When the Beatles were new John Lennon made fun of the cripples seated down front of whatever theater—he’d do a retard act. I’ve never forgotten this nor can I find it in myself to forgive him. I was a disabled kid and now I’m a disabled man. I have to enact patience and forgiveness daily. Ableist behavior is legion. I make it through by means of small dispensations, little pardons, absolving the bus driver who resents me, willing beneficence, handing out invisible coins of absolution to the cab driver who refuses me a ride. Lovingkindness is the Christian word for this. I try to love my oppressors.
Ableism, taken nominally, is insufficient to highlight real circumstances. Those who think themselves superior to a woman in a wheelchair or a man who walks with a stick are exceptionalists and if they’re not educable they become tacit eugenicists for social Darwinism lurks behind most disability discrimination. The fascist wants to make the world clean, wishes for a sanitized sameness in the population, argues passionately against expenditures for the care and rehabilitation of those who require assistance. Meantime the disabled muster some forbearance and get on with it. The taxi that refused you will likely be followed by one that accepts you. Yet the message is clear: disabled, you’re a problem on the street, in the airport, in the classroom, the supermarket, the hotel, health club, doctor’s office, college campus, the theater, symphony hall, and all workplaces.
“Problem” is not the right word of course—problems are solvable or at least they’re invitations to find a solution, or what I like to call “solvation” much as Jamaican people say “no problem mon!” True ableism requires an antipathy to finding disability solutions and it depends on a willful lack of irony individually and collectively. The singular ableist is someone like the junior high school principal who says “no” when a 12 year old girl with cerebral palsy wants to bring her authentic service dog to school. Collective ableism is the school board behind the principal. They say: “of course we cannot have a service dog in the classroom! Think of the children who will somehow be ruined by this!”
In order to think this you must be an inherent exceptionalist who despises intellectual and bodily difference. Such people believe not in solvation but in segregation, deportation, and even annihilation.
Lovingkindness is the hardest thing in my life. I know I’m working daily with college faculty and administrators who resent the disabled. I try thinking of how damaged they are—that they’ve been made to accept compulsory normalcy by means of many cruelties. They were always racing to get one step ahead. For them disability represents the thing they fear most: the loss of distinction, both intellectually and performatively. At the big conference cocktail party where faculty are first anointed they must “present” as having just arrived from the gym.
I find I can’t forgive John Lennon. Later he wrote a song called “Crippled Inside” which is just as offensive as his youthful face pulling. And I can’t forgive the social Darwinists around me. I’m a little worn out from all the forgiving I have to do in the customary street to forgive those whose educations and talents should prevent them from outrageous bigotry.