Let’s start with the concept of intelligence, because what the hell! Some of the brightest minds in history come to mind, right? Everyone likes to flatter themselves with how smart they are, right? …RIGHT?!
Well, unfortunately, not everyone has that privilege. Some people are told, systematically, that they are worth less because they are less able to demonstrate intelligence. They may have a learning disability, one or more cognitive impairments, disordered thought patterns, a propensity towards excessively negative and faulty appraisals, a language barrier outside of their natal home, or they may have been told at some point that they are developmentally impaired and won’t ever live inside their own head in the same world as everyone else around them. They may have been taken out of classes in front of their entire peer group, by the person everyone can readily identify as the school counsellor: an act that indicates to both the individual and the group, that they do not deserve equal treatment and are less deserving of access to education as the rest of their peers.
They have been berated by people who felt entitled to call them out on their lack of normative social skills, or on the way they act unconventionally or against social prescription. They have been told by doctors and teachers and advocates and social workers and even their own parents that they are different; that they have something called a deficit; and that between difference and deficit, they have a disability. They have been called retarded, idiot, moron, and/or stupid. And they have heard people say “That’s retarded” and were reminded of all the time they spent segregated from the rest of society–either in medical appointments or in therapy–for no reason other than because their brain operates differently, and this was seen as A Bad Thing Requiring Correction.
And then there’s all the time people spend talking about IQ. A favourite pass-time of the able-minded, it is a tradition that initially earned resentment from anyone whose first language was not English (or whose parents were EASL, teaching their children English–something that only catches up with those children in university or college). Adjustments were made for that. But it continued to build resentment for people who were taken out of classes with their peers and placed into the International Baccalaureate Program, only to see their entire life fall apart until they were put back into classes with their peers. Or for anyone who isn’t a mathematical prodigy and thus watched this happen while waiting for their potential as an individual to be affirmed. But especially for people who have received exceptional treatment since primary school, on account of how their brain operates in ways that are seen as minimizing or limiting their potential to achieve.
It has been said that comparison is the thief of joy (I believe that was Roosevelt, but a quick search is yielding an indeterminate source), so it stands to reason that it is worth interrogating why our entire conception of mental ability is constructed upon the comparison of individuals to each other. I believe, as a person who is affected by concurrent mental barriers, that it is worth interrogating why it’s so important to be able to say things like “Dude, that’s fucking retarded,” knowing full well that this has the potential to hurt a lot of people, and that those people are fully entitled to be hurt by this negation of their individual worth.
When you say something like “That’s retarded,” you’ve arrange people in opposition to each other on the basis of mental ability and lack thereof, whether you like it or not. Your intent doesn’t matter because it has no effect on the outcome of your actions. You’re telling someone that a thing they are doing (or seeing someone else do) would only be done by someone whose worth as an individual is defined by systematically oppressive barriers and the experience of being limited by them. You are calling their mental ability into question in order to put them down. That’s not just wrong, as in representing a logical fallacy. It’s also morally indefensible bigotry.
How about the way people move? We’re all taught that the human body is the Jack Of All Trades of the natural world, so talking about the way the human body moves is awesome, right? …RIGHT?!
Well, again, not everyone has that privilege. Some people are born with a body that actually isn’t quite the Jack Of All Trades that’s celebrated in biology textbooks, because their bodies are described in medical textbooks. This distinction tells them that their bodies are abnormal, weird, icky, creepy, and unsightly. They may have been born with some systemic process in their body that makes them look and/or move differently than in the biology textbooks, or they may have been born under difficult circumstances that were accidental in nature and that makes them look and/or move differently than Biology Textbook People as a result. They may have been born in a body just like the ones in the biology textbooks, but some biological process or mechanical thing happened to their body at some point later on, that makes them look and/or move differently than they did prior to that event. They may sometimes or often require a wheelchair, one or more canes, braces, prosthetics, or just extra time, to move across the same physical distance or accomplish the same task as many other people.
They will have spent a lot of time segregated from the rest of society, too, just like people who are told that their brain isn’t “normal”. They have probably spent a lot of time in physical rehabilitation, in physiotherapy, in doctor’s appointments, in therapy appointments, in hospitals, and in the counsellor’s office at school instead of sitting in their desk with the rest of their peer group. But they also spend a lot of time in a world that is constructed to tell them how unwelcome they are in public spaces. Time spent avoiding buildings that have stairs but no elevators, time spent avoiding coffee shops and grocery stores and libraries and universities that are too big or too small, or that have a washroom they can’t get into or turn around in. Time spent waiting in the rain while all the able-bodied people in the priority seating on the bus get up and shuffle out of the way. Time spent waiting for an able-bodied person to vacate the only stall in the public washroom that is accessible to someone who is not able-bodied. Time spent waiting for able-bodied people in elevators and automatic doors to clear enough space for the person for whom these structures were built.
They have been glared at for taking up too much space or taking up too much time. They have been ridiculed for asking that accommodations for people who aren’t able-bodied be taken under consideration. They have heard people say “Fuck, that’s lame” without a second thought into the origins of the word. They have been reminded, by this single word, of all the things they had to do instead of staying in classes and learning at the same pace as their able-bodied peers, and/or all the things they couldn’t do because of where it was taking place. They have been gawked at in public spaces by people who felt entitled to express their visible (or audible) disgust for the way two bodies can differ so much on the surface. They have had their mental agency called into question, or outright denied, for no reason other than what they look like. They, too, have been told by medical doctors and therapists and teachers and counsellors that they are Wrong because of the way their body is, and that they are In Need Of Correction.
These are experiences a lot of people can empathize with if they choose to, because injuries like breaking an arm or spraining a muscle are common enough and can change your life overnight, even if only temporarily. These are experiences people with body modifications that aren’t socially acceptable can relate to, because the dialogue around those practices always starts with “Well why would you ever want to do that to a perfectly good…?” In fact, these are experiences most people can relate to because we are all bombarded with messages and images of who is beautiful and therefore worth celebrating, and what beauty looks like, according to the social script (and the pop culture that represents it). But it’s the people who are visibly differentiated, by virtue of not looking like Biology Textbook People, who are most able to relate to each other’s experiences.
Again at this point, my thoughts turn back to the comparison model of society, and how this robs us all of happiness, with special emphasis on how much more happiness is taken from some kinds of people–primarily people who are described in medical textbooks. From my view, as a person who looks able-bodied but often doesn’t measure up in ability because of problems with my metabolism, joints, and one of my reproductive organs, it is worth interrogating why we have to make a comparison at all between people who look and move like Biology Textbook People, and people who look and/or move like Medical Textbook People. It is worth interrogating why it is so important to some people to use the word lame instead of choosing different, more accurate words, like “pathetic” or just “bad”.
And it is worth interrogating where ideas like “wheelchair-bound” or “handicapped” even come from, and what these terms suggest about people who use wheelchairs or have survived non-elective peripheral amputation. Because that’s right! Intent still isn’t magical. When you use ableist language like the word “lame” instead of saying what you actually mean, you are targeting people whose bodies don’t look like the ones in biology textbooks, with messages about how they are worth less as individuals just because their bodies are different. These messages aren’t even hidden. They are right in front of your face, and you can hear them inside your own head when you speak. And they represent the same logical fallacy and morally indefensible bigotry as in the case of saying “Well that’s just fuckin’ retarded.”
And how about movies and pop culture? When we think of movies and pop culture, how often are we really confronted with the agency and very unlimited potential of people who live with minds and/or bodies that aren’t classified as being able? What kinds of messages are we sharing in North America by excluding amputees, wheelchair users, and people whose thinking patterns or behaviours are not socially privileged, from major roles in films (with notable well-known exceptions such as It’s All Gone, Pete Tong; A Beautiful Mind; and I Am Sam; among others)?
I believe the message we’re sending is that people who aren’t able-minded or able-bodied simply shouldn’t be seen, so that those who are able-minded or able-bodied don’t have to deal with them. I believe the message we’re sending is that those people in our society who are living with one or more differences or disabilities, are burdens to the rest, and therefore have done something to earn their oppressed place within it. And I believe these messages represent a form of systemic oppression called ableism.
And I believe, whole-heartedly, that every time we say “retarded” or “lame” or other ableist terms, or defend our decision to use these terms when we are confronted by how hurtful they are, we are re-enforcing oppressive ideas about disability. We are re-writing these ideas back into the social script, and re-affirming the validity of uninterrogated social privilege (whether or not we actually personally have it). We each have a responsibility as individuals to do our part to end this cycle, just as we have a responsibility as individuals to not take part in racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and so on.
It takes half as much courage to take a stand against ableism as it does to go on living as a disabled person, with the impact of ableism on your daily life. But it doesn’t take any courage at all to just not think about ableism and continue as an individual to contribute to it.