Why I’m choosing to respond to ableism with love
Examples of ableism can be met with compassionate and educated responses
For kids, February tends to entail a Valentine’s Day party for every activity, club, or team they’re a part of. Our mom used to take my brother and me to plenty of these parties when we were little, as we were actively involved in church, disability organizations, and our home-schooling group. My memories of these events are dominated by cartoon hearts, sparkly cards, sugar-coated sweets, and smiles.
Buried somewhere in the middle of all of those fond memories is one that stands out as being not quite like the rest. It’s not bad, just different.
A kind-hearted offering
As I rolled around the room, I carried a carefully perched bag of cards in my lap to give away. A second bag sat on my footrest, where kids could also give me cards without the unbalanced weight becoming cumbersome. As cards passed from my hand and the bag between my feet filled up, a room full of child-sized hearts swelled with the joy and magic of friendship and giving.
After a while, I was approached by a girl I recognized but hadn’t spoken to before. “You probably don’t get many of these, so you can have extra,” she said as she deposited a couple of cards into my bag. My wheelchair was unbothered by the weight of the pretty paper, but to me, these valentines somehow felt heavier than the others had.
In my confusion, I probably thanked her and went back to handing out cards as if nothing strange had just happened. I understood her words but not why she said them. This kind-hearted child must have seen my wheelchair and assumed that most people didn’t want to be friends with me because I was disabled. But why would she think that? I had lots of friends, and they all thought my wheelchair was cool!
Getting to the heart of ableism
Growing up with SMA, I’d never heard about ableism. My family has certainly experienced it throughout my life, but the term didn’t become commonplace until my late teenage and young adult years. It’s broadly considered to be discrimination or prejudice against people with disabilities.
“Ableism, either subtly or directly, portrays individuals who are being defined by their disabilities as inherently inferior to nondisabled people,” an article published by the American Psychological Association notes.
But it’s my personal belief that children are not naturally ableist. After all, their environments are often designed to be accessible and inclusive, which kids typically embrace. They are impressionable, though, and they learn from watching us. An article on the website Love to Know titled “How Children Learn by Observing Behavior of Adults” explains the various types of positive and negative behaviors that children learn at different ages from watching and imitating the adults in their lives.
This all leads me to believe that ableist tendencies are likely learned behaviors as well. And it makes sense that kids’ attitudes toward disability — for better or worse — would be influenced by the example modeled for them by society and adult authority figures.
Searching our hearts for the right response
To be clear, the girl I met at the Valentine’s Day party did nothing wrong or bad. In fact, she was being generous and compassionate. She was acting with love, which is what the party was all about. Ableism isn’t necessarily unkind, and it can even create doorways to new opportunities, relationships, and growth.
I’d like to say that with age and maturity I’ve come to understand exactly how ableism works and what prompts it, but that’s simply not true. It still perplexes me, and sometimes it hurts. I can’t control the words or actions of others during these encounters, but I can control how I respond. And I choose to respond with love.
What would’ve happened if I’d responded to those extra cards in my bag with anger or harsh words? It’s impossible to say for sure, but it probably wouldn’t have been positive for either of us.
As an adult, my experiences with ableism are different, but the application is still the same. When I choose to respond lovingly, it’s more likely to have a favorable outcome, and it might allow for an honest conversation that everyone will benefit from, especially when the other person’s intentions are pure. When ableism becomes harmful or purposeful, it’s important to be direct and set boundaries of respect. But even then, a dose of love goes a long way.
In some ways, we should try to be more like that girl and her extra valentines. Now that we’re aware of ableism in society, we can combine that knowledge with kindness like hers to create a response that’s generous, compassionate, educated, and above all, loving. Ableism will still exist, but we have a choice to make in the equation. Will you join me in choosing love?
Note: SMA News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of SMA News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to spinal muscular atrophy.