WINTER ISSUE

Ableism: The Discrimination Hidden in Plain Sight

Ankita Rose Subba

As I sat at the dentist’s clinic, heads down, scrolling mindlessly through the social media feed while waiting and skimming the countless images that the algorithm stirred up on my screen.  A particular picture caught my eye- a pair of old, worn out shoes that had the following words in bold letters: “I complained about having no shoes until I met a man with no feet.” Under it, there were the following hashtags – grateful, motivational quote, inspiration and everything else that fell under the self-improvement umbrella. The post had hundreds of likes, comments and reposts, of course.

I stopped for a brief second. For some reason, this reminded me of something, a word, that I had read a few weeks ago and then completely forgotten about. I tried to remember what it was and then after struggling for some time, at the eureka moment, it struck me. The word was ableism. A quick google search defined ableism as “discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities and/ or people who are perceived to have disabilities. Ableism characterizes persons who are defined by their disabilities as inferior to the non-disabled.”

Perhaps the motivational quote was in good intention and only to motivate but to say that one is luckier than the other, based on something that the other person couldn’t choose, is uninformed, and insensitive. Such statements embedded within these quotes reeks of casual but sure discrimination. Unlike other types of discrimination, ableism is so subtle that we see it every day but we do not notice as we have become desensitized towards it. We contribute to such ableist attitudes without even realising.

While I waited for my name to be called I looked around me. I had reached the clinic after climbing four flights of stairs. It made me think that an individual with limited mobility would not be able to visit this clinic on their own. And this is only a small example of subtle ableism.

India has a high prevalence of persons living with disabilities. This also means that there is a higher level of stigma associated with it.  The Indian Constitution through the Persons with Disability Act, 1995 defines disability under part 2(i) as persons living with low visions, blindness, locomotor disability, leprosy cured, psychological illness, hearing impairment, and mental retardation, among others. There are strict laws against discrimination of any sort, but they are often only limited to being words on paper. The stigma associated with Disability is such that it is seen as a curse or a result of past actions. Anything different than what the able-bodied population lives is considered to need some fixing. 

Once when I sat in front of my ophthalmology textbook, I had a sudden thought– ‘What if I go blind someday?’ Then I remembered what I had read some time ago; about how people who cannot see the world, perceive it. Even if it seemed to me that visual perception is paramount to experiencing life, there were other ways to live that did not include seeing things. And that did not invalidate the experience of living.  At the moment, there are around 285 million visually impaired people in the world.  In spite of these numbers the world works in a way that is specifically made to exclude disabled people. A few examples that can be seen in our daily lives is: How many restaurants have menu in Braille? How many places are accessible to people who have a motor disability? How many of us know the basics of sign language? Are educational institutes and their structures accommodating of people with learning disabilities?

The present fabric of the society is dynamic, infused with all-inclusive youth who do not tolerate any hand-me-down baton of oppression and despotism. People are not defined by a single trait of their physical appearance or by a social construct like gender and yet, people are defined by their disability. An autistic child deserves the same empathy and love as any other child. However, their stories are underrepresented, their voices suppressed by unwanted pity party, and the only time when they are shown in a positive light is when they become ‘inspiring stories’ after fighting against a system that is designed for their exclusion. 

Disability is mostly portrayed in the media as either a story of inspiration or a teary tale of misfortune. Even movies reinforce the age-old perception that only a fully-abled life can enjoy a fulfilled life. If we know people who have encountered disability, we know that they wouldn’t want to kill themselves but would want to be treated respectfully as any other person. Another aspect of being disabled in any form also includes being dehumanised. By being defined by their disability, it makes the disabled community look incapable of basic human need like sexuality and the desire to express it.  It is seen as a pure taboo or some kind of fetish. This is ableism at its finest. 

To dissociate something as human and fundamental as sexual needs from a group of individuals. To express disgust at the idea that people with disability, who are not much different from abled people, can also have sexual desires. Yet, like a perverse paradox disabled people, women, in particular, are at a much higher risk of sexual assault. According to a 2018 report by Human Right Watch (HRWs), Invisible victims of Sexual Violence in India: Access to Justice for Women and Girls with Disabilities in India, women and girls with disabilities not only face a higher risk of sexual violence but also face significant barriers to justice. And in these cases, it has been seen that the blame is often more on the victim than the culprit. 

United Nations observes 3rd December as International Day of Persons with Disabilities. It is to recognise disability inclusion as an essential condition to upholding human rights, sustainable development and peace and security. According to the UN, people with disabilities-one billion people-are one of the most excluded groups in our society and are among the hardest hit in this current Covid crisis in terms of fatalities. This only highlights how ableist the world is and how difficult it is for around one-seventh of the world to access basic rights like health care among so many basic necessities that they are denied. 

How sad it is to think that in a world where people are planning to go to Mars, the numerous systems on Earth is still discriminatory. 

The use of ableist language happens every day. It has become so embedded in our conscience that we hardly even think about it. “You must be blind.” “Stop walking like a limp.” “She is a psycho.” “You can’t understand that simple math? Are you dumb?” Using phrases like these imply that disability makes a person feel they are inferior. Language can also be a tool of oppression. As individuals, we should be careful about not propagating an ableist culture that devalues an individual on any ground. 

Yes, impairments, chronic illnesses or any form of disability pose real difficulties for the person but the real barrier for them lies in the way they are perceived by society.  The prejudice and unjust treatment against them, by the system and by the people around make it more challenging. The idea of a ‘normal’ person is flawed because no one and everyone fits the criterion. A person in a wheelchair or a person with Down’s syndrome has the same right to live, exist and love, like any other ‘normal’ person. People are often uncomfortable about bodies that do not fit the idea of what it should look and work like. However, by ensuring that they are included in conversations, talking about it, calling out on people who might be propagating ableism, by learning and unlearning what we were taught and know about disability are all important steps for a better, inclusive society. 

Finally, reflecting back on the quote that I had read, I would make a few changes; “I complained about how no one was doing anything until I looked at the mirror and saw a person who could do something but chose to do nothing.” The only person we should be thankful for that we are not is someone who does nothing about the things they complain about. 

About the writer: Ankita Rose Subba is a medical undergraduate who likes writing, drawing, reading and watching reality shows. She also likes taking photos of her beloved dog Frodo.

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