Is That Ableist? Good Question

By Dr. M. Leona Godin: For Complete Post, Click Here…

On a recent visit to my hometown, San Francisco, I met up with two fellow blind writer friends — Haben Girma and Caitlin Hernandez. Haben is a human rights lawyer and author, the first and only deaf-blind graduate of Harvard Law School. Caitlin is a talented teacher and young adult novelist. I’d been friends with her since we met in a writers’ group in 2017, when she dubbed herself my pet millennial because I’m about 20 years her senior. She and Haben are both in their early 30s.

Caitlin and Haben had known each other since they were kids, but this was the first time I’d met Haben in person. I was a bit nervous and star-struck. I typed carefully into Haben’s wireless keyboard so that she could read my words on her Braille display and answer aloud with her friendly, ethereal voice.

Usually I touch-type on my laptop with the comforting electronic voice of my text-to-speech software echoing my words as I go. One gets used to the audio feedback, just as sighted writers are used to seeing their words appear on their computer screens. I was making lots of mistakes and backspacing, which was slowing me down, when I blurted out: “I feel dumb!”

“That’s ableist,” Caitlin said.

I had to think about that.

The word ableism is relatively new — it’s been in use for the past three or four decades — though what it describes is not. It is a broad term that covers behaviors, social norms or laws that demean or devalue disabled people — and ableist language is one of the more persistent and ingrained versions of it. And it’s not just nondisabled people who use it; disabled people, evidently including me, can be ableist in their speech, too.

Caitlin had a point. The word “dumb” derives its pejorative connotation from its historical associations with people with intellectual disabilities as well as those who are nonverbal, including some deaf people.

“But what can I say instead?” I typed and spoke my question aloud.

“Say ‘I’m struggling,’” she suggested. “That’s what I tell my students.”

“I’m struggling,” I said, handing the keyboard back to her. “But that sounds worse.”

I began to sense a generational divide. The word ableist was definitely not one I heard as a kid. And while today I have as much disability pride and blind pride as anyone I know, I get stuck sometimes on the ableist language — and humor — that I grew up with as a Gen Xer.

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