Of isms and igns and ints

This post is part of the Blogging Against Disablism Day

Isms and ists come from igns and ints.

Disablism, or antidisablism, or however you happen to label that particular ism and ists, is the result of the same things as all the other ists and isms – ignorance and intention.

Ignorance is the easy one: people who do not have a disability do not understand that disability.

Ignorance can lead to many things from misunderstandings to hatred. Misunderstandings can be mild or tragic, comical or irritating, but they tend to add up over time and create resentment, so it’s good to avoid them when possible.

Hatred happens when the ignorance is so great it creates fear. Fear is a tough thing to overcome, especially since what we fear most is so often what we don’t understand, and ignorance is a fairly natural condition for humans. Face facts – at any given time, we are ignorant of a lot more than we know.

People who believe they have the answers for everything are deluded – that’s why they don’t “know” they know all the answers. They can only believe. And since we don’t know more than we know, those who believe they know all are likely believing in things that aren’t true… so ignorance leads to more ignorance.

But we’re not hare to have a debate about atheism – we’re here to talk about disability. And a lot of disablism is a result of ignorance, and ignorance is the easy cause of disablism because it’s the one with the clearest cure.

If the basis is ignorance, the cure is education.

Who does that education and how it is done (and who pays for it, because, let’s face it, everything costs) is a matter for much debate. But if people who do not have a particular disability learn more about that disability, they’ll be less ignorant of it, less likely to fear it and hate those who do have it.

Education is always incomplete, always ongoing and always a struggle. We humans hate to admit what we don’t know.

So to eliminate disablism, every single person would have to commit to learning all they could about all disability at all times for ever and ever. It seems like a ridiculous solution, but since it’s impossible for anyone to know absolutely everything, a simple commitment to be open-minded would suffice.

There will always be misunderstandings. There will always be some way in which accommodating one person will make things more difficult for another. There will always be little things that everyone could not possibly know. But if everyone, those with and without disabilities, those who know and don’t know something about disabilities, agree to be open to learning more, and to be respectful of others, and to be willing to consider that what they believe they know may not be true in all cases, then we would have a cooperative environment.

Intentions are more convoluted.

Everyone has intention, to some degree. We humans don’t do many things randomly. We usually have a purpose, even if that purpose is frivolous. We often judge actions based on intention. If you mean to do something, and that thing has negative consequences, you will be judged more severely than if you did it by accident. We tend to value what we mean to say more than how it came out, or we judge others on what we believe they meant to say. (Language is tricksy that way.)

Intention intersects with disability in mind-bogglingly many ways.

First, paradoxically, we must consider the unintended. Disabilities can have unintended consequences, and this doesn’t sit well with out usual (constructed) intended reality. Humans don’t like dealing with the unintended.

Say I meant to do something – I promise I will do it, I say I’ll get done by this time or be there at that time, and then I don’t. I just… don’t. I couldn’t, because of some unforeseen result of disability. (I was supposed to help someone move last night, but I couldn’t, because I couldn’t even drive my truck, let alone lift anything. It wasn’t intended. It wasn’t planned. I had meant to help, but I couldn’t because… shit happens. I tried, but I couldn’t.)

Now, that could lead to many things. Obviously, someone is going to be disappointed. Me, for one. I hate it when I can’t do things I intended to do. The person I was supposed to help feels let down. But it wasn’t intentional, and I hope they understand, and even if they do I still let them down, so it can’t be helped if there are bad feelings.

BUT, if someone were to take that unintentional let down and extrapolate it into “she never does what she says she’s going to do”, it would be unfair.

AND, if someone were to take that even further and say, “everyone with a disability is unreliable”, which could lead to “people with disabilities are unreliable and hence do not deserve employment, then you would have disablism.

(You could argue that the first assumption is also disablist, because it involves blaming the individual for something they could not control, but I don’t really want to deal with particulars – I want to look at bigger pictures.)

Some people would argue that since the definition of a disability is a condition that prevents someone from participating fully in yadda yadda yadda,  people with disabilites are by definition not able to participate fully, so saying people with disabilities shouldn’t work is simply a fact. Those people are ignorant.

(Here I could go into a big diatribe about living in a society where we are defined by our very narrow definitions of productivity, but let’s save that for another time.)

Back to intention – shit happens and we should all be flexible. Fine and dandy, but what about disabilities that are inextricably linked to intention and the lack thereof– those are some of the least understood –  spasticity and Tourette’s, for example. The sheer unintentionality of action seems to whip ignorant, nondisabled people into a frenzy of mockery and fear and hatred. It scares humans that things just happen, for no reason.

Once again, humans do not like dealing with the unintended.

In this area of disablism, education can help to some degree. If those without the disabilities are somewhat prepared – if they can wrap their heads around the idea that all actions are not intended, that all utterances are not 100% controllable and all muscles not entirely under the will of the individual, then they’ll merely be surprised instead of shocked, and more accepting.

To anyone who is unwilling to accept that fact at shit happens, all I can say is this: suck it up. Shit happens.

But then there is intention – there are actions, there are words, there are situations, which are intended to cause harm. Deliberate and precise. Not the result of ignorance and fear, but the result of privilege.

This is the most difficult part of disablism, of any ism, because there is no clear cure.

There are people who do not want to share their world with others. There are people who have power, who enjoy resources and wealth and privilege and they exclude others from enjoying them. Because they don’t want to share. Because they want it all for themselves. Because they CAN.

They do not want to share their spaces with people who cannot access them, so they make their spaces inaccessible. They make their spaces inaccessible in as many ways as they can. They make their spaces inaccessible in physical and social ways. They exclude on the basis of disability, or skin colour, of ethnicity, of gender, of social stature, of financial status. They exclude on they basis of anything that will exclude, so that they can have it all for themselves.

When people who are excluded on the basis of one criteria get a little piece of the pie, they may exclude others on an entirely different basis, because their piece is small – too small to share.

They don’t want to let too many people have access to their job – they believe it’s better to exclude on the basis of disability/gender/race/any-other-factor-they-can-get-away-with than face more competition. (This can often be done with regulations or requirements that are impossible for the excluded class to meet.)

They have a nice social circle and they don’t want to have to include people who are not like them, so they exclude on the basis of family background, ethnicity, disability etc. (Often accomplished by narrowing the scope of the social circle so much that only those of with the accepted features will even be interested in taking part.)

We humans exclude all the time. It’s part of our nature, just like ignorance. It’s WHY we exclude that matters, because, again, intent matters.

Sometimes we exclude unintentionally. That ignorance can be solved by education.

Sometimes we exclude intentionally. That is where intention becomes an ism.

Mindfulness, then, is the key to behaving in a more inclusive manner: being mindful of others – and of those things we may be ignorant of – and being mindful of what our true intentions are when we exclude and when we include.

Maybe it really does all come down to ignorance, in which case there is a cure for the intentions. If we all consider our ignorance and our intentions, then maybe disablism, as well as other isms and ists will be reduced.

Published in: on May 1, 2010 at 4:56 pm  Comments (12)  

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  1. I often get caught here. Intentions are so hard to deal with — because once you are hurt/angered, etc…., you have to deal with yourself before you deal with the intentions of the other person.

    It’s a learning process.

    thanks for this


    • Yes, intentions are tricksy. But if we can all try to keep them in mind, maybe we’ll be less likely to jump to unpleasant conclusions, and more likely to delve that little bit deeper to find the truth.

      Waaay easier said than done, of course.

      Thank you very much for commenting.

  2. Thanks for this.

    I get caught here a lot. Intentions are hard, because once you get hurt/angered etc., you then have to deal with yourself before dealing with others. Intentions matter less, then, I find.

    :-) I suppose it’s a lifelong kind of journey.


  3. A neat unpacking of the ism! And I’m with you on the ‘educating’ front.

    • Thank you.

      Part of the problem with educating is that so much of what has to be learned is emotionally fraught. That’s where respect gets crucial, I think.

  4. The whole issue of education is fraught with trouble too, of course. The majority often look on the excluded minority as being responsible to educate. To do [minority] 101 talks all the time. That’s a problem, too.

    If we say it’s your responsibility to educate yourself, that helps alleviate that burden, but what do we do then about people who choose not to educate themselves? Do we say that it’s acceptable to exclude those who do not educate themselves (which runs the risk of harming people who are acting from simple ignorance and would be willing to educate themselves if they knew they needed to) or do we somehow transfer the burden of education to the person who discovers that they have not educated themselves?

    I mean, I agree in principle that education is the best solution to most ‘isms’. I mean, the main purpose of my blog is education and outreach. But I often find myself cornered into doing education work I don’t want to out in the world, having it demanded of me with the assumption that they have the right to ask me to educate.

    So what do we do?


    • Very good point. The who does it and the how to do it and the who pays for it, as I wrote, are a whole other question. What I was attempting to address is the origin of the disablism.

      It’s easy to say people should self-educate, but we all run the risk of self-educating poorly at times. How to know what’s “right” and what’s “wrong”? It’s impossible to be informed about everything.

      The default is, as you say, the minority shouldering the burden of educating a sometimes reluctant majority, which is also unfair. One would hope there is some balance, some way of spreading the work.

      We have to face the fact that we’re going to have to do some of the educating, becuase if we’re talking about nondisabled people understanding the experience of disability, they can’t possibly understand it unless people with disabilities inform them. We can’t clam up and look smug and say, “Well, if you don’t already know…” because then no one would know anything about anyone else.

      I don’t have any interest in belonging to an exclusive club that “knows” more than the rest of them, especially when educating other people will make things so much easier for me and my sisters and brothers.

      But then, like you, I get irritated. I get irritated most with people who should know better, who have been told and told, educated and educated, and are still ignorant. (Of course, at that point, I suspect it’s their intention to never learn, becuase it’s to their advantage… that’s when things get political.)

      I wish I had easy answers. I wish there were easy answers. But for now all I can say is I hope you can pace yourself and don’t get burned out. Burning out sucks.

      I think you make an amazingly excellent point – once people realize they are acting out of ignorance, they can take responsibility for their own education. A lot of people just need a little push and they can navigate for themselves. They have a conversation or read an article and then off they go, discovering and seeking out the voices of others, and with any luck they learn good stuff. If that’s what we can do with our blogs and our posts and resources like this round-up of posts, well then we’re doing a good thing, aren’t we?

      • Part of what I like about educating through my blog is that I educate on my time. I write when I feel up to it, about the topic I feel like educating on in that moment.

        Not like when someone on the street demands to know about my service dog for the eleventy-billionth time this week. Then there’s this gleeful assumption that because they’re interested in my dog, I have an obligation to tell them about it. And in the name of keeping relations towards service-dog users positive, which affects our access rights, I’ll admit that more often than not I’m willing to play nice and give the same talk once again. It helps that my service dog organization gives us little wallet-size brochures that explain what the dogs do for us (mostly for fundraising purposes, I suspect – when you tell people all the things the nice doggies do for the poor disabled people, they donate. It’s a bit of a cynical view, but if you’d read these cards, you’d see that they’re slanted towards getting donations. Fortunately, it’s more-or-less straight information on what the dogs can be trained to do and what kinds of disability they help with, without a lot of Woe! Is! Us! Otherwise, I doubt I’d want to hand them out)

        But there I go – I feel obligated to give the 101 talk in the effort to get my particular minority treated better. That has a very bitter taste to it, to me.


      • I can understand how the constant demands for information would get old fast. Even if they are geared toward donations, those cards sound handy.
        Service animals are awesome, so spreading the word about them can only do good.

        I agree about blogs – a much better way to educate, by doing it on our own terms, in our own time. I’m really hoping I can sleep tonight so I’ll have the wherewithal to read more Blogging Against Disability entries tomorrow. They’ve been great so far.

      • The fact that the cards are geared towards generating donations really doesn’t bother me, mostly because they’re designed to be ‘service dogs are awesome and helpful’ without creating a sense of pity for the people service dogs can help. That kind of positive appeal is okay with me. If it were designed in a way that implied we poor, pitiful disabled folk desperately need our service dogs, I wouldn’t hand them out.

        Particularly since the service dog organization is a charity and most of the cost of obtaining, raising, and training the dogs is raised from donations. I paid less than 5% of the costs for my service dog; the other 95% plus came from the charity, so from donations. Without that kind of help, I would never have been able been able to afford a dog as well trained as my Hudson.

        I also like the fact that sharing the cards spreads awareness of the fact that assistance dogs aren’t just for people with visual impairments. I am sometimes tempted to get cards printed that explain the 4 different kinds of service dogs (visual assistance dogs, physical service dogs, hearing assistance dogs, and psychiatric service dogs) and our basic legal rights. They’re little details that I feel should be much more common knowledge. I sometimes feel like I should consider myself very lucky that I was aware of physical service dogs before I became disabled, and thus could start the process of getting one as soon as we knew the handicap was perminent.

  5. Hi,

    I really like how you have laid this out.
    Would it be ok with you if I printed it out (cite it) and share it with a queer discussion group (to help try to discuss intersectionality and how unacknowledged privilege can result in disablism)?

    Sincerely, Tariq.

    • By all means, share away – and please let me know how the discussion goes!

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