Disablism is an academic Gimp term covering all concepts, ideologies, and practices of discrimination against people of Disability. It reflects the painfully common belief that the abled body should be the model for what is normal, and the many narratives and practices that seek to assure the abilist model remains dominant. Its companion, the able-bodied gaze, is a stealthy and powerful ally in the effort to marginalize persons who happen to be differently bodied and abled.
Those who grew up in the Fifties may remember one such practice: that of the disabled body as appeal, in which the deformed or weakened body is portrayed in order to create fear and/or guilt and thereby solicit funds. Perhaps you remember the Polio poster children enlisted as fundraisers for the March of Dimes, a primary source of financial support for vaccine development and for Polio survivors and their families. These children often grew up to become adults in a world largely devoid of Polio, yet who needed services and who were largely abandoned by the March of Dimes when Polio was no longer either sexy or profitable.
The Polio experience taught many of us survivors and our families that Disability is culturally defined; ideally it is a story negotiated between, rather than imposed on, individuals, groups, and the dominant culture. The actual experience of Disability is personal, and a common Disability moment is finding oneself subject to the Able-bodied Gaze, discovering one is being looked upon as less than or other. This is the foundation of all Freak Show style practices, including hospital rounds. It was also the practice by which many Polios and our families were marginalized, quarantined, and or ostracized.
Disability is not contagious, although Disability is ever-present in our lives, an immediate and unpredictable companion and possibility. A Disability Psychologist I respect likes to remind folks that , “We are at best temporarily able-bodied.” We cannot escape Disability’s presence even by keeping the Disabled out of sight.
As a writer, storyteller, and visual and performing artist, I have long been interested in Disability as storied experience, and in the ways Disability is portrayed in vernacular culture and the media. As a psychotherapist and healer, I am curious about the way we learn Disability and the means we find to share self, even while under the influence of disabling notions about Disability.
I am fascinated by the resilience of persons who made their way in the world as freak show artists by creating strong communities, who utilized the different body to deflect the able-bodied gaze and create empowering , engaging, and enfolding narratives about the human experience. I am heartened by the insistence of Disabled individuals and communities that all people be met with inclusion and acceptance, and our collective willingness to put our hurting bodies on the line in service of that goal.
At the same time I am surprised when others fail to note the challenges faced by people of Disability, or refuse to acknowledge our courage and resourcefulness. I am bewildered that people of good heart turn away from the world-wide struggle for Disability Rights, simply because the obstacles and resistance to inclusion are strong. I am confused when people fail to see the innate kinship between Indigenous people, persons of color or less privilege, and we Disabled. I am perplexed when those of us with disabilities define ourselves narrowly, as through Abilist eyes, rather than taking pride in our many selves and communities.
My own identity as multi-tribal Native, Scott, English, and Disabled is filled with juicy contradictions, nuances, and possibilities. I know that all Disabled persons hold many identities and marvelously diverse selves. Yet so often the Disablist myths about us threaten to obscure or erase the magic and mystery of our being.
With my parents’ tacit encouragement I grew up passing as neither Disabled nor Indian. Of course, both were at best only marginally successful. Although I have light skin and brown hair, others have often identified me as Native American. While I have tried hard to hide the bodily impact of Polio, my body is twisted and I cannot run. So often I have been outed, often with great pain.
Still, as I have grown into elderhood my resolve to resist demeaning stereotypes, images, and narratives about my Native and Disabled identities has strengthened. I have become more willing to be visible and to share stories of hope and resistance. The Indigenous elders who were my teachers would say, “This is a good road,” and it is.
Will you share with us the stories of your journey, your acts of courage and resistance, your joys and sorrows, and the blessings Disability has brought along with its hardships? The circle of council and community is good. The fire is warm, and your stories will be held as precious here. Perhaps the stories we share will touch, even heal one another. May it be so.