Somebody a few weeks ago was confused on the topic of ableism and expressing worry that if they ever helped someone with a disability, they’d be ableist. I’ll ignore the fact that and saying, “Well, now I can’t ever help and how’s that fair?” is a common tactic to support the status quo and assume the person was sincerely confused, as I’m sure there is a degree of sincere confusion thanks to the straw-effigy-making of the ableist assholes out there in the interwebs.
So, what ableist “help” does look like, from my experience:
- prohibiting me from lifting something because it might aggravate my asthma, heedless of my protestations that I can do it
- forcing your “help” on me because I have asthma and therefore am incompetent at physical stuff (few people say it in those words, but while I might not be great at subtext, I’m good enough to see that much)
- lecturing me about how I should be more grateful when I refuse your offer of help
- putting words in my mouth because you’re too impatient to hear me out when my stutter’s playing up (this is different from offering obvious words that are being difficult – if I’m having trouble with one particular word, by all means, substitute it. Don’t play 20 questions when I haven’t gotten past the first word of a sentence, though)
- my parents refusing to let me learn the skills to manage my own affairs and then using my lack of skill at organization and time management as an excuse to pressure me to remain dependent on them and thus under their control
- my parents trying to refuse me the right to adult freedom – including the freedom to make irresponsible choices – when I went to university because they felt I’d make bad decisions.
- someone telling me that I haven’t tried hard enough at something when I tell them their method of doing something doesn’t work for me.
What ableist “help” does not look like:
- any variation on, “Okay,” when your offer of help is refused
- a prof asking me what accommodations I need if I disclose to hir about asthma and my executive function issues
- someone offering a different way of doing the thing at hand when I tell them their method of doing something doesn’t work for me
- other relatives telling my parents that I’m a young adult and young adults have the right to make their own decisions, even if their parents don’t approve
- someone offering me help when I’m struggling with something on a bad asthma day and being willing to back off if I’m being stubborn about it, even if they know it’s a foolish decision that I’ll regret
- someone suggesting I should maybe take my inhaler because I sound awful because they know when I’m into something, I don’t notice my breathing until it’s very bad.
- someone at work offering to handle the social chit-chat when we go to a conference if I’ll take the public speaking because they’re terrified of it and they know it’s no biggie to me
General trend? Ableist stuff ignores my wants, needs, and rights and presumes that able people know better than I do what my capabilities are and what’s best for me. Non-ableist stuff is centered on my wants, needs and rights and presumes that I actually do know what I’m capable of and what is best for me. Furthermore, someone who’s not being ableist respects that I have the right to make bad decisions. Someone who is being ableist uses my disability and chronic illness as an excuse to try to “save” me from myself.
So, if you want to help without being ableist, focus on the person in question. Offer your help, and be willing to accept a no. Don’t be pushy. And even if a decision seems like a bad one to you, accept it because others have surely accepted your bad decisions even though they disapproved in your past. People have the right to make mistakes, and you don’t have the right to step in as a surrogate parent to another adult and “protect” them from their decisions. The exception to that, of course, being when the decision in question could seriously harm others – a person who’s been drinking should not have their decision to drive home be respected because that could kill someone, obviously. But if there’s little to no risk for collateral damage, respect that the other person is an adult who has the right to make mistakes.