We are all guilty of it. We all practice a form of bigotry and prejudice on a regular basis and we are not aware of it. For example, we would never think that we were practicing racism – thinking that one race is more important than the other. Or that we were practicing sexism – the belief that one sex is more important than the other. And “dittos” to homophobia – the belief that creates fear and discrimination against the LGBT community. Or the host of other discriminating behaviors that are equally as bad.
But there is one form of prejudice that most of us practice and we are poorer because of it. It is the practice of “ableism” and those that practice it are “ableists”. According to Heidi Mehta of the “Diversity, Equity and Human Rights Services” at George Brown College, St. James Campus, Toronto, in a personal e-mail sent to me, “ableism” is defined as “the privileging of able–bodied people and the othering of people with disabilities. It is treating being able-bodied as the norm and people with disabilities as deficient, lacking, needing to be fixed or being a burden for what they need in a world built around able–bodied people.” (Mehta, May 16, 2017)
But it goes beyond that. When we refuse to walk in the shoes of the hurting and not understand their plight, we are practicing ableism. When we do not take the time to understand a hurting person’s situation, we are practicing ableism. When we look down upon someone and we will not be satisfied until he reaches our level on our terms, we are practicing ableism.
The examples of ableism are everywhere. When we walk by a homeless person, for example, asking ourselves why he cannot get a job, not knowing his situation and not wanting to know, we are practicing ableism. When we tell someone battling depression or tormented by anxiety just to “snap out of it” or that we all get these feelings from time to time, unaware that he is truly suffering, we are practicing ableism. Ms. Mehta believes ableism is practiced by motivation speakers who teach us that we can wrestle any negative emotion into submission by just thinking positive when there may be other factors preventing us in feeling positive such as mental health issues. We are practicing ableism when we blame those who constantly experience failures and endure rejections for their own failings when, in fact, there are many factors determining success. Yes, failure may be the sufferers’ fault. But not always. Success is based on so many factors that the individual has no control. We must become more sensitive to the needs of those around us.
To educate us to become more sensitive, we did an experiment called “Cooperative Squares” in one of our courses in college. We broke into small groups – four or five. Each student had pieces of paper of different shapes in front of them. Each student had to build a square in front of the other classmates. But there were certain rules that they each had to abide by:
We could not talk to each other
We could not ask for a piece of paper from a neighbor
We could not take a piece of paper from our neighbor
We could only pass a piece of paper to our neighbor, hoping to build our classmate’s square. In other words, we had to see what our neighbor needed on his/her terms, to see everything through his/her eyes.
Sadly, when we relate to someone and try to help him/her, we see what we think is best in our own eyes, not our neighbor’s. We see them as an object on our terms, not as a subject. And, therefore, he is unlikely to reach his full potential and we are poorer for it.
Finally, it has been suggested that “ableism” can go too far. What about those people who truly believe what they say or write about is true. It is based on their faith or their belief system. Do we censor the motivation speakers who believe maintaining a positive outlook on life will get you your hearts’ desires even though their philosophies don’t work for all? Or the preachers who believe that belief in their God will make positive differences in peoples’ lives even though for all the successes that they boast about, there is an equal number of failures? Both groups have the evidence that such principles do work.
But life is chancy, risky. There are no guarantees. If what is written or said is a guarantee, why are there so many books, so many titles helping us to improve, to better our lives? And why are so many people still searching for meaning in their lives? There is a hunger out there that needs to be satisfied.
Do we censor everything that is offensive? Hardly. People are entitled to their opinions. And besides, if we censored every negative thing, nothing would be said, written or printed.