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Expanding social justice: Ableism and why it matters

“You’re faking.”

I turn around to face the person speaking to me. A man towers above me, a condescending smirk across his face.

“Excuse me?” I ask.

“Your dog is a fake service dog,” he says, as he turns to the flight attendant. “Did you know this person has a fake service dog? Ha, I should get a fake service cat!” he tells her. He bellows with laughter, and I shrink down into my seat as he continues around the plane, pointing me out to strangers. I feel their eyes on me and I feel impossibly small.

My heart starts racing and my chest gets tight. I feel like I can’t breathe. I know the warning signs, so I take an Ativan, but it’s no use. I’m already spiraling down into a hurricane of flashbacks, dissociation, sensory shut down, panic and delusional thoughts. My stomach clenches with excruciating pain as my Ulcerative Colitis is thrown into a flare by the sudden stress and I can feel myself bleed. My psychosis wraps itself around my mind before something seems to crack, and I crumble into blackness, passing out.

This story is a real experience that Dani Shapira had, and is an example of ableism and how it can affect disabled people. Ableism is the systemic oppression against individuals with physical, mental and/or developmental disabilities. It can manifest in discrimination, lack of accessibility and hate crimes. It is also characterized by the view that people who are disabled are outside of the “norm” and need to be “fixed.”

All three of us writing this piece are physically, mentally and cognitively disabled. We encounter ableist systems and attitudes every where we go. Even on campus, there can be difficulty getting accommodations, misunderstandings based on stereotypical notions of disability and far too frequent uses of ableist language.

It is important to talk about ableism because it is frequently ignored, even within conversations on intersectionality. Ableism is often still pervasive in spaces that are supposed to be inclusive and social justice-oriented, where there can be inaccessible events, shaming of the inability to participate in active forms of protest and blaming of problematic behavior on mental illness.

Ableism exists as barriers, both physical and institutional, and can result in violence. However, ableism is not always so obvious. Like other forms of oppression, it also exists in casual everyday interactions and conversations. In these cases, it is often perpetuated unknowingly by people who may be well-meaning.

While ableism and disability are complex topics with many varying viewpoints, there are some general guidelines to avoid engaging in everyday ableism: