I’ve had only one arm for all 21 years of my life. But I’ve only just started to contemplate what my disability has meant for me and who I am because of it. To this end, I’m beginning a self-designed fifth-year program at the University of Rochester, studying disability, stigma, and identity. But more than I need an academic perspective, I need a tangible perspective – rooted in experience and action and dialogue and self-reflection.
So, let’s talk about ableism. For common ground, I’ll borrow the definition from Leah Smith: “Ableism is a set of beliefs or practices that devalue and discriminate against people with physical, intellectual, or psychiatric disabilities and often rests on the assumption that disabled people need to be ‘fixed’ in one form or the other.” Many knowledgeable and experienced authors have written extensively about ableism, so I’ll get right to my personal experiences with ableism to help illustrate its reality.
I’ll start with the assumption that “disabled people need to be ‘fixed,’” because that’s often apparent in discussions about my disability. Namely, I’m regularly questioned about my choice not to have a prosthetic arm. I’m not simply asked whether I’ve considered a prosthetic arm, but why I don’t have one. There’s evident confusion why I would choose to live with one arm when I could live with two. But I am healthy, independent, and happy, and I don’t feel a prosthetic arm would add value to my life (which, as only a reflection of my own life and circumstances, is meant neither to diminish anyone who chooses to use prosthetics nor to confound a valuable life with independence). Questioning my choice not to have a prosthetic arm – and suggesting it’s not a sensible choice – reflects the idea that my life with one arm is incomplete and worth less than a life with two.
Another common assumption is that disabled people need more help than others. In certain circumstances (specific to any given disability), we might, and this does not warrant shame or make us less worthy of respect. But the presumptive and uninvited effort nondisabled people often make toward disabled people serves to other us and delegitimize our autonomy. I experience this almost daily: When my classmates are passing a stack of papers to one another to each grab their own, the student before me hands me a single paper and reaches over me to pass the stack to the next student, as if I could not have done this myself; When I’m helping move boxes and I reach for a heavy one, someone quickly and purposely takes it themselves – even if I’m already making firm contact with it – like they’re saving me from my own choice. There are many other situations I could describe, and it might be counterintuitive to accept that others’ presumably helpful intentions often make me feel ostracized and incapable. But these regularly involve: 1) treatment directed exclusively to me as a disabled person, suggesting that I am necessarily less capable than others; 2) a reaction not to any observed struggle or difficulty in my actions, but to the presumed incompetence that must characterize a disabled person; and 3) an invasion of my personal space, reinforcing that my disabled body deserves less respect than a nondisabled body. An action doesn’t need to meet these criteria to be ableist, but these certainly contribute.
The topic of good intentions yielding ableism also brings us to inspiration porn: the objectification of disabled people as inspiration for others. My experiences as inspiration porn have taken a few forms. Sometimes I receive congratulatory remarks from others for tying my shoes, buttoning my shirt, etc. Superficially, these might simply reflect unfamiliarity with doing tasks with only one hand. But more significantly, they imply that my disability hinders me from managing ordinary tasks, so it’s praiseworthy when I do – like I’m overcoming my own existence by simply dressing myself in the morning. Moreover, general comments about my very existence are surprisingly common. I’ve become accustomed to being told that my ordinary life is an inspiration to others solely because I have one arm. This is always made to seem like a profound compliment, yet it always makes me uneasy: like someone is looking at me and saying, “However I feel about my life, at least it will never be as bad as yours: At least I will never be disabled.”
Above all this, the most insidious way in which ableism has manifested in my life has been in my own thoughts and habits regarding my disability: my internalized ableism. Years of external ableism have led me to internalize that I am less capable and less respectable because of my disability. In turn, I have deep-seated tendencies to separate myself from my disability however I can. Even carrying out insignificant tasks, I immediately and unfailingly try to minimize others’ perception that I am disabled. I instinctually ask myself, “Does this make me look physically competent?” and “How can I seem less disabled?” I sincerely wish I didn’t do this. But these thoughts are pervasive and intractable. I struggle to suppress the shame and embarrassment I feel about doing something that accentuates that I am disabled.
Where do I go from here? How do I disentangle my harmful ableist tendencies from my conscious recognition that my disability does not make me inferior? I don’t have a definite answer. The problem is too deeply ingrained for the solution to be well defined or instantaneous. But I’m hoping my recognition that this is not something I can brush aside is a start.
Moving forward, I need to reflect more on my internalized ableism, better recognizing and reacting when I try to separate myself from my disability. I need to internalize instead that I deserve to exist transparently and unashamedly. And I need to integrate this reflection in dialogue with other disabled people. It’s time for me to stop othering myself from the disabled community like nondisabled people other me from themselves. It’s time for me to learn and grow and effect change as a part of this community. It’s always been time; but I’m finally here.
Cameron Morgan is an undergraduate at the University of Rochester pursuing a self-designed fifth-year program in disability, stigma, and identity. He’s lived with only one arm for all his life but has only recently begun seriously reflecting on his experiences with disability, from being viewed as inspiration porn to bearing internalized ableism. He recognizes the commitment needed to understand his identity and work with the disabled community, but he’s excited for what’s to come.