“It took many years of vomiting up all the filth I’d been taught about myself, and half-believed, before I was able to walk on the earth as though I had a right to be here.” — James Baldwin
I never thought I was a radical until I started setting boundaries when people acted ableist toward me.
From a young age, I felt deeply that we all should treat each other kindly and with respect. It’s something I believed deep in my soul, even before I had a word for it. I will admit that no one really taught me what respect was, though. I was supposed to respect my elders, authority, rules, and everyone around me, but no one told me how I should be respected. No one taught me what it meant to respect myself. Alongside this deep belief for respecting all humans was an endless feeling of confusion. If everyone was to be respected, why was everyone so weird around me?
I have been getting in fights my entire life, and they have always been completely confusing. Although I once was a feisty, confrontational red head (and sometimes still am), these fights weren’t over anything subjective in my head. Someone would say something utterly patronizing to me, and instead of those around me standing up for me, I was met with something along the lines of, “they meant well”. When I told them that I didn’t think that was the case, I was told I was overreacting.
These fights have expanded into the disabled community. If you’ve been my friend for any amount of time, you’ve probably heard me express that most other disabled people hate me. This is for a multitude of reasons, and while I could write an entire article on this topic alone, most recently I shared in a disability support group a mindless comment that a man said to me. “Sweet chair!” he exclaimed. “Gross.” I replied, because I don’t find that to be a compliment. Suddenly, hundreds of disabled people told me that I was a monster for putting down a man that “meant well”. They went as far as to say I turned down a potential partner and that I make all disabled people look bad, because I chose to respect myself even in the smallest acts. The need to please able-bodied people at the expense of self-respect is an internalized ableism that runs deep and wide.
While a microaggression such as a thoughtless comment might not hold as much weight, the same idea has applied for much more severe acts. Without getting into specifics, I was abused throughout my entire childhood by a parent. Similarly, I was abused greatly by a romantic partner in a recent relationship. This past year I have removed myself from these situations entirely, and I’ve rid my life of many other toxic people. I’ve stood up for myself in ways I never thought I’d be capable of, and I was met with the same attitude—as well as full on rage. Even in the most audacious of circumstances. Even in the eyes of abuse. I don’t think the attitude of “they meant well”, the favoring of able-bodied people to a fault, or the outrage at my boundaries is due to the severity of the crime, rather the way in which they view me as a person.
A large part of living with a disability has to do with navigating power dynamics, since most of the world has more physical strength than I do. However, it’s not this strength that is the threat, but the perceived power over me that always is. Historically, disabled people have been one of the most isolated populations. Even now, in the twenty-first century, people are still getting used to seeing disabled out in society, and they have a hard time imagining that we’re just as successful as them, seeing as we live in a capitalistic society where productivity equals worth. We are perceived as unproductive, whether it be conscious or not. Internalized ableism runs so deep that me being disabled alone makes many people uncomfortable.
I still get told that I’m overreacting, but the older I get the more I learn that this is textbook gaslighting. It’s perfectly okay that I’m not okay with patronizing comments, unsolicited and inappropriate questions, or anything that you simply would not say to anyone else. The strange, confusing feeling in my gut is not wrong, but I have been told over and over that it is. I’ve been told that it’s not okay to object, in fact, that boundaries are not something I deserve. I get this doubly as a disabled person who is also a woman. At the end of the day, choosing to make able-bodied people more comfortable over believing my gut has led to a lot of harm to my spirit, and to be quite honest, a lot of abuse. I think even the smallest microgressions are not worth settling for. I think they say a lot about how you view me, and I don’t think those views are safe.
I respect myself a lot these days, though it took a lot of years and a lot of therapy to get here. Any ableism, no matter how slight, isn’t okay with me. Any disrespect isn’t okay with me, despite what society, my peers, and the system have told me my entire life. I am learning that this alone is radical.