Ableism can be defined as: “discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities or who are perceived to have disabilities.” As is often the case, when we look at the word able, we tend to find a complicated set of qualities. For example, I looked up the word able in a convenient Portuguese-English dictionary to see how it was translated and saw words like capability and ability connected with able. Like many people, I have a rather complex relationship with the expectations of society when it comes to ability and capability. I have seen a great many people struggle with the limitations that come with receiving disability when it comes to the income that one is able to make or the amount of savings for the future one is allowed to collect. I have struggled with the tension between our general lack of interest as a society and an age to look at things from the perspective of others along with the demand that other people restructure the way that things are done in order to make things easier for those who struggle.
Life is full of trade-offs. I happen to be left handed, and I am regularly faced with the reality that the world is not made for my convenience, even if it cannot really be blamed for it. Writing is more awkward, opening doors and engaging in social customs like shaking hands come with the reminder that I have to do them with my off hand because other people will do them right handed. When going out to eat in groups I look for particular seats that allow me to eat comfortably without elbowing people next to me, and so on. When I was in college, I was amused by the fact that many of the lecture halls where I had classes had one or two left-handed desks, and I would seek these out knowing that at least for once I would be able to write my notes without hurting my arm from lacking the armrest that most of my classmates likely took for granted. Yet at the same time it is easy to see why doors and restaurants and universities tend to take for granted that most students are right-handed, since the world is made by people who take the right-handed perspective as a given and then grouse about the special accommodations that must occasionally be made for those who are not right handed and for whom the general perspective is an alien and sometimes a clumsy and awkward one.
It is unproductive, I think, to blame other people for not being aware of our perspectives when we present them with different and novel ways at viewing life and different issues that we struggle with and different needs that we have. After all, we are aware of such matters only because of our experiences. I am reasonably certain, knowing myself, that I would not be sensitive to the concerns of left-handed people if I was not one. I would not ponder the consequences of anxiety or PTSD on the work environment if that was not something I had to deal with. I would not be irritated by mobility and accessibility issues if I did not personally have to struggle with them on days when my gouty foot is acting up. And there are a great many things I do not have to deal with and do not therefore better understand. That said, the world is full of inequalities. We all possess wildly different abilities, and a large part of living a happy and productive life is knowing our abilities (and disabilities) and seeking the insights we gain from those experiences which isolate us from others as well as using our abilities to seek niches where we can do wonderful and productive things that are of benefit to ourselves and those around us.
This is not an easy task, though. It is hard to know and be able to come up with a coherent perspective about what we want out of life. On the one hand, we may wish for our disabilities to remove from us burdensome and difficult and frustrating tasks or expectations that we do not do well in, but at the same time we may want others to make accommodations to our lack so that we are able to better compete. And others too find it difficult to determine whether the accommodations being sought are reasonable or not. The knowledge that someone is productive, despite being odd or unusual, tends to encourage a more generous attitude, while attitudes are generally less gracious and generous to those who have less to offer and who provide less that is of obvious benefit to others. Whether or not this is unfair, it is very easy for our age, focused as it is on cost-benefit analysis, to engage in the same practice when looking at how we accommodate other people. Those who mean a lot to us or those who are of great service or benefit to us in some fashion will find it easier to have their concerns addressed, and those who are less pleasant to deal with and who make more demands on us will find it more difficult to be heard and attended to. Likewise, those who are able to frame their appeals in a way that reflects their understanding of our perspectives and thought processes will fare better than those who expect us to cater to them without repaying the respect in kind.
Since many of us have a hard time knowing exactly what would be helpful to others, sometimes it can be most useful to simply be observant to those who are having a difficult time. If someone comes into your restaurant hobbling badly, perhaps a quick thinking host might look for a table or booth that requires a lot less walking. If some of us can often be space cadets when it comes to being observant of those around us, noticing others and acting in ways to serve them in the moment can be an effective way to deal with the problems of life. And perhaps if we get to know people better we may find that they are able to open up about the aspects of the world we take for granted that present them with special difficulties. If the solutions to these difficulties are not always obvious or easy to accomplish, at the very least the knowledge that the way we operate is not something that everyone can take for granted should at least give us some sense of understanding about what others have to deal with. Everyone struggles in some fashion. All lives and all abilities and all perspectives carry with them something that makes life difficult or unpleasant, and the better we are able to recognize struggle as a universal human experience, the more we are able to be kinder to those who happen to struggle in different ways than we do.