Those outside the disability community assume we are immune from ableism. By virtue of having a disability, they contend, people like me would never make dismissive assumptions about the capacity of others with differing conditions. However, I am living proof that disabled people have a long way to go in expunging ableism from the disability community.
When I was involved in disability politics, I had an acquaintanceship I put too much stock in because the individual in question was developmentally disabled. As a result of my latent ableism, I internalized stereotypes of him as an adult child, innocent and devoid of sin, due to his disabilities. When he messaged me on Facebook, he couldn’t possibly have been using my position of power to ingratiate himself. Or could he have been?
In broken syntax, he would proclaim that we were best friends when we had only spoken a handful of times in person. Instead of assuming he was a poseur, as I would have with any abled person acting in the same manner, I responded with an unhealthy dose of pity. In my limited understanding, it was only he who wasn’t capable of realizing we weren’t besties.
So ableist was I that I had convinced myself his social circle was lacking, to the point that I really was his best friend. From my vantage point, I needed to be devoted to this lonely and innocent disabled soul, despite our substance-free Facebook conversations. Only in retrospect do I regretfully recognize that I went above and beyond to include him and even to send him a small Christmas trinket, not because I saw him as an equal, but out of unadulterated pity.
Once I was no longer an active member of the organization, much less someone in power, the person in question almost entirely ceased communication. While I was admittedly hurt by his lack of desire to continue any kind of acquaintanceship, I had to examine both my behavior and belief system. I resent whenever someone pities me for my conditions and loathe being treated as an object of emotional charity. Yet I was doing the same thing to the individual in question because I didn’t respect his agency or abilities as on par with my own.
What I didn’t understand was that my acquaintance wasn’t just a disabled angel; he was capable of the same manipulation and conniving behavior as everyone else in politics. I eventually had to acknowledge I hadn’t taken the proper steps to understand his condition, and I substituted facile and idealized notions of his innocence for acceptance of his human nature. I did both of us a disservice by assuming he wasn’t capable of the same behaviors as everyone else, and I regret being so ignorant.
While I now disavow my assumptions about the person in question, experiences like mine are a teachable moment for the disability community. Being a leader means I must do more than mobilize disabled people; I need to examine how I have internalized ableist shibboleths and resolve to comprehend everyone’s condition. No one deserves to be regarded as either a demonic villain or a childlike angel because of pernicious stereotypes. I believe the sooner we implement this understanding on a wide scale, the faster the disability community will rid itself of ableism.