Do you need a hand?

Trigger warnings: death, ableism.

I started writing a thing for Blogging About Disableism Day, (Sunday 1 May), but then I found out that my friend Rose had died. And that took over everything. 

Disablism (or ableism, they mean the same thing, it’s Blogging Against Disablism Day but I usually say ableism) is a term used to describe discrimination against people based on disability, or the favouring of able bodied people. It applies to both physical and mental health.

I’m not going to talk about any details to do with Rose. It’s too soon, it’s not my place, I have too much to say and no idea where to begin. But I will say that I believe she was failed by the public institutions and health systems that are supposed to be there to support people. And I will say that I think a large part of the reason that happened was ableism.

I remember very clearly the first time I was called ableist. I’ll be honest, I thought: “What the fuck is that?” It’s an unfamiliar word for many people. I know that it can get tiring, all the different “isms” we have to learn and be aware of – feminism, sexism, racism, classism. Adding ableism to that mix is another layer of complexity to what’s already a fucked up soup.

But if you’re not willing to take the time to educate yourself, make changes to your behaviour and the way you interact with others, and examine your own internalised prejudices… we’re probably not going to be friends.

I understand being defensive. I felt that way when I was called ableist, even though I didn’t know what it meant. So I went and learned.

I think by far the best thing I’ve read about ableism in all its forms was my friend Elle’s series on it. She talks about general individual ableism, systemic ableism, benevolent ableism, and internalised ableism.

I have experienced all of these.

The worst forms, for me, are the ones that are so normalised that you don’t even register them until they effect you. You don’t see it, and you don’t understand the problem. Until you’re on the other side and you realise how much it hurts.

And I’m not just talking in a “that hurts my feelings” way, though I’m by no means downplaying emotional pain.

I’m talking about how ableism can stop me participating in parts of life that should be accessible to me. How it can effect my career, my relationships, my access to health services, my access to income support.

As an able person, it can be hard to understand how to interact with people with disabilities or health challenges in “the correct way.” Like I said at the start, it’s complex.

The first rule is always going to be to ask them. We’re individuals. We all want different things. Sometimes, we might want different things on different days. My disability changes all the time. Sometimes, I’m more able than other times. My needs and wants are going to vary. Don’t make assumptions.

I had a moment of education about this the other day, when I was standing outside a store waiting for my friend to pick me up. A woman came along in a wheelchair, and she was looking at the rack of clothes the store had outside. She wanted to pull the rack towards her, but it kept getting stuck on a piece of carpet.

I struggled with myself for a moment. Do I offer to help, thereby possibly being ableist with the insinuation that she needs it? Or do I stand here like a selfish knob while she struggles?

In the end, I blurted “Do you want a hand?”

She smiled and said “Nah I’m good, I do this enough.”

I wanted to be able to say something idiotic like “I know what it’s like to have a disability, I’m sorry, I wasn’t assuming you needed help, I just wanted to make sure,” but thankfully I managed to shut my gob before I embarrassed myself.

Because yeah, so I know what it’s like to have a disability. My disability, not hers. Our experiences are not the same.

And I know that some days, I would have been real pissed off that someone offered to help, and other days, I would have been really grateful.

I’m sorry I can’t give a straight answer on this. I can’t speak for myself all of the time, let alone on behalf of everyone with disabilities.

Is it ableist to offer help, because it assumes the person can’t do it and you might just be acting out of pity, or ableist not to, because you’re not willing to go out of your way and you don’t have empathy, and therefore you deny them access?

I don’t know the answer to that question. Maybe it lies in the individual, or maybe I’m not yet educated enough to know.

I think for Blogging Against Disablism Day, you’re sposed to talk about examples of ableism you’ve experienced. But I don’t feel like going through that grocery list right now.

I’ve can say that I’ve had all of these: Six forms of ableism we need to retire immediately. Many, many times.

I’m not interested in pity. I don’t think anyone is. The key to change is awareness and self-education.

At least that’s something I can do.


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