This Valentine’s Day as we talk about and think about love, it is important to consider how we think about and talk about ourselves as people living with disabilities. Widespread ableism and disability stigma impacts how people with disabilities view and think about themselves. We must stop internalizing ableist thinking and come together as a community to support each other.
There is a focus for people with disabilities on what we can’t do, rather than what we can do in our society. For those born with a disability, this can follow them through their entire life. Rather than being taught ‘you can do anything you put your mind to’, historically, people with disabilities are taught to live within their ‘limitations.’ That many of these so-called limitations are more a mindset or attitudinal barrier than an actual limitation is something that society overlooks.
We live within a system where people without disabilities are taught to push their boundaries outward, explore interests and natural talents, and take certain risks that expand their knowledge and experiences, while people with disabilities are taught to accept the status quo, operate within a specific set of pre-defined behaviors and options, and avoid risks.
I have one employee who told me that when he was a child, he was taught to always walk behind a person who is sighted and to defer to their judgment at school. Good thing that lesson didn’t stick, because if he was going to count on my sense of direction, we would be in trouble. Instead, he had his own lesson, “Never trust a sighted person to know how to get somewhere.”
While this makes for a fun anecdote, the underlying message is disturbing. Why should someone who is blind always defer to the judgment of a sighted person? What other messages are being shared with youth with disabilities that teach them that they are less capable than those living without disabilities? What general childhood experiences do our kids with disabilities miss out on, simply because ableism and stigma prevent people from understanding how adaptation and accommodation can level the playing field for people with disabilities?
Over the years I have heard many stories from my employees about how they were told by those who should have supported their growth that they wouldn’t be able to do something. For some they were told they couldn’t go to college, others told their career path was one that was out of reach. As disability civil rights leaders, we must fight to ensure the bar is not lowered for children with disabilities, and for ourselves. To do so, we must defy those lessons taught to us at an early age and reinforced by society. We cannot fall prey to internalization of stigma and ableist thinking.
What does this mean?
Internalization is when you start to believe the stigma and feel that it fundamentally defines you as a person. To avoid this, you have to actively pay attention to how you talk to and about yourself. If you tell yourself, you are unable to do something because of your disability, then you will never do it. If you tell yourself, you are not worthy or that you are a burden, then that will stand in the way of you investing in yourself and in your dreams.
You must, first, believe in your own potential. You must be aware of your own worth and you must be willing to stand firm when others challenge this belief. You must define your own value and build pride in who you are – including your disability. Then you must be willing to put in the work to achieve your goals – no matter how often others tell you can’t.
Have you applied to ten jobs with no call for an interview? Then apply to twenty more.
Have you gone on an interview and seen the hiring managers tone change when they found out you have a disability? Then be that much more prepared to talk about your skills and competencies. Don’t let their ignorance defeat your chance by embracing it – persevere and sell them on why you are the right person for the job.
Stigma and ableism are real. They do create barriers. Barriers we must fight to break down. It starts with us – with finding the inner-strength to say no – no I won’t give up on myself – no I won’t let society tell me that my talents are less because I have a disability. You can internalize their stigma and become a mirror, showing back to them what they mistakenly believe – or you can choose to shatter the illusion of ableism by exuding confidence and professionalism.
The disability community is growing right now because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is expected that the disability community will add millions to its ranks. These people, all across the globe, will share in our journey and bring with them new allies. Right now, we hold a pivotal place in history. Will we be the voice of strength that brings this world together? Will we rise to the challenges before us and unite those joining our community? We know what needs to happen to create a future where people with disabilities can thrive as equals to their non-disabled brothers and sisters. It is up to us to create the dialogue of what it means to be disability proud and how to overcome ableism for the new members of our community. We must do so from a place of love and pride in ourselves and our community.
Disability rights activist and winner of the 2018 Paul G. Hearne Emerging Leader Award from the American Association of People with Disabilities, Emily Ladau said, “I take pride in being disabled, and it has brought me to a whole culture and community I love.” Emily’s book, ‘Demystifying Disability: What to Know, What to Say, and How to be an Ally,’ offers insight into what ableism is and how to recognize it as well as how to appreciate the rich history and identity of the disability community. We must all rise to the occasion and share our stories. Together we can create a world that is more inclusive.