About two years ago while I was stuck working night shift for a few weeks, I got really into the Harvard Implicit Bias test project. The tests ask you to react quickly to a series of images and is designed to measure your unconscious bias towards groups. I felt super great about myself when I took my first test and found out I was biased in favor darker skinned people and against lighter skinned people (an outlier result for a white woman). I highly encourage any person who wants to improve their personal awareness of bias in all of its forms to check it out. The tests ask you to react quickly and repeatedly to images of people belonging to certain groups with either an up or down response. The idea is to measure your immediate associations rather than your conscious belief about groups.
I lost the spring in my step and my sense of personal self righteousness when I did the ableism assessment. It indicated pretty strong bias against people with disabilities. I have vacillated between shame and denial about this since. My bias and my sense of identity were at odds. My grandmother was a public accessibility activist, my favorite uncle has been wheelchair bound my entire life. I’ve gone through the local children’s museum and come out with a checklist for management about the ways they could be more accessible and inclusive. I manage my office with near obsessive attention to reasonable accommodation needs. How could I be ableist?
For the past two years I have been letting this knowledge sit, while I tried to reconcile myself with it and then I hurt my back again.
I have already been through the back pain struggle and I mean I have really been there. I ruptured a disk about 4.5 years ago and I went through 6 months of misdiagnosis and bad treatments before surgery pretty much saved my life.
It took me 4 years of careful rehabilitation bu this fall I was almost back to the activity level I had achieved pre-surgery, I was back to training in my martial arts at a high level and back to lifting what I was before I hurt my disk.
A few weeks ago I was lifting an awkward item for work and I felt my back twinge. Its been getting worse for weeks and the pain is all too familiar. I have, for the second time in my life, gone from being able to land spinning kick to a peers face, with good humored alacrity to barely being able to get out of a chair or tie my shoes.All within a week of an accident that felt like a muscle pull at first. Now that I find myself staring down a period of possibly, open ended prolonged physical disability I’ve been forced in many ways to confront how my ableism functions.
I am terrible at asking for help. I pride myself on my independence, resilience and ingenuity especially when it comes to adapting to injuries. In the first week of this current injury, I was focused on how very proud I was to be able to kneel down from a tight stance with my back straight to reach things on the floor since I can’t bend over. I also did not want to use any assistive devices. I always looked as this trait as a strength and it certainly has earned me admiration from others over the years. But this personal quality has undeniably caused me and my loved ones unnecessary pain and suffering. I have delayed treatment, violated instructions and sabotage my own recovery all because I am afraid of looking weak or being a burden on my family, friends or co-workers.
This time, as I look at the possibility of going through a long period of pain again I want to do it smarter. I want to demand the treatment that I need, speak up with things cause me further pain and use accommodations, devices and assistance that will reduce my suffering. I have committed myself to really putting myself first and advocating for the treatment that I need. But feelings of shame, over being hurt are still holding me back and this has caused me to confront the ugly roots of my own ableism.
“I ain’t no cripple!” I drawled “I can get it myself!” These were the loving and gracious words that came out of my mouth as my boyfriend tried to help me pick up after my dog. The line was delivered with an exaggerated affect that indicated my self-deprecating irony, but they were still real, it meant something to me.“Cripple,” Where did that ugly word even come from? It is possibly one of the ugliest words in the English language and in that moment it came flowing from me with effortless familiarity.. When I said it I felt I heard the voices of my uncles, aunts, father and cousins slipping easily from me in what was only a half mock parody. The word was batted about with regularity and jest during my formative years often in the presence of family members with permanent mobility impairments.
I was raised in a family full of disabilities and differences but exposure to these differences and loving relationships with differently abled people wasn’t enough. I learned from casual jokes that there was shame in disability and that any injury I sustained was a burden on my family. I have not yet found a manual on unlearning this deeply ingrained feeling, but I know that the best version of me is ready to be rid of it.
Stumpers can you help me and come with me on this journey? Can you call out my ableism when you see it? Can you share your own stories with me and help me build my perspective and compassion? I could probably do it on my own but I think this thing will be better for everyone if I don’t try.