London Student

Here’s what you should understand about ableism

I’ve been disabled all of my life, and I’ve never known anything different. I think I’ve got a pretty good grasp on what ableism is – I’ve certainly encountered it enough. But my view isn’t definitive, so don’t use me as a way of telling your disabled friends/relatives/neighbours/people on the street that you’re an expert on ableism because you read an article from someone who’s a bit daft but happens to be disabled.

The first obvious sign of ableism is within society. I use a wheelchair, I suffer from cramps in my legs, particularly my hamstrings, groin and feet, and I get tired easily. So walking isn’t fun for me. Yet, I’m forced to walk up and down steps at nearly all tube stations I use because of lack of accessibility. Believe me when I tell you that for me, a lot of the time walking up and down stairs is the equivalent of an able-bodied person running a marathon with glass shards in their feet. It’s both tiring and painful, especially after having a day of back-to-back lectures.

Whilst our disabilities may impede our health, society is actually the thing that disables us. If the whole world were wheelchair accessible I wouldn’t think about my disability nearly as much as I do now.

In the past, I would have used this experience as evidence that I don’t belong in society and stewed quietly in my own self-pity and anger – I don’t anymore. Since I’ve been at university I have learnt about the social model of disability, which has revolutionised the way I think about my disability and myself.

The social model of disability is the theory that, whilst our disabilities may impede our health, society is actually the thing that disables us. In my mind this makes sense. I suffer with cramps and spasms, but  I take medication and manage my pain so that (most of the time) I don’t think about the spasms or the cramps; however, when I can’t get into a building because of steps that does impede on my day. If the whole world were wheelchair accessible I wouldn’t think about my disability nearly as much as I do now. And this isn’t just the case for wheelchair users, the truth is that the world is inaccessible for people with a variety of different disabilities; which cause unnecessary obstacles and are easily fixed.

But it’s not only buildings that are inaccessible; we’re now being forced to undergo intrusive PIP tests. OH FUCK, they’ve discovered my secret. I’ve been pretending to have Cerebral Palsy for the last twenty-one years to get £300 a month. Its not only me, the man down the road had a heart attack five months ago, but it wasn’t that serious. Those knowledgeable people at PIP told him he was fit for work and now  he’s miraculously cured and is working as a firefighter.

We’re no-good scroungers, unlike those lovely people at Amazon who innocently forget to pay their taxes (it happens to all of us). The truth is, the government is killing disabled people by withholding their benefits and forcing them to work when they can’t, simply because they don’t want to ask their buddies like Rupert Murdoch to pay tax because that would make for a very awkward dinner party, and nobody wants that.

In short, the disabled community has quite a big fight on our hands in order to make the world accessible and fair, and the last thing we need right now are pointlessly awkward encounters with able-bodied people.

I’m not inspirational for simply living. There are oodles of inspirational disabled people out there – Steven Hawking, Francesca Martinez, David Weir, Ade Adepitan to name a few of my personal heroes – but are they just inspirational because they’re disabled or because they’re fantastic at what they do?

It is incredibly frustrating when people stop me from what I am doing and ask me what is wrong with me. Nowadays I often reply with something along the lines of ‘I have terrible organisational skills, what about you?’ Obviously they’re talking about my disability but there is nothing ‘wrong’ with my body. I actually find it offensive that people think that there is, and it sends a harmful message to young impressionable disabled people that they should be ashamed of their bodies and of their disabilities.

But the thing I hate the most is when I’m called inspirational. I’m not inspirational for simply living. There are oodles of inspirational disabled people out there – Steven Hawking, Francesca Martinez, David Weir, Ade Adepitan to name a few of my personal heroes – but are they just inspirational because they’re disabled or because they’re fantastic at what they do? Don’t call me inspirational, I haven’t done anything inspirational. I’m not even the most inspiring member of my own family: my youngest brother made a truly inspiring political statement aged six when he shouted ‘bollocks to Blair’ in a car with a stony-faced, gobsmacked Catholic priest in it. Admittedly, he was reading a placard in Parliament Square, but his boldness should be recognised.

But whilst I’m far from inspirational, that doesn’t mean you can pity me either. Since I was first confronted with it, I’ve given this particular aspect of ableism a lot of thought, which has been called ‘pity porn’ by some people. (But don’t make the mistake I did when I first heard of it and look it up on Google, as it will make you want to destroy your eyeballs with a laser.)

My Cerebral Palsy is in many ways my worst enemy, but it can also be my best friend. It’s made me more determined and more empathetic and crucially, proud of the person I am, which is worth the cringe inducing, painful spasms. Don’t assume because people are disabled that they lead unfulfilled lives.

My mum was taking me out to dinner, when an elderly woman, arguing with her husband pointed at me and shouted ‘look at her, she didn’t ask to be like that!’ In that moment I didn’t know how to feel but my default reaction to any uncomfortable, humiliating situation is to laugh, and so I did. But I didn’t find it funny.

Truthfully she was right. I didn’t ask to be like this, but it’s redundant because I didn’t ask to have brown hair or be short either. It’s just a fact of life, something I can’t change, and (shock, horror!) I don’t want to change it either. My Cerebral Palsy is in many ways my worst enemy, it often embarrasses me – when I’m emotional my leg will spasm and betray me, and on some days it is debilitating – it can be painful and does deprive me of sleep, but it can also be my best friend. It’s made me more determined and more empathetic and crucially, proud of the person I am, which is worth the cringe inducing, painful spasms. Don’t assume because people are disabled that they lead unfulfilled lives.

I’ve been asked multiple times about my sex life and whether or not I can have sex. I’m going to let you into a little secret. ALL disabled people – no exceptions – have no genitalia whatsoever; we’re all as smooth as Barbie down there. We’ve only got a tiny pocket in the small of our backs that we open when we need to go to the toilet.

The truth is that many disabled people can have sex, but really whether we can or not IT’S NOBODY’S BUSINESS. And if you want to ask me that question you’ll have to wine and dine me first, but only after I carry out security checks.

Everything, Everything is yet another film that perpetuates dangerous stereotypes, namely that disabled people cannot live life to the full. Believe me, we can – only yesterday I ate a whole tub of ice-cream by myself

So between being forced to walk up steps, after intrusive questions about my sex life, I decide to relax by going to the cinema. But crap, I find ableism here too! I can’t catch a break! Disabled people are often played by able-bodied actors in Hollywood which is atrocious – we should be making the film and television industry accessible for young disabled people – why are we sticking Sam Caflin in a wheelchair when we could have fantastic actors who are actually disabled? Surely that would be more authentic and maybe then at least we could say ‘Well Me Before You is an abysmal film that promotes the dangerous idea that people are better off dead than disabled, and that people who enter a romantic relationship with disabled people are saints akin to Mother Theresa but hey, at least it meant ______ made a name for himself and now will hopefully make less problematic films in the future.’

Both Hollywood and the television industry are romanticising disability. I fear Me Before You has started a dangerous trend. The new Netflix hit 13 Reasons Why romanticises suicide and sends a dangerous message about suicide. The truth is, suicide isn’t a vindictive way to get back at people for wronging you; people don’t kill themselves in order to make others feel bad, but because they can’t make themselves feel better.

So I was disgusted but not surprised to hear that another ableist teen chickflick had been commissioned. Everything, Everything is another film that perpetuates dangerous stereotypes, namely that disabled people cannot live life to the full – believe me we do, only yesterday I ate a whole tub of ice-cream by myself – but also that the parents of children with invisible disabilities are making it up.

But one thing did surprise me about the film. It was hailed as progressive by critics because it was a mainstream Hollywood chickflick with a woman of colour as the protagonist. And of course we should celebrate that more roles are being made available to ethnic minority actors – but I was shocked, saddened and angered that the blatant ableism was not addressed, particularly when Amandla Stenberg, who is admirable for their activism and is so outspoken about intersectional feminism thought that it was appropriate to take a role in such a film. It seems to me that disabled people are being ignored in conversations about liberation.

So whilst I’d like to say that my Cerebral Palsy is as big a part of me as my vegetarianism or my nerdy love of classics, at the moment I can’t because ableism permeates almost every aspect of my life. Maybe one day I will, and that will be a joyous day for everyone because then I’ll stop nattering on.

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Louise Lee