One of the most unexpected parts of my fibromyalgia diagnosis was seeing how others responded. I was now legally disabled, and for the most part, people didn’t know how to react. Some folks were noticeably uncomfortable when talking about it and others were at a loss for words. Pity was one of the worst reactions I encountered, but another response was even more upsetting.
These were the words a former co-worker said to me. We’d reconnected on social media a few years after my diagnosis, and when she asked about my health, I answered.
Were her words well-meant? Sure. Did her underlying meaning escape me? Not at all. Though I know she wasn’t trying to insinuate that I wasn’t “normal,” that’s exactly what her statement did.
She may have had the best intentions and didn’t say anything conventionally rude, but her language was ableist. And — what’s worse — she didn’t even realize it.
Ableism is discrimination or prejudice against disabled individuals, but it isn’t always a conscious effort. It can manifest through stereotypes and assumptions, as well as through malicious forms of oppression. In that respect, ableist language is dangerously easy to use without even intending to be discriminatory; it’s so ingrained in our culture. That form of ableism may not stem from the desire to cause another person harm, but it does stem from a biased sense of what it means to be “normal.”
If you’ve ever described an unbelievable situation as “crazy,” jokingly called yourself “bipolar” when feeling extra moody, or used “stupid” in place of ridiculous, then you’ve used ableist language. You probably meant nothing by it, but that doesn’t make it okay.
This is a lesson being taught to us following a well-meaning tweet by Wonder Woman actress Gal Gadot.
After the death of renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, Gadot joined countless others to pay tribute to one of history’s greatest minds on social media. However, her tweet didn’t go over well, and many criticized her words for containing ableist language.
Gadot was no doubt trying to express a beautiful sentiment by recognizing a state of being that comes after our earthly forms. However, mentioning Hawking’s “physical constraints” in the same breath as his brilliance undermines his extraordinary life.
No doubt Hawking had his fair share of struggles because of his ALS diagnosis, but to imply in any way that his potential was limited by it is an insult — even if unintended. Yes, people with disabilities face unique sets of challenges in our professional and personal lives, but that doesn’t make our lives any less fulfilling.
Life with a disability is not a life half-lived.
Oftentimes, when people with disabilities like Hawking accomplish remarkable feats, they are seen as inspirations. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can sometimes feel as though our accomplishments come with an asterisk. “Despite their condition” or “while living with their disability” is often tacked onto the conversation. But the truth is, for people with physical and mental ailments, our disabilities are what we have, not who we are.
Insinuating that Hawking is finally “free” because he’s no longer confined to his wheelchair implies that death is better than living with a disability. It means that some theoretical afterlife (one that Hawking didn’t even believe in) was a better alternative than the long and fulfilling life he lived.
Did Gadot mean to imply this in her tweet? Of course not, but that’s why this conversation about ableism is so important.
Recognizing ableism — even when the comments are well-intended — and making the necessary adjustments to be more inclusive of others may seem inconsequential to some people. But for someone who is reminded daily of their otherness, it’s extremely meaningful. Sometimes, society’s ableism is more restrictive than our disabilities.
I will never not be disabled. I’m not thrilled with the prospect of living forever with increased pain and fatigue. But to me, it’s infinitely better than the alternative. Like Hawking, mine will not be a life half-lived.