When I meet people online I frequently don’t tell them I’m disabled, where it’s easy to hide. I have kept the fact I’m disabled secret on forums, Facebook groups, even the other members of my OU tutor group still don’t know I have a disability. So, why I am so loathe to tell others that I suffer from Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (M.E), am as shortsighted as a mole and have enough twists in my spine to rival the Blackpool rollercoaster? Because I’m scared that it’ll cloud their perception of me. They’ll start putting judgements on me. I am not M.E or scoliosis. These are simply health conditions I suffer from. However other people don’t always seem to see it that way.
How about when I meet people in the real, outside world? This is something that hasn’t happened for awhile as we went into lockdown just as I was recovering from a serious crash, which had caused me to be bedridden and tube-fed for several years. It’s harder to hide my disability in the outside world and, sometimes I feel like I’m invisible. I hate supermarkets! People jostle my wheelchair as if it isn’t there. I look people in the eye and speak directly to them so they can’t ignore me but otherwise I feel like they’d talk over my head.
One of the judgements placed on disabled people, I feel, is infantilising them. Disabled people are treated as if they’re not quite grown up. This is actually a common tendency in prejudice. Women are occasionally treated as if they’re not totally grown up though I sense this perception is diminishing. Indigenous peoples have/are also seen as ‘primitive’. One of the old excuses for colonisation of their lands was that indigenous societies often hadn’t developed farming. From a biodiversity and human health perspective this is probably a good thing! However this deemed indigenous land not quite their own. It was/is believed that their land should be owned by people from societies ‘civilised’ enough to make proper use of it, by farming or some other form of exploitation.
Just as the truth is that women actually mature earlier than men and indigenous societies show an advanced appreciation of the natural world, so the same could be said for many forms of disability. Disabled people often have a greater level of maturity due to life experiences and a need to adapt.
In Norse myth Odin, one of the principal Norse gods, sacrifices one of his eyes in exchange for drinking from Mimir’s well, the well of knowledge. The symbolism of losing an eye is particularly interesting here. As an eye is associated with vision and perception, it suggests that the knowledge Odin was willing to sacrifice an eye for was enhanced perception. The metaphor of enhanced perception as a result of suffering and sacrifice can frequently be found amongst disabled people in the real world. I’m not citing all this to encourage you to see disabled people as a divine source of inspiration though! Disabled people are just as imperfect as everyone else. I’m just trying to lift the illusion of infantilism.
A culture of blaming and shaming
‘Ableism’ is a term that isn’t well known. However, have you ever been picked on by a teacher because you’re dyslexic? Or teased for wearing glasses or a hearing aid? Or dishonest about a health condition in public? If yes is the answer to any of these questions, then you’ve experienced ableism. You might have answered “yes” despite not identifying as a ‘disabled’ person. I think this is one of the reasons the term ableism is heard less often than other terms of prejudice. Disability is more of a ‘grey’ area, it seems to me. It has a wider and more varying scope, compared with identities such as ethnic origin or gender, so fewer people directly identify with it.
I don’t know modern pagan society well enough to be able to judge if ableism is common in it or not. I did attend a mass spell casting for change last summer, where one of the hosts was a deaf woman. The main host had cottoned onto how visual a medium online is and had decided the spell would be stronger cast in visuals, rather than a more traditional, auditory format such as chanting. The deaf woman led us through a beautiful spell, cast in sign language. I’d love to be able to study the signs for the four elements, to memorise them, so I can use them in my own personal rituals. It went too quickly at the spell casting to be able to take it in properly. If anyone knows or has any resources for this, please let me know! Although I haven’t taken part in many public pagan rituals, I suspect one like I’ve just described is rare.
In general, in modern society, I’d say ableism is rife. As Emily Obree, co-founder of Reclaiming Justice, pointed out ‘ableism’ could even be seen as the source from which all forms of prejudice springs. The notion that some people are not just different but more ‘able’ than others.
Disability in the environmental crisis.
The culture of blaming and shaming disabled people can easily be seen in the environmental crisis. Plastic drinking straws and preprepared food have been criticised for being bad for the environment. However, without such commodities many disabled people would struggle to eat and drink. One woman even died as a result of impaling her eye on a steel straw which was supposedly a more eco-friendly alternative. I’ve sometimes wondered if bamboo could be used instead of plastic in the production of drinking straws. It’ll be interesting to see if anybody attempts to come up with such environmentally friendly accessible products, what those products will look like and how much they’ll cost. Until then though, I’d stick to plastic. Our plastic culture isn’t going to disappear overnight for any of us and drinking straws only make up a small proportion of our overall usage. Besides which, the type of plastic drinking straws are made of is dissolvable.
One media piece that particularly annoyed me was a BBC news article entitled Asthma carbon footprint ‘as big as eating meat’. The article stated that metered dose inhalers account for a whopping 4 percent of the NHS’s greenhouse gasses. It empathised the importance of making proper use of your inhaler and discussing the possibility of switching to a ‘greener’ alternative such as a dry powder inhaler. What really annoyed me is that this article could so easily have been written from a different perspective. For example it could have criticised the pharmaceutical industry for not doing more to develop more eco-friendly inhalers or the NHS for not making eco-friendly inhalers more accessible to its patients. I’d be very surprised if the current NHS has a ready supply of such inhalers and even more surprised if they have adequate staff time to teach patients how to use them properly! It did mention pharmaceutical companies in passing, about half a sentence, but the emphasis was on the patient. After all it’s so much easier to lay the blame on the patient’s doorstep isn’t it? The irony is that, as many people know, air pollution is a major cause of asthma. So, in this instance, we’re blaming the victims of our environmental crisis for the environmental crisis. People might be able to survive without eating meat but they certainly can’t survive without breathing!
In 2019 the United Nations Human Rights Council announced a resolution on climate change and disabled rights, calling on governments to create a disabled inclusive response when making plans for climate action. Disabled people are often the most impacted by changes to the environment and natural disasters. Despite this fact and the UN resolution, little has been said in the media about the impact of the environmental crisis on disabled people and disabled people are often marginalised in discussions around it. I was prompted to write this post after watching a talk by ‘COP26; from the ground up’called Health justice is Climate justice. I was disappointed that, despite the phrase ‘from the ground up’ suggesting the movement focuses on giving ordinary people a voice, all the speakers were able bodied, mainly health professionals or scientists. Nobody there represented the community most affected by health inequality: patients and disabled people themselves.
Why is this? It’s possible it’s partly due to the infantilism that I mentioned earlier but there are strong suggestions that a degree of ‘Darwinism’ is going on as well. The survival of the fittest. Phrases such as, “some people just aren’t going to make it”, have genuinely been said. But treating disabled people as inevitable casualties of natural disasters is to miss out on the bigger picture of social inequality. For example, take the case of Benilda Caixeta, a New Yorker caught up in hurricane Katrina. As a wheelchair user, she attempted to organise evacuation for herself ahead of the disaster. Despite repeated reassurances her driver never turned up. Benilda Caixeta drowned when the hurricane hit and her apartment was flooded. Benilda Caixeta isn’t a solitary example either. Nursing home residents in Florida who died of the extreme heat after their institution failed to evacuate in the run up to hurricane Irma is another example. I spent two years myself in a nursing home so know first-hand how understaffed and hectic such places are, even on a ordinary day.
Our current language seems to be full of ‘isms’: classism, racism, sexism, ageism, etc. I’m aware I’m jumping on the bandwagon with yet another ‘ism’ that might be new to you. However all these ‘isms’, more or less, boil down to the same thing: respect. Or, rather, a lack of respect. We all need to learn to accept, care and respect each other, if humanity wants to get through this environmental disaster that we’re all guilty of causing.
To learn more about the structure of ableism and it’s role in the environmental crisis I recommend watching Disability: the blind spot in climate activism, available on YouTube . It’s fairly long at approximately 1 hour 50 minutes but well worth the watch. It could easily be watched in two parts as well as the time split equally between the two issues. Sign language interpretation is now available for it.