Diverse abilities and ableism

Last week, we held our final JEDI seminar of the semester and we talked about diverse abilities and ableism. College folks can watch the recording.

As the American Disabilities Act describes, “someone is dis/abled if [he, she, or they] a) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; b) has a record of such an impairment; or c) is regarded as having such an impairment.” Dis/abilities are diverse, including those related to mobility, psychiatric, auditory, cognitive/developmental/intellectual, speech, environmental, and medical. Some dis/abilities are visible; we can see that someone is using a wheelchair. Some are invisible; we can’t see that someone has a learning dis/ability. Some dis/abilities are temporary (e.g., I couldn’t hear out of my left ear for a month earlier this year), and some are permanent (e.g., folks who are deaf from birth).

In considering this range of dis/abilities or diverse abilities, we often find ourselves assuming that people with dis/abilities have problems with their bodies and/or minds that create barriers for them participating in everyday life and society. Yet, what we learn from people with diverse abilities and dis/ability activists is that the barriers people with diverse abilities experience are not necessarily because of their minds and bodies, but are external in terms of structures, attitudes, and norms that prevent their full participation and inclusion.

As shown through medical and social models of disability, the medical model of dis/ability pathologizes and problematizes the person with diverse abilities, whereas a social model problematizes the social barriers (like attitudes and inaccessible standards). When we problematize a person with dis/abilities, we are participating in ableism; we are contributing to the barriers that person must overcome to have full access and participation.

Beyond this, when we begin to view ability from a social model, we can more easily see the intersectionality between ability and other systems of oppression. For instance, even looking at the history of medical research, we have seen pseudoscience and movements like eugenics that worked to perpetuate and confirm the myth of white superiority, particularly in terms of intelligence. We also know that members of the LGBTIQ+ community have been falsely labeled as “mentally ill” historically, and we still see that pathologizing at work in anti-trans policies. Additionally, women have been diagnosed historically as “mentally feeble” when they did not subscribe to the societally accepted norms and standards.

In these examples, we see how ability and dis/ability are constructed in society, where there is a standard set. This standard is ultimately white, cis-gendered man, wealthy, able-bodied, and neuro-typical. When we start to question this standard and who it serves, we move our lens of the problem to not focus on marginalized people, but to focus on the barriers to marginalized people.