The Inescapable Images of Ableism

We can’t get away from ableist memes and magazine covers. But we don’t have to accept them.

Para-athlete sprinting on blade prosthetics at Rio Olympics in 2016. Are you inspired?

You’ve seen the images of inspiration porn, the posters or memes, a small child running with a leg prosthetic, with a inspo-phrase like, “The only thing stopping you is you,” or something equally gag-worthy.

The audience of these posters, these memes, is not disabled people. We know exactly how hard it is to get around as disabled people. No, the audience of disability porn are normates who might, apparently, be feeling sorry for themselves. Disability porn shows them a photo of a disabled sap and says, “Get off your butt. If this poor kid can run, then you can certainly get to work today.”

As a rule, disabled people hate inspiration porn. It turns us into circus freaks for the benefit of normates, an attempt to make normates feel better about their normate lives.

But there’s another, more insidious kind of image that circulates, images of disability in the world that normates don’t understand but have an awful lot to say about. These images aren’t intended to attack disabled people, necessarily, but they do so all the same. If the creators of these images had merely asked a disabled person before creating the images, they would have saved a lot of heartache.

But they don’t ask. I imagine that they either don’t have any disabled friends, or their disabled friends just can’t be bothered to say anything. I understand. There used to be times when I couldn’t be bothered either.

Let’s look at some examples, from my life recently, of the prevalent, nearly inescapable images of ableism and the people who produce them, images that make me feel like deviating from a normate body makes me freakish, or wasteful, or wrong.

And let’s hope that by learning about how these images affect at least this disabled person, others can see how they might think twice when they encounter these images in the world.

The Environmental Waste of Disability

A park with a paved parking spot for disembarking from a van.

This image came across my Facebook feed, taken by a distant friend, and shared from their Facebook page. The photograph is of a park, where the road is gravel, and there is a handicap parking place and a sidewalk departing from it. They shared this image with a caption about how wasteful federal regulations were about disability.

All I could think when I saw this picture was how grateful I was that the spot was there. How could the poster of the image not see that this spot would be used? Chair users must have a spot such as this one to get out of their vehicles. So, yes, even if the vehicle can drive on a gravel road, this spot makes it possible for disabled people to enjoy the park.

Why is it so offensive to this photographer that disabled people be able to enjoy the park? I was horrified by the writer’s mocking tone. I was horrified that this person, whom I know, probably thought he was a progressive leftist thinking of the environment.

An environment that disabled people don’t, apparently, deserve to enjoy.

This small space allows so many to come and see, and appreciate, our Earth. It’s not an eyesore; it’s a bridge to another world.

Can you imagine being a wheelchair user or rollator user and coming across this image and the snide words that accompanied it on your Facebook feed? Imagine it coming from a supposed friend. How devastating and hurtful. It’s a betrayal.

The Mental Waste of Disability

Cover of The Economist magazine with the headline: “Beautiful minds, wasted.”

My husband subscribes to The Economist. I can’t bear the thing. But the magazine was particularly offensive in April of 2016, when they needed to know “How to Deal with Autism” — with the headline, “Beautiful Minds, Wasted.”

I’m not sure how that headline and subheading could be more offensive. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that no actually autistic people were brought in to consult on those words.

Can you imagine, for a moment, being a person with autism and reading the words, “Beautiful minds, wasted,” and feeling what those words would make you feel? I know autistic people read this magazine. Those are horrible, hurtful words. How would you feel if someone called your mind “wasted”?

And yet: Normates don’t seem to think twice about using them. They don’t seem to think that autistic people have any kind of self-awareness.

The magazine could have consulted with actual autistic people. Why didn’t they? It’s The Economist! All they had to do was put out a call and say, “Want to help us write an article about autism?” And people would have been delighted to help. I know, because I’ve talked with my disability activist friends about it. We’ve talked about what the disability rallying cry, “Nothing about us without us” means, and how we need to be available, even to places like The Economist, when they want to try to get it right about disability.

But, they didn’t want to get it right. They framed autism like Autism Speaks does, down to the abhorrent puzzle pieces, which actually autistic people can’t stand.

So instead of a smart, groundbreaking piece on autism, I got a magazine in the mail that I threw directly into the bin because I couldn’t bear the ableism sitting on my coffee table or the harm it causes just by existing.

It is our job, unfortunately, as disability activists, to notice these things, the things that grace magazine covers, the pop over our Facebook feeds, to hold onto them, and to write about them. To have them haunt us until we can articulate why.

Pushing back in these small ways makes a difference, though. It gives others words to explain why the meme bothered them, when they couldn’t quite express the reason, when all they had was a sick feeling in their stomach. It helps put arguments into the world that others can latch onto, and put forth, and gradually, these images will fade, and we’ll be left with stronger words that will sprout into hope.


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