Ableism, Prejudice or Ignorance?

By Melissa Montgomery: For Complete Post, Click Here…

We all have that moment — the first time we try to explain something about our disability to someone who doesn’t understand it. For me, that moment happened when I saw my mother about three months after my injury. 

I had a car accident when I was almost 19 years old. I immediately traveled to Tel Aviv, Israel, to participate in a new FDA clinical trial where I spent several months before coming back to Craig Hospital in Denver, Colorado. My father traveled with me while my mother stayed home with my two younger brothers. I left for Israel functioning as a T6-7 complete para — no feeling and no movement below my injury level — and returned with some sensation and muscle control but also some significant new spasms. 

When I got to my room in Denver, my legs started spasming on my first transfer. My mother was so happy to see my legs moving! She started crying and celebrating her answered prayers for her daughter. She had no idea that what she was seeing was not voluntary. She had no idea that her tears of joy were misplaced. I hated having to tell her, “Mom, that’s not me. They’re just spasms, and I can’t control them.”

After 21 years in a wheelchair, I have a lot more experiences like this to draw from, interactions in which people make assumptions about my disability without knowing the full details. But how much should we expect people with limited personal experience with disability to understand? How should we expect them to act? These are questions that have been bouncing around in my mind for a while, but even more over the last few years with the growing use of the term “ableism.” 

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