I’d met a friend on campus for lunch. I’d parked in the Emens Auditorium parking structure because it was close to where we were meeting. My emeriti faculty hangtag doesn’t allow me to park there unless I park as a visitor. On this crowded day, that meant parking on the very top deck. When I was ready to leave, that, in turn, meant walking up four flights of stairs. I later learned that there is an elevator, but I didn’t know that at the time.
I’ve been moving quite slowly and with great difficulty of late due to a worse than usual time with chronic hip and leg problems. As I began to make my way up the stairs one slow step at a time, I became aware of a young woman behind me. I turned and smiled at her, and invited her to go around me. What happened next surprised me. She declined, willingly keeping pace with my slowness. We had an absolutely delightful conversation all the way up the stairs, and parted with warm wishes and smiling hearts when we reached the top. We both belonged in that brief encounter.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what being able-bodied, or not, means in our culture. Rich Harris, who worked with what I believe was then called “disabled student development” before his retirement from Ball State, often said that we are all “TABS,” his acronym for “temporarily able-bodied.” I’ve clearly lost my TAB status, and that’s had me reflecting on the topic.
Along with other forms of prejudice such as racism and sexism, ableism clearly violates our First Principle. “Ableism is the discrimination or prejudice against people who have disabilities. Ableism can take the form of ideas and assumptions, stereotypes, attitudes and practices, physical barriers in the environment, or larger scale oppression. It is oftentimes unintentional and most people are completely unaware of the impact of their words or actions,” (Urban Dictionary). It is, in other words, often part of the set of lenses through which we see and experience the world. Intentional or not, conscious or not, ableism fails to respect the inherent worth and dignity of those who don’t fit the able-bodied ideal. Far too many of those who are TABs misconstrue their situation and regard themselves simply as ABs – abled-bodied.
Not to be aware of ableism and its consequences also runs afoul of our commitment to justice, equity and compassion in all human relations. As with other forms of discrimination, ableism is at heart an issue of justice and equity. It calls us to challenge the structures that help to make ableism a still-acceptable form of discrimination. It calls on us to challenge the attitudes that allow someone who openly mocked a reporter who has a joint abnormality to be elected to the office of the Presidency of the United States. Trump has also fought hard against accommodations for persons with disabilities in many of his properties, saying that such accommodations were simply too costly. It calls us to challenge the climate in which Jeff Sessions, the Alabama senator who identified mainstreaming of special needs children and its correlate accommodations as a cause of much of the evil in our public schools, could be chosen as the US Attorney General, charged with the responsibility of protecting the rights of all citizens.
Language isn’t the whole of it, by any means. But it’s a place to start and an important tool for raising awareness. Many of us like the hymn “Standing on the Side of Love,” the lyrics of which were written by the Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Jason Shelton. It’s given rise to a whole campaign. I recently learned from Rev. Erika Hewitt, who curates our Worship Web, that Rev. Shelton has changed the wording “Standing on the side of love” to “Answering the call of love” – in direct response to ableist concerns that not everyone can stand. His insightful changes can become a means of enhancing congregational awareness of “hidden” ableism.
In the face of ableism, we can choose to answer the call of love. We can choose to live the values and choices that have truly helped to “make America great” in the past such as inclusion, justice, and compassion. Anything less tells those with visible or invisible challenges they are less than welcome in our culture. It tells them they do not belong, at least not in the same way that their more able-bodied counterparts do.