Disabled People have better stories to tell

My proposed line-up of disability-themed movies:

  • A group of crip sisters sharing stories of their struggles through the years, and how their crip sisterhood helped them through it.
  • Maybe those crip sisters are on a spaceship, as part of a rebellion.
  • Two young disabled people from divided houses fall in love. In an act of rebellion against family pressure, they don’t kill themselves, but instead start a family of their own.
  • A disability activist searches for meaning in their own life while fighting for safeguards in assisted suicide laws.
  • A group of disabled/Mad friends go to Las Vegas for a bachelor party. They wake up the next morning to discover one of their friends is missing, and encounter various shenanigans while looking for them.

Ok so maybe I should stick with writing blogs, but I still think these films would be better than what’s on the table.  See this review of Me Before You if you’re not sure what I’m referring to here.

We know why ableist films and messages continue to spread, as do sexism, racism, and homophobia.

We have a responsibility to call out these stories, so that their toxic messages do not spread.

I’ve been seeing posts and messages that “it’s just one story” or “they don’t mean you”, but I think those posts miss the point.

I grew up in an area without many other disabled people. I had no disabled role models until I left home. Despite the privileges of being a white, middle class kid, I grew up with a lot of discrimination, but I didn’t know that’s what it was. I thought it was me, that I was broken. I was surrounded by sometimes well-meaning able-bodied people who saw my disabledness as something to mourn, or to mould into something more acceptable. They didn’t have better stories either.

Ableist stories were all I had until my twenties. Yes, I’m still here, but they’re woven into my formation, that’s just how it is.

Growing up in that environment still impacts me, some days I still feel broken. Some days ableist attitudes from others convince me for a time that I don’t belong, that I am less of a person.

I am fortunate now, that I have a strong community of disabled folks around me, but not everyone does.

Ableist stories and messages might not impact all of us equally, but they do cause harm.

We need to tell our own stories. We need less suicide and more solidarity.

Preferably with rebel forces on space cruisers.

“Here in Canada, we won’t see your disability”…unless we can profit from it.

The Parapan Am Games, August 2015. I was at the Torch Relay a few weeks ago, and one of the speakers, a well-known member of the disability community, and founder of a disability organization said, “Here in Canada, we won’t see your disability”.

My jaw dropped. I wanted to believe that he hadn’t just said that like it was a good thing, but he did. In fact he went on about it for another few minutes with great enthusiasm.

I doubt anyone has gone from shameless fan girl to outraged disability activist as fast as I did in that moment, but it was an uncomfortable transformation that went something like this:

“Wait, what?”… “Are you kidding me?”… “Ok, any minute now he’s going to turn around and tell all the politicians behind him that they need to step up”… “Somebody must’ve put him up to this.”… “Nope, no, please just stop”.

He meant this as a positive statement I’m sure, I mean who wouldn’t want to live in a country where ableism doesn’t exist. I think the PR department forgot to tell the white guy with the microphone that Canada isn’t that country. If that country exists right now it probably has unicorns, wizards flying on brooms…and much better Games.

I want to believe this speaker meant well; he’s a Canadian icon. Maybe he’s just speaking from his lived experience.

Maybe he doesn’t realize that there’s disabled people still fighting for accessible transportation, like RAPLIQ in Montreal. Maybe he doesn’t realize people are fighting to keep their existing accessible transportation, like Save Handydart in Vancouver.

It’s not like Canada’s a country that still euthanizes disabled people, but it does do research to screen genes for disabilities, and let’s not forget the ableism in assisted suicide.

It’s a country were disabled people can move freely…unless you’ve have been forced to live in an institution (another example), or have a suicide attempt on record that prevented you from crossing the border.

It is a country where disabled people have free will, unless compliance with medication is forced on you, someone decides you’re too disabled to parent, or you’re a refugee seeking healthcare.

Perhaps it’s easy to be misdirected by the billions of dollars that was spent on the Games and forget we’re in a province that underfunds social assistance and social housing, still has high unemployment for disabled people despite the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, and the Guy Mitchell inquest.

If I may, let’s take a lesson from our Prime Minister on what not to do, and stop trying to make problems go away by pretending they don’t exist. Disabled people exist in Canada, and not seeing that is part of the problem. Shielding our eyes from oppression is not something to be proud of and it won’t make ableism disappear.

How about we focus on making Canada a country that sees disabled people, and sees them as an asset. That sounds like something to shout into a microphone.

For more on ableism see The Invisible Backpack of Able-Bodied Privilege Checklist.

Support a Barrier-Free Canada.

Ableism, not Assisted Suicide, is what we need to work against

Update January 23, 2016: Now that the panel has released its recommendations earlier this week, ableism in Canada is once again rearing its ugly head. Allen Mankewich, co-chair of the Manitoba League of Persons with Disabilities, responded to one such example in the CBC this week.

The Supreme Court decision on assisted suicide brings up a lot of questions for Canadian disability activists, and some fear, but I think it’s worth looking at why we still have this fear.

I’d like to position myself in this conversation by noting a few things. The first is to acknowledge that within the disability community I hold a fair bit of privilege. As a white, well-educated, employed disabled activist I am aware that other disabled people face greater barriers and oppression and will likely have more to fear from this decision than I do, and I’m not saying that fear is misplaced. I am also a person who has attempted suicide in the past, and I have the privilege to be able to say that without shame. I was young and fighting many years of unnamed depression and ableism that I have since been able to climb out from. I have also known people for whom assisted suicide may have been a compassionate end to their suffering if that choice were possible at the time.

There are many disabled people who understandably feel that they’ve been made more vulnerable by this decision. It brings up many questions about what constitutes a valuable life. What does that mean for people who require assistance with daily activities of life? Does it impact the value of a disabled person’s life in the context of a capitalist society where the ability to produce, make and spend money, has become a mark of human value? What does it mean for mad people and psych survivors whose decisions to end their lives are often controlled by the medical community?

The reason I chose to try to end my life over a decade ago is a complicated one, but ableism, and my understanding of myself within society played a big role. This is a struggle that faces many disabled people still. The idea that we are burdens, and second-class citizen where other “experts” make choices and decisions about our lives is still as ever-present as it was then. The idea that needing help, and being anything less than 100% self-sufficient and independent makes us burdens; that we must all “overcome our disabilities” is holding us back. Yet this is the image we see presented to us not just in the media, but by the organization and presentation of some of our most cherished disability organizations. Yes, there are disability organizations in Canada promoting the oppression of other disabled people through their own internalized ableism. Their inability to recognize the privilege of their membership has silenced those who are more oppressed.

So what do we do about it? We can start with opening our doors and minds to a shift in the disability movement; one with zero tolerance for oppression within its ranks. One where working disabled people work towards becoming allies to people on social assistance, where disabled athletes can talk openly about needing supports. Most importantly we evolve our organizing to a level where disabled people are each experts in the disability experience, and all of us are equally valuable. We can no longer tolerate a movement or organizational community that positions non-disabled people as our champions and runs rampant with classism, racism, sexism, ableism, or any other form of discrimination.

The decision made by the Supreme Court of Canada on assisted suicide is about choice, and we too have a choice. We can choose to allow this decision to divide us into “achievers” and “victims”; or we can reject that ableism. We can use our collective power as disabled people to define lives worth living in terms that include all disabled people. This does not have to conflict with the right of other people who would make that choice. We have no reason to fear assisted suicide if we can overcome ableism within society and within ourselves. We have that choice, let’s choose to start now.