Friday, October 4, 2019

What Ableism Cannot Have

"You are your own best thing."
-Toni Morrison, Beloved

I am disabled and I am tired. Tired from the constant emotional, physical, and spiritual drain of ableism. I have been spending a great deal of time reflecting on the impact of ableism and what a full-time job it is to navigate a world that simply is not designed for disabled people. Ableism tries to convince people that the mere existence of our bodies is The Problem and sometimes it tries to con me in to believing that myself. But I don’t buy it.

That’s not to say I am delighted 24/7 with all of my symptoms or that I never feel frustrated that my adductor muscle is trying to kill me. I have always subscribed to a nuanced combination of the medical model and social model when it comes to disability, because some realities, like chronic pain, can’t be explained away by the environment. But ultimately, my disability is part of my life and has enriched my experiences beyond measure.

Ableism, on the other hand, is the great taker, and god, it breaks me some days.

Ableism takes away your trust that any given building will be accessible, because it allows for a world where so many aren’t.

Ableism takes away your opportunity to go to the doctor and know that you will be treated with dignity.

Ableism allows institutions designed to “help” you to control your life, to think of you like an Orwellian “unperson” and worse, to make you feel like one, when you’re having a moment. And yet, you’re in their hands, because you still need your butt wiped today. I’d say you’re at their mercy, but there is no mercy there.

Ableism takes away a clear vision of your future, because you never know if the policies that hold up your life will be rearranged at the whim of a non-disabled politician.

Ableism takes away going to an event with ease, because what if there’s a step the receptionist failed to mention? What if the elevator’s too small? What if the bathroom is the size of a closet? 

Sometimes, ableism makes it feel easier to stay home. You’ll never forget the day you, as a child, gave up on field trips because the labor of making sure you could even fit through the doorway (which mostly fell on you) finally made you say “enough.” 

Sometimes, ableism takes friends, who suddenly fade away, lose interest when your needs are no longer convenient for them.

Ableism takes away things before they were ever allowed to exist, like the certainty that you could go to a job interview and not be cast aside as an “undue burden.”

Like knowing that people you meet will even know how to look at you… or touch you, in a way that doesn’t involve healthcare gloves.

Ableism is greedy. Oh, it’s greedy, and there are days when it feels like it will consume you because it wants to take away so much. 

Ableism’s final toxic victory is when it makes you hate yourself.

But I made myself a promise and I renew that promise today. Ableism may take what seems like everything, but it cannot have my sense of worth. No, that one thing is mine. 

If nothing else, let my life be a radical promise to love myself when you, ableism, have been relentless in your efforts to make that promise unravel.

I falter, I fail, I have trying moments when my worth, that one precious thing, feels slippery in my grasp… but that, ableism, belongs to me and you cannot have it.

Kathleen sitting in her wheelchair wearing a 3E Love shirt that says "Love" with a "wheelchair heart" as the O
Kathleen sitting in her wheelchair wearing a 3E Love shirt that says "Love" with a "wheelchair heart" as the O


  1. Fabulous read, Kathleen. It resonates with many, I assure you.

  2. I thought this was excellent and clearly presented. Everyone in the field should read it

  3. Outstanding! Too many of our explanations of ableism are abstract and theoretical. I love that you deal in real-life examples.

  4. Pure poetry. Not today, Ableism. Not today. Kathleen, you are not alone in these thoughts and this persistent struggle for sense of worth. Keep renewing your promise, as will I. Ableism, you have no hold. We belong here.

  5. Very nice and inspiring! I love your description and am even more inspired to continue to claim my own self worth as people pass me off in a polite but condescending way. That is so annoying! Thank you.

  6. I was recently talking to a friend about ableism and she didn't understand what I meant, so I showed her this. I love the plain and easy to understand yet powerful way you explained it. One of the hardest effects of ableism for me was the point you mentioned where friends fade away. As a disabled teenager, your friends and how you're viewed socially means a lot, and it can be so easy to never want to open up to anyone one when ableism has taught you time and time again that when you do, you're friends will get scared and leave.