Ableism, like many other forms of prejudice and marginalization, is woven into our society. As such, each one of us has imbibed the rhetoric of ableism, each one of us holds ableist beliefs, and we're all prone to saying things that are wrong, even though most of us don't want to be hurtful or offensive. This holds true for disabled and mentally ill people as well as people with no experience in the area--that's how insidious and deep the effect is. When you're so surrounded by these prejudices, you're bound to be affected by it, no matter your station in life.
That's why it's so important that people listen to those who are underprivileged and marginalized, that they respect their stories and feelings, and that they acknowledge that each one of us knows only a limited amount about the human experience. One part of that human experience is how prejudice and marginalization feels and looks for different groups. That's why the language of social justice matters. That's also why it's so important to call out instances of prejudice, such as ableism. Society will not change, people's intrinsic attitudes will not change, unless pushed to do so.
Naturally, when ableist beliefs are widespread in a society, they also affect subcultures in that society. Religion is one example. Whatever the true beliefs and nature of any religion, the people practicing it will be affected by the prejudices of the society they are part of. As such, religion has its own set of ableist rhetoric that must be combated.
Today, Pope Francis tweeted something along the lines of "disabled people are gifts from God that help others learn love." This upset a lot of people in the disability community, and for good reason. That kind of statement falls into the range of "inspiration porn," which dehumanizes and infantilizes the disabled by turning us into objects for someone else's growth, salvation, and inspiration. Everyone deserves power and choice over their own lives, everyone deserves to be seen as human, and everyone deserves respect. Unfortunately, these rights have been consistently undermined in the cases of disabled and mentally ill people. Let's be clear: we the disabled are autonomous human beings with our own unique, immortal souls and our own sense of purpose, seeking our own path towards salvation. We deserve to be seen that way. Not as a side character in someone else's story. Not as objects. Nothing about us without us, as the famous disability rights adage goes.
To be clear, I have nothing against the Pope. I think he's really cool. However, like many others, he has unknowingly accepted the ableism in our society into his worldview and now is propagating it. This statement, benign as it may seem, reinforces beliefs that, in all too many cases, have led to terrible crimes. Calling out someone with as much influence and importance as the Pope is a sad and scary thing to have to do, but it's especially necessary because of the amount of power he holds. Kayla Whaley, a books-and-disability community member, stepped up to the plate to do just that today on Twitter, and that sparked further conversation. I've Storified some key tweets below, including a short story of my own about religious rhetoric and ableism (link if you need it):
What the Pope said is something that I think most disabled people have heard at some point, especially if they're religious. I've heard it far too many times myself. At first, though it discomfited me, I didn't have the words to explain why. All of us want to be positive influences in others' lives, after all--"man is not an island." We rely on each other. So I let people at church tell me over and over that I was inspirational just for living as a disabled person, rather than for what I have accomplished. I accepted it when they said that I provided a key opportunity for service, even though it made me feel like a project instead of a person. I let them see me as a tool in their road to eternity, because I didn't know how to express how dehumanizing that is. Now, I do.
Yes, we are a community, a family, and we all need each other. Yes, service and charity are important, and some people with disabilities and mental illness need extra help that you may be able to provide. But don't turn something good into something that ignores individuality. Treating people like they are lesser, or, on the other hand, like they are special angels who don't have their own very human lives to live, is not good service. It's wrong. Let us have our autonomy, let us be human, and give us the respect we deserve. I'm pretty sure most religions would be on board with that. Imagine if Simon of Cyrene, the guy who took up Christ's cross when he was no longer physically able to carry it, had spent the entire time talking to him like he was a child-object instead of the Son of God: "Let me help you with that! Wow, this is a great service opportunity! You're so inspiring! I'm learning so much about love and charity!"
For your education, here are a few more ableist things that religious people need to stop saying:
There you have it, friends! Go forth and practice your religion in peace! Anything to add? Let me know! I'll see you again Tuesday (or not).
Images via syracuseculturalworkers.com and gtwilliams1983.wordpress.com.
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