THE DICTIONARY DEFINES ABLEISM as “discrimination or social prejudice against people with disabilities based on the belief that typical abilities are superior. It can manifest as an attitude, stereotype, or outright offensive comment or behavior. Common examples of ableist language are words we use in everyday languages, like lame, dumb, retarded,  idiot, imbecile, nuts, psycho, spaz”, and even “blind and deaf.” In addition to being offensive, when we use these words, we set up a hierarchy, placing the non-disabled above those with disabilities.   

It seems that now more than ever, our humanity is being challenged. Atrocities of war, the ravages of climate change, and a virulent pandemic all give us lots to think and talk about. This state of affairs finds many of us reexamining our values and way of being. I question if having sympathy, empathy, and compassion changes anything, or are they just sentiments to make us feel better about not doing enough. Actions matter. What actions do we take? How big? For how long? How do we know if they make a difference? 

As a straight, white, non-disabled female, I can unlace my shoes to step into the shoes of another. But, can you ever really know someone else’s experience? In July, I reviewed a one-person show at Lincoln Center for called Dark Disabled Stories. I had a strong emotional reaction to this play which still has me questioning my attitudes and actions towards people with disabilities. In my review I deliberately tiptoed around the actor’s disability, feeling that I should be gentle with what I say. (Some parts were very graphic and come at us in torrents.). I wanted to be seen as a  good, fair, nice person but alas, my ableism showed in not treating this review like I would any other.

Ryan Haddad (author and actor) made it very clear he did not want my pity. He just wanted to be seen as a horny gay guy, just like every other horny gay guy, and not defined by his walker or disability. He owns his cerebral palsy. Upon reflection, it struck me that many of my dating experiences and reactions were very similar to his. We are missing so much when we fail to appreciate the importance of our differences and our shared humanity. Not just with ableism, for all the ‘isms. Maya Angelou said, “When you know better, you do better.” I will DO better with all of this next time.

Ronni Burns

Adjunct Professor NYU/Stern School of Business