Better off Dead Than Disabled: Ableism Through the Ages

Content Warning: Violent Ableism, Sexism, Rape

Shae is a 22 year old Canberra born and raised Arts and Psychology student in her 3rd year. Shae was the 2016 Deputy Disabilities Officer and loves to talk about activism, dinosaurs, and food shaped jewelry.

The history of disability discrimination is a long one and can be dated back centuries. If words were ever able to quantify every singular moment of discrimination, the pages they could fill would take the world’s forests to print.

I could begin to tell how Aristotle posited that disabled people had no place within society, how Plato took these thoughts and essentially encouraged the total eradication of disabled people – otherwise known as ‘undesirables’. How parents would often abandon or murder their children if they were seen as disabled in any way. How women who were the mothers of these individuals were also persecuted, as they themselves were seen as undesirable by virtue of having a child with a disability. How this way of thinking seeped its way through history, leading even to the Salem Witch Trials – where many of those persecuted were done so because of their disability.

But, simply, it’s exhausting. It’s exhausting learning about and writing about how the community of people that I myself so strongly identify with have been routinely executed for the crime of existence. It’s more exhausting hearing that not much has changed. In 2016, 19 disabled people in Japan were murdered in a single massacre. This was not discussed widely because many people didn’t want to admit that it happened; rather than a hate crime this act was labelled as a mercy killing. Ableism is so embedded into everyday ways of thinking that we just don’t notice it anymore, or sometimes even know how to identify it.

Historically, within our ableist society, disabled women experience discrimination at the highest volume. We are more likely to be raped, assaulted, paid less, castrated, and used as validation mechanisms for men.

As a woman with a disability I am expected to be one of two things: inspirational or pitiful. I don’t get a say in how the world chooses to see me. A disabled person is often defined by their relationship to another: people feel ‘sorry’ for the parents of the disabled child, they see the husband/boyfriend/prom date of a disabled woman to be a ‘hero’, and even some of the most prominent disabled people in history – such as Helen Keller – have been defined by their caregiver.

Many disabled people often don’t realise that they can advocate for themselves because that role has been taken on by someone else, sometimes without the full permission of the disabled individual themselves. Others often approach the disability movement as an ally, which is great to witness, but the louder and often misinformed voice of the ally can begin to drown out the voice of the community. Too many times have I had my identity policed by someone telling me that I’m not a ‘disabled person’ but a ‘person with a disability’. The other allies applaud but they fail to recognise that I identify as a disabled person because, for me, my identity is linked to all of me. But all too often disability activism and advocacy is without recognition or consultation of the disabled community, and that in itself is a form of ableism.

Self-advocacy is not a simple process. Just like women, disabled people have had to fight for the right to firstly be seen as people. To identify as disabled is considered synonymous with identifying as having something wrong with yourself. Ableism sees an amputee as a person who is incomplete, and an intellectually disabled person as the product of a mistake. The word ‘disabled’ in and of itself is ableist, as it denies ability. I am disabled but that does not mean that I am unable. I am capable. However, disability just means that I have to approach something differently; the delicious cookie dough of who I am flows out of the cookie cutter shape. This does not mean that I don’t find things hard – sometimes things are too much, and sometimes I am pressured to be more than what I have to give.

After I have fought for my autonomy, I have to work twice as hard to produce work that is at the same level of anyone else. Then, like any minority, I am somehow expected to prove that I am worthy of any position I am in. A woman in a workplace is expected to produce work that is above their male counterparts in order to prove they are worthy of employment. Society views minorities as having been given a ‘chance’ when they have simply been given an equal opportunity. disabled women have to fight even harder, we have to first prove that we are just as good as our female counterparts, then we have to prove we are just as good as our male counterparts. And that’s if we’re allowed a job in the first place.

Many disabled people are put in the situation where they have to decide whether or not they disclose their disability or further details of their disability, with fear of what will happen if they do. This experience is not limited to the workplace, I’ve encountered it in almost every aspect of my life, from school to tinder. Do I tell a potential employer that sometimes my body aches so much that I can’t speak or stand? Do I tell a prospective partner that I have a personality disorder? Will they want to know me? Do I deserve to be known?

Yes, I do. I am just as worthy as anyone else and I shouldn’t have to remind myself of that. I shouldn’t have to adapt to self-advocacy to declare my humanity, I should already be accounted for. But that doesn‘t remove the value of the act, or the effect that my self-advocacy has had on my quality of life and the lives of people around me. My wish is that the system was better, that it was clearer to navigate, that the self-advocacy that I embody was supported by the services I need.

That’s why I fight for change, why I call myself a disabled feminist, and why I involve myself in activism. My exhaustion comes only with the realisation that my community’s history is buried under the ableism that is considered normal. So I will be loud, I will get angry, I will build an accessible ramp through the glass ceiling. I strive for change which will honour the history of those who have come before me – as it enables those who come after me.