m an (expletive) college professor and I’m going to an academic conference in Albuquerque.” He got up off of his knee and looked startled.
“Ohhhh. Ummm…Okay, um, I’ll um be over there if you need me.”
Intellectual Capacity Doesn’t Equal Physical Capabilities
This isn’t the first time I’ve been infantilized by someone who had meant to help me, but this time was different. I was in an unfamiliar place, tired, hungry, and frustrated. This time I felt broken. Who wouldn’t, right? Airports do that to a person. And then this guy decides to talk to me in his best children’s-show-host voice? Hooooo boy.
Here’s the rub, I am sure that, in his mind, he was being kind. And to his credit, he wasn’t being unkind. If I hadn’t been so out of sorts, I wouldn’t have been so curt. In fact, I know should’ve been kinder, but this was a reopened wound and he was holding a big ol’ salt shaker.
We often understand ableist language as specific words like “crazy”, “insane”, “spaz” or “lame”. Trust me, those words need to be revised within our vocabulary, too, but we don’t often think of infantilization as ableism, because it’s often well-meaning. Is there harm in speaking to a grown adult like they’re a child? Assuming, “[…] someone’s intellectual capacity based on their physical capabilities or lack thereof.” as Erin Tatum so eloquently puts it in her “Everyday Feminism” blog, diminishes a person’s agency. It implies that we’re somehow stuck in some liminal place between childhood and adulthood.
We Are All Already Whole
When I think of this incident, I often think of John 9: 1-4, “ And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.” Jesus responds to his disciples regarding a man who has always been blind and reassures them that he or his parents did nothing wrong, they’re not cursed or pitiable. In God’s eyes, he is whole. No additional assembly required.
But this blog isn’t meant to imply that you’re being judged, or to deflect that shame back on anyone, which is why I purposefully omitted the name of the man and the airport. It also isn’t meant to make you rewind your internal VHS tape to all of the times we’ve made these mistakes. (Yup, that’s right. I’ve done it, too!) Rather, this is a reminder and opportunity to recognize ableism and consider ways to revise our own narrative. If you consider that wholeness is subjective, then we all have the capacity to be whole. Let’s work together to create a society where our language reflects that.
Want To Learn More About Anti-Ableist Practices?
Join us at Left Hand Church’s Anti-Ableism Workshop. This is an ongoing six-part series that will address everyday ableism and how we can facilitate anti-ableist practices and inclusivity. Meetings will be held via Zoom on 1st and 3rd Thursdays from 6:00-7:30pm MST beginning September 3, 2020 and ending on November 19, 2020.