A few days ago, the President of the United States got up in front of media, and medal winning Paralympic Athletes, and told them that they were “inspiring” but “a little tough to watch too much.” Let me say that a different way. He stood up in front of our nation and told WORLD CLASS athletes that they were “a little tough to watch too much.”
I am struggling with putting into words the magnitude of what he said. Can you imagine having spent a huge portion of your life training for and accomplishing a feat so remarkable that you are among the tiniest percentage of humans that have done so and then being told that you are “a little tough to watch too much”…in front of millions!
So, having just accomplished something truly remarkable (not just getting out of bed mind you, but winning a freaking Olympic medal) you and the millions of people hearing those words are reminded that having a disability makes you difficult to look at.
This is ableism in its most grotesque form.
Never heard of ableism? Let me break it down a bit.
Ableism, according to stopabelism.org is “practices and dominant attitudes in society that devalue and limit the potential of persons with disabilities. A set of practices and beliefs that assign inferior value (worth) to people who have developmental, emotional, physical or psychiatric disabilities.”
So, here we have the President of one of the most influential countries on the planet, telling millions of citizens that people with disabilities are hard to look at.
Do you see how this could be a problem?
Do you see how these words could serve to confirm a misinformed person’s bias that people with disabilities are inferior? Or, only worthy of pity?
Do you see how these words could serve to validate the misguided idea that people with disabilities are less valuable due to their perceived brokenness?
Do you see how this could affect the way of life for the millions of Americans, and indeed, billions of humans on this planet that have disabilities?
But “it’s just words.”
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
“I’m rubber, you’re glue…”
If only this were true. No matter what we were told as children. WORDS MATTER! They matter to the people at whom they are aimed, and perhaps even more so, they matter to the people that are simply standing by, taking them in.
Words inform opinions. Opinions inform points of view. Points of view inform action and perhaps even more so, inaction.
Words assign value.
It’s no wonder people with disabilities are often excluded from broader talks about inclusion and diversity. Or rarely included, much less mentioned, in national debates on health care, housing, education and employment.
Words matter. So much. Because words have the power to change minds and minds have the power to change the world, for better or worse.
Want to learn more about Ableism? Please talk to a person with a disability and listen, truly listen.
Read a first-hand experience with ableism right here on our blog: Ableism: It Starts with Your Perception