In my community, I have an extremely strict “no ableism” rule. It’s designed to keep a safe space for Autistics so that parents can learn from the Autistic experience.
But oftentimes, well-meaning parents say something ableist without realizing that it’s ableist.
Here’s the deal: we weren’t taught this in school!
Most of us were taught about racism and sexism, but ableism isn’t even a word most people have heard.
Add to that the fact that our society as a whole is extremely ableist, and it’s no wonder that people say ableist things accidentally on the regular.
So if you’re in Embracing Autism, you may have one of the admins, one of the Autistic members, or an allistic ally point out that something you’ve said or done is ableist.
And it’s going to suck, I get it.
But when it happens, you have a choice. And that choice of how to respond when someone calls you ableist is what this post is all about.
Stop Telling Me You Aren’t Ableist
See, most people’s instant response is something like this:
“WHAT? I am NOT an ableist. I LOVE my autistic child!”
And it’s true, you do love your Autistic child.
But loving your Autistic child doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t an ableist (or saying something ableist).
In fact, being Autistic yourself doesn’t even necessarily mean you aren’t an ableist (or saying something ableist).
See, ableism is something that’s so ingrained in us that most people have ableist views or use ableist language without even realizing it.
That’s why it’s so important to point out ableism when you see it so that each of us can learn and do better.
And to be super clear, before I dive any further into this topic, let’s get a few things straight…
- Being ableist without realizing it doesn’t mean you’re a terrible person.
- Being ableist without realizing it doesn’t mean you don’t love your disabled child.
- Once you know something you’re doing or saying is ableist, you can choose to stop doing or saying it, and choose to do better.
- Autistics aren’t calling out ableism to bully you or be mean, but because we fully believe that you want to be an ally, and you can’t do better unless you know what you’re doing is wrong and how to fix it.
Okay, with all of that said, let’s dig into what exactly ableism is…
What is Ableism, Exactly?
Ableism is quite simply discriminatory attitudes, language, or actions against the disabled community.
Think sexism or racism, but for disabilities.
And from that definition you might have thought something like this:
Woah, I’m not an ableist. I don’t discriminate against disabled people!
I don’t hate anyone with disabilities, this doesn’t apply to me!
I’m an advocate for my disabled child, I couldn’t possibly be ableist!
But similar to racism or sexism, it’s not always the blatant and obvious hatred, but also the microaggressions that affect the community.
Do you use language that’s harmful to the disabled community?
Language like “spaz” or “crazy” or “stupid”?
Do you hold beliefs that center the non-disabled experience as right and disabled experience as wrong?
Maybe you think that verbally communicating is better than AAC options, or maybe you feel pity for wheelchair users?
Do you believe that people with higher intelligence are more valuable?
Maybe you believe that a child’s grades are extremely important, or you feel the need to add “he’s very intelligent” when describing your child.
These are just a few examples of how ableism is a part of our value system as a society.
Why Your “Not-Ableist” Identity is Harmful
Now that we’re clear on what ableism is, let’s get back to that all-too-common experience in the community when someone’s ableism is pointed out.
Remember this: “WHAT? I am NOT an ableist. I LOVE my autistic child!”?
We get wrapped up in trying as hard as we can to not BE ableist, that we dismiss those who point out when we are acting ableist.
We cling to our “Not-Ableist” identity, and we get frustrated when anyone says anything to tarnish that identity.
We see it as bullying. As name-calling. As nit-picking.
But in reality, when someone calls out ableism that they see, they are educating. They are helping. They are guiding.
And we get to choose the way we respond.
We can choose to cling to our “Not-Ableist” identity and dismiss the person who’s trying to help us grow…
Or we can choose to listen. We can choose to learn. We can choose to do better.
How to Respond if an Autistic Person Calls You Ableist
If you’re still reading, I’m guessing that you’re with me and you want to listen and learn and do better.
So how can you respond if an autistic person calls you ableist (or tells you you’re saying/doing something ableist)?
The key is to approach this situation from a different angle.
Instead of thinking “I’m not an ableist!” think “I don’t want to be ableist!”
When you think “I don’t want to be ableist,” you are more open to listening and learning.
You’re ready to learn about why the thing you said or did was wrong, and how to change it in the future.
When you know better, you can do better.
Now, you might be wondering what this looks like practically… How do you actually respond from a place of learning?
Well, I’m autistic, so my go-to is to script out some responses.
Here are a few ways you can respond when an Autistic person says you have done or said something ableist:
“Thank you so much for telling me! I didn’t think this was ableist, but I see now why it’s harmful.”
“Thank you for pointing this out to me. I’m having trouble seeing the ableism here. Do you have the time/spoons to explain it to me further?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize how ableist I was being. I will change my language in the future, thank you for educating me.”
But really, anything that you say that comes from a place of wanting to learn more so that you can do better is going to be wonderful.
And remember, Autistics are on your side, here. We all want the same thing you want… A better world for all Autistics.
And together, we can make that happen.
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