Archives for posts with tag: Ableism

Quote from St. Augustine: “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.”

As a core team member of our Inclusive Ministry church for people with cognitive and other disabilities, it’s my job and my joy to go to our monthly services. However, I also mildly dread the way some new volunteers relate to me and the other people with disabilities.  These are good Christians volunteering their Sunday afternoon to help us poor unfortunate disabled folks and they’re good bakers and cooks. But each month some of the new church’s volunteers display along with their Christian charity the following attitudes:

  • People with disabilities lack knowledge and even preferences. “Are you sure you didn’t live in such and such a group home? “I’m asked in a loud sugary tone after I’ve said “No, I live by myself” to the same question.
  • We need help. “Here I’ll do that for you” as I was working on the craft project. I’m no crafter but taking the backing off a sticker and putting it on a paper crown; this I can do!
  • We can be touched without notice. As the helper next to me first picked a dog hair off my sweater and then one off my face, I tried to make a joke of it, but felt demeaned and a little scared by a touch coming unexpectedly.

I know I am not alone. In the recent tweet storm about #whatdisabledpeopleknow there were many similar comments about churches. But since we’re creating an inclusive service, the “usual” attitudes bother me a lot.

I keep going because I think I’m the canary in the coalmine since I’m the only person with a disability on the core team. Unlike the canaries that just keeled over from the toxic gases in the mine, I’m there as a crow to squawk and problem-solve.  I model asking before helping, conversing the same with people with and without disabilities and accepting help as well as offering it.

But I’m stuck about what more I can do to change the “us versus them” mentality. I don’t think direct confrontation would work as in “Ask before you pick hairs off me. Would you do that to a sighted stranger?” Interestingly the same person knew not to touch a service animal without asking!

Also I’m stuck about how to go beyond tolerance to showing God’s love to these good people. So far the cranky comments haven’t escaped my mouth, but I can’t seem to move beyond mere tolerance.

For those of you who are bystanders to condescending and other inappropriate comments to disabled folks, please consider saying something. Don’t wait until you have the perfect comment; if you’re like me, that may be weeks after! Butt into the conversation with an ask like “May I help?” or a comment from your viewpoint on the topic. In addition to giving the person with a disability a moment to breathe, it tells them they have an ally.

Gradually a prayer is bubbling up. Maybe I’ll ask the leader if she’d read something like it every month before we start our service.

“Loving God, we’re here today to worship, learn, fellowship and serve each other. Help us meet each other with joy in our uniqueness and not fear in their otherness.  Let us offer and accept help, not do for someone. Help us listen and find common bonds, be they football or cats rather than talking down to anyone. Help us learn from the people we “help” so we recognize You in them and us. Teach us that we all are the church for each other and are each made in Your image. Show us how to love, not pity or resent each other.”

And Lord, give me patience and give it to me now, would you?




If you’re interested in knowing the answer to that question, you’ve taken step one in getting rid of the ableism we all have grown up with. Ableism, like racism or sexism, means considering people inferior because they belong to a particular group, in this case people with disabilities. The judgments of inferiority are based on stereotypes and can limit an individual’s opportunities. When it’s widespread and institutionalized it can lead to eugenics, euthanasia and selective abortion.


Some examples might include:

  • Commenting to a friend with a disability “I don’t see you as disabled”
  • Not providing sex education materials in braille because blind children wouldn’t need that
  • Not routinely providing dolls with disabilities in daycare centers
  • Not inviting a member of a coffee group to have coffee anymore after they’ve had an accident and have a brain injury
  • Not bringing a family member with dementia to church because “they won’t get anything out of it”.
  • Lack of portrayal on television and on screen of disabled roles by actors with disabilities
  • Media portrayals of people with disabilities as superhuman/inspirational, as objects of charity or monstrous (particularly around Halloween)


Long-term consequences of ableism include high unemployment and poverty rates for people with disabilities. Society also loses out on individuals’ gifts because they’ve been shunted aside on account of their disabilities. Ableism also leaves people without disabilities with a lot of fear about what if that happens to me?

The first thing to do about ableism is look for it in yourself and others. Congratulate yourself when you say something ableist and a friend with a disability challenges you. Then work to rephrase it. “I’ll pray that God gives you back your sight” could be rephrased as: “May I pray for you in some way?” “I’ll help you” can be rephrased as “May I help you?”

It’s always more fun catching and correcting others’ comments, but saying “sorry” and working to rephrase one’s own is more productive. After all, each of us spends 24 hours a day with ourself, so self-improvement can be worked on any time.

I was asked to lecture some women’s studies classes about ableism. It caused me to do a lot of thinking about how I could talk about the topic without blaming and shaming the people I want to recruit to the cause of working toward access for people with disabilities to the good life.

I try to make my talk fun and accessible by talking about common experiences like playing Trivia Crack and highlighting small things they are doing to be accessible, like not raising their hands to ask questions.

I talked about what ableism is: “ Ableism is the practices and dominant attitudes in society that devalue and limit the potential of persons with disabilities. Ableism – a set of practices and beliefs that assign inferior value (worth) to people who have developmental,  emotional, physical or psychiatric disabilities.” From

I used a few trivia questions like “Name two U.S. presidents who had disabilities.” and “When was braille invented?” to help the students begin to notice the invisibility of the 19% of Americans who have a disability. After talking about disability words and asking them to use accurate language (“blind” not “visually challenged”), I talked about images and stereotypes. When asked to choose, they overwhelmingly picked the new access symbol over the old. I talk about three models of disability:

  • Moral: disability equals sin; be ashamed and hide the disability.
  • Medical: fix it or teach compensatory skills like braille and assistive tech.
  • Minority: Disability is a part of life; embrace it.

I described the realities of disability life, which I’ve summarized in the first five letters of the alphabet:

  1. We have to ask/advocate for what we want and need.
  2. There’s a bubble of isolation around us.
  3. It costs more to have a disability.
  4. We experience discrimination in many ways.
  5. The everydayness of disabilities; dealing with unequal access and people’s attitudes are everyday adventures for me. They’re like death and taxes; they’re inevitable.

Then I launched into what they could do about ableism. I covered four reasons why they should do something:

  • Pay it forward because we’re a joinable group.
  • Nondiscrimination is the law.
  • It’s the right thing to do.

I suggest hanging with people with disabilities. Realize you’ll be uncomfortable, acknowledge it, and go out of your comfort zone. I ask the audience to look around their good life, figuring out where people with disabilities aren’t at the table and asking why and working to change it.  Then I wrap up with things you might gain by becoming an ally, like a new perspective on daily events, valuing interdependence and a few good laughs at how awkward we all are with each other’s individualities.

I need some kind of altar call, so this time I tried “name the movement”. That was met with a resounding thud. So I’m left wondering if I changed hearts and minds. If the prof passes on journal entries from the students, that will help me know. If they stop me on campus and chat, that’ll be a good sign. One has already passed on my name to her mom who needs a speaker in her school district. Luna got immediate positive feedback from students who miss their dogs and were glad to meet her.  I guess I’ll call the talk “Only You Can Stop Ableism” until a better title comes to mind. All entries considered!