Special needs adoption from a Jewish perspective.

Special needs adoption from a Jewish perspective.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Ableism and Disableism

I struggle with the concept of ableism.

On the one hand, it is clear that people with disabilities should be valued as people, and not denied inclusion in society because of their disabilities.

At the same time, denying that disability is inherently worse than ability seems counterproductive.

All people have strengths and weaknesses.  Our weaknesses can hold us back if we don't find ways to either address them or work around them.  They pose challenges for us.  In a very real sense, our weaknesses are disabilities, even if we are considered able-bodied. In this sense, there are many disabilities within the "typical" spectrum:

  • Nearsightedness
  • Lisp
  • Tone-deafness
  • Bad manners
  • Poor time management
  • Disorganization
  • Chronic halitosis
  • Innumeracy
  • Obesity
  • Bad temper
  • Poor integrity
  • Addiction
I have personally had about half of these at some point or another in my life. For some I required medical or therapeutic assistance, others I struggled to overcome on my own, and others I have learned to live with, either making allowances for myself, or dealing with the consequences of my own shortcomings.  Society, for its part, makes some accommodations for some of these (e.g. providing "tip-tables" to compensate for people's innumeracy), but in every case, I have been happier with the results when I was able to overcome/compensate for my disabilities myself rather than relying on others to do so.

Those are the options before people with recognized disabilities, as well.  For example, a mobility handicap can be compensated for with wheelchairs, but only if society provides fairly universal accessibility.  If the possibility exists to enable a mobility-impaired person to walk, that would clearly expand that person's options: S/he can hike off-road, participate in sports, and not be stuck if the elevator is broken.  Seeking societal accommodation and acceptance does not preclude fixing the impairment! Offering a cure or treatment increases people's options, even as we work towards greater inclusion.  A few generations ago, a nearsighted student would need a seat at the front of the class.  Today, eyeglass use is nearly universally available in developed countries, allowing nearsighted people to participate equally in nearly all activities.

Ability is valuable even in the context of disability, and disability advocacy: "Never mind what our children cannot do, look at all that they CAN do!" is certainly a celebration of ability, not disability, even as the people themselves are celebrated.  Nobody actually celebrates disability itself, although we frequently celebrate strengths which were developed in response to the disability.

We also instinctively admire those with "extra" ability.  We fantasize about superheroes.  We admire the accomplishments of Olympic athletes and Nobel laureates.  For that matter, we greatly admire wheelchair marathoners and college graduates with Down syndrome.

Ableism is bad when it leads to de-humanization of people with disabilities.  It can be a positive force for achieving full equality and inclusion when it motivates both scientific and societal mechanisms for restoring abilities to those who would otherwise be dependent on the accommodations of others.


  1. Galit, I think we start from different places and end at different places.

    The list you made is not about disabilities at all, in my opinion. I think you're conflating character flaws and behaviors with disability, and that, frankly, offends me. (I'm not hating you, but I must be honest about how I feel here.)

    To see disability as a shortcoming is what most people would call ableist. Just as there is no useful way to be racist, there is no useful way to be ableist. By definition, ableism is discriminating on the basis of disability.

    Yes, medicine can change disability. But your assumption that no one celebrates disability, that disability is by very essence a lesser/negative state of being is very problematic in my mind. Look at Deaf culture. Despite the invention of cochlear implants, many, many people simply reject them. They choose instead to embrace their culture, their own language, and see absolutely no problem with being Deaf. In fact, I'd venture to say, they celebrate it.

    I truly think that ableism is bad, period. No good logic can come out of a flawed foundation that judges the world through a lens that venerates some abilities over others. It is like trying to build a house with crumbling bricks.

    Have you ever read No Pity, by Joseph Shapiro? I try to get every single person I meet to read it. It was the first thing I read after we got our diagnosis that clicked for me.

    1. I agree with you that Deaf culture is an interesting phenomenon that flies in the face of most people's understanding of disability. You are right, some do celebrate their deafness in this context, although again, what they seem to be celebrating is the culture that they have developed in response to their deafness, not the disability itself. It is kind of like racial/ethnic/sexual minorities celebrating their differences in response to prejudice. You don't see Blonde Pride or Bald is Beautiful or Celebrating Nearsightedness movements, because although they are minorities, they have not been isolated from mainstream society to form a unique subculture.

      Look at nearsightedness, in fact. These days we have many options. We can get lasik surgery (equivalent to cochlear implants, perhaps), use contact lenses (available in hard, soft, or disposable), or glasses. There is minimal prejudice about wearing glasses, and many people find that a satisfactory solution. Many others prefer to correct the disability. I think that offering people multiple options is positive and empowering.

      I am not saying that disability is a lesser "state of being". I am saying that disabilities -- including those I listed, most of which are not character flaws or behaviors by any stretch of the imagination -- are variations which narrow the options available to the individual. Anything that can be done to widen those options back up -- societal changes, corrective technologies, and surgical procedures -- has the potential to improve the lives of affected people. Once the options are available, people can decide for themselves what is most effective at improving their lives.

      By the way, I said that we seem to be saying the same thing in response to your asking in your recent post, "Perhaps obesity is ok, but diabetes is not. Perhaps being nearsighted is ok, but being blind is not. Math and language required, but musicality optional?" This sounds very similar to my list. It is somewhat arbitrary what society considers "ok" or not. Many things that society considers "ok" are more disabling than things it rejects. I believe that we should strive to make all disabilities "ok". That does not mean that we wouldn't try to fix them, just that we would not consider people affected as lesser or unworthy.

      You say, "To see disability as a shortcoming is what most people would call ableist....By definition, ableism is discriminating on the basis of disability."

      Seeing disability as a shortcoming is not discrimination. I don't believe people should be discriminated against on the basis of disability. I believe that society should seek to accommodate and/or correct disabilities to the point that, like nearsightedness, they do not negatively impact the options available to people affected by them.

      I have not read that book. I will check it out. Thanks for the recommendation!

  2. I think you're assuming that communities celebrate and embrace their differences DESPITE, whereas I believe they are doing so BECAUSE. I do not think it is in a counter as much as it is a reclaiming.

    The quote you pulled from my last post, I think you misread. I was posing those questions to illustrated the impossible nature of making designations, period. Society has a very narrow definition of competence, but its definition is manufactured.

    I do actually see defining any disability as a shortcoming as the foundation of discrimination. That is, after all, what Hitler did. That is the basis for slavery. That is the basis for the institutionalization that still occurs. That is the reason that there are children out there that you want to adopt, after all. Someone decided that disability was a shortcoming and denied their worthiness to live in society.

    I think you and I disagree because you fundamentally seem to work from a medical model of disability. But really, check out the book. It is amazing. I don't want you to read it because I want you to agree with me on everything, but it is guaranteed to make you think.

    1. I don't really understand what you mean by BECAUSE vs. DESPITE. There are many possible reactions to prejudice. Some respond by hiding their differences, others by celebrating them, but both are reactions. Hence my examples about other minorities. The tension between "passing" and proclaiming your differences is ubiquitous.

      I did not misread your quote. I agree with it. I am saying the same thing -- that society should not make arbitrary distinctions between disabilities which are mainstream and those which are othered. I think all should be treated with respect and dignity to the individual.

      Defining disability as a shortcoming CAN be the foundation for discrimination, if the shortcoming is seen as a value judgment on the individual. My nearsightedness IS a shortcoming. Without my glasses, I would be unable to drive, participate in classes even in a front-row seat, or enjoy many, many activities which are open to me right now. Could I live a full life without those activities? Probably. People are great at substituting, when one path is closed off. But I think offering people more choices is a benefit. I would not want society to "value" my visual disability by refusing to treat it.

      I don't think I am operating from a "medical model". My list includes conditions which are not at all medical. "Disability" literally means "absence of an ability". We all have a flight disability, an x-ray vision disability, a water-breathing disability, etc. Do we need any of those abilities in order to live a full life? Of course not. If it was possible to develop these abilities, would that open up additional options that some people would wish to avail themselves of? Yes. Would that necessarily improve our life? Maybe, maybe not. We see that with many technological advances, which improve some aspect of our life, but with a cost. There are people who choose to live without TV's, cellphones, and even cars. But they have that choice!


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