I keep talking about ableist stereotypes and prejudices in every article, and so at this point you are probably asking what are they? They are harmful views that most able-bodied people hold about disability and disabled people. I cannot say that every nondisabled person has harmful views? You certainly don’t hold any such views otherwise you wouldn’t be here reading my blog? Very well then, I propose we play a little game.
Below you will find a non-exhaustive list of ableist stereotypes disabled people have to deal with on a daily basis. Go get a pen and paper or copy this list into a Word document and tick off every statement that you believed to be true.
You can be honest, no one but you is going to see your results, unless you wish to share them with me in the comments. And remember this isn’t a shaming exercise, it is a learning exercise.
- Disabled people need to be cured
I have already said this multiple times but since you are here to learn I am willing to repeat myself: Disabled people don’t need to be cured. There is no cure for cerebral palsy, for example, and that’s ok. The idea that disabled people cannot have a good life unless we get cured first is incredibly ableist and harmful because it lets society get away with discriminating against us. Why would we need access to education, employment, housing, cultural events, personal assistance, or the right to get married if we are not yet cured? Being cured isn’t going to make our life better but you not being ableist could.
- Disabled people have lower quality of life
You will notice that those stereotypes feed off of each other. This one is especially sinister because besides accessibility it is used to deny us medical care as well. Why spend resources to help us retain certain abilities or independence if we still won’t be able to do x, y and z? Why even spend those resources on saving our lives (let’s say from Covid) if our quality of life is lower to begin with? Who would want to live a life with a disability anyway? By letting us die the doctors are doing us and people who have to take care of us a favour, right?
What are you saying? This would never happen? No one would ever deny a person lifesaving care because they are disabled? In Texas doctors left a 46-year old disabled man with Covid to starve and go untreated because they claimed that the treatment wouldn’t improve his quality of life. He died. There are countless horror stories just like this one and some of them happened long before the pandemic. If you don’t believe me, go and google them yourself.
- Disabled people want to die
This stereotype is a stark example of why media representation of disabled people matters so much. Media shapes our reality. There are a lot of non-disabled people who have never met a disabled person in real life. Their opinions about us and their attitudes towards things like accessibility are shaped by the media they consume. After the premiere of Me before you a lot of disabled people including some of my friends got asked if they want to commit assisted suicide as the protagonist of that movie. He was after all a millionaire dating the khaleesi and still found living with disability unbearable. Most of us are not millionaires and will (unfortunately) never get a chance to date Emilia Clarke so our life has to be even more miserable than his, right?
The belief that the only way to help disabled people is to help us to die is harmful and dangerous. I am not suicidal but if I ever will be I hope that I will be offered help and support instead of being told, that you understand because if you were disabled, you would kill yourself, too.
- Walking is superior
It really isn’t. People who use mobility aids to get around aren’t sad tragedies confined or bound to a wheelchair. Their mobility aid isn’t their jailer, it gives them freedom and independence. Choosing to use a mobility aid even if we were previously able to move around without it isn’t giving up or letting ourselves down. We use it to help us move more easily, more comfortably or without pain and there is no shame in that. The way you move around doesn’t say anything about your worth. It doesn’t say anything about your character, your talent, intelligence, your ability to be productive, not even your attractiveness. It is literally just the way you get from A to B. Have you let yourself down if you took the bus instead of walking to work? You haven’t and this is the same thing.
“But using a wheelchair makes getting to certain places difficult!” No, using a wheelchair doesn’t make it difficult, barriers do. Make the world accessible and I guarantee you that wheelchair users will get to places quicker than you do.
- Disabled people don’t need money
This one is almost funny because it causes you to live with cognitive dissonance. On one hand you believe that we are all poor because some of us use benefits and even need help from charities. The fact that disabled people need help from charities to fund their basic needs doesn’t anger you, though, it doesn’t make you demand that the government takes better care of its citizens. No, it only makes you ignore accessibility, because why make your business or event accessible if a disabled person won’t be able to afford it anyway?
On the other hand you believe that we actually don’t need money at all, because we are taken care of by the state and our parents. So why bother making education or the job market accessible if we don’t need to work to survive? And if we do work it is ok to pay us subminimum wage, right? Wrong, we don’t go to work like children go to kindergarten, just to pass the time and give our parents a break from looking after us. We do in fact need money, we have bills to pay. Furthermore, our work has value and we deserve to be adequately compensated for it.
Disabled people are eternal children
There is no such thing as a disabled adult, right? Only children can be disabled and they should all grow up out of their disability, the same way you grew up out of your need for a pushchair. This ableist stereotype is the reason why a lot of treatment is only provided for children, because they have the hope of growing up to be able-bodied. If you didn’t get magically cured by the time you reached adulthood, you are not worth the effort anymore.
But you will still get treated like a child too innocent and incompetent for things like higher education, working, marriage (please don’t tell us disabled people have sex, we will have nightmares!), living independently, going to the bar, traveling and all the other things adults do.
This stereotype is once again perpetuated by the media which often show us living with our parents well into adulthood but instead of addressing the reason for this – lack of accessible housing, discrimination at the job market or lack of personal assistance, they present it as something natural. To make it seem natural they will talk to us the way you talk to very small children or describe us with terms you would use when talking about a child. It is harmful, because it dehumanizes us and helps society get away with discrimination.
- Disabled people are lazy
We are lazy when we claim benefits, we are lazy when we ask for accessibility and accommodations, we are lazy at every moment when you are reminded of our disability. A good disabled person doesn’t whine after all, they pull themselves up by their bootstraps and overcome their disability.
I am exaggerating, you say? When I was working in Slovakia my boss called me lazy every time I asked for help with something. According to her I didn’t need help, I just wanted other people to do my job for me. When I tried to delegate physical tasks to my interns, she claimed that I am just too snobbish for boring manual work and that I think I am better than others because of my education. It took me breaking down in tears for her to understand that I don’t think filling out dozens of envelopes is beneath me, it just causes me too much pain.
She even compared me to a Paralympic swimmer who climbed the stairs to the office I struggled with, without any problems. He wasn’t able to climb those stairs because unlike me he looked for solutions instead of excuses, he was able to climb them because he was a professional athlete and as such had better command of his body than I do. Maybe we should all become professional athletes to make ableists around us more comfortable. I just wonder what would happen if we would still need help with something else…