• Benjamin

Toxic Ableism: The 'Good,' the bad, and the ugly

(Trigger Warnings: Ableism [language, themes, and words.] Suicide [Talk, Mention])

Dealing with a heavier subject in this post, something that I think we need to have a serious conversation about. I mean it’s no secret I guess considering it’s the title, but we’re going to have a chat about Toxic Ableism.

Now there is a huge intricacy and intersectionality to Disability in different groups, in what Ableism is faced and the varying degrees it manifests. I can only talk to what I have directly experienced and from what I’ve heard in the wider community; but I will try to keep this to what affects the majority for the sake of clarity and respect.

It goes without saying, but I will be talking about serious subject matter so here is your Trigger Warning for Ableist language and slurs, I will be using full language for clarity. This has been your warning before we get into the thick of it.

Now, you may be intrigued at this point; Ableism is Ableism and if you don’t insult people with Disabilities that’s all you have to worry about. Right? While technically also true, and something that we still struggle with asking of some people; there is more to it than that.

When you think Ableism you must think of the obvious stuff, calling somebody R*tard or Sp*ztic, or even openly telling others your belief that “all people with Disabilities should be taken to a river and drowned.” (Oh yeah, something actually said to a family member of mine not knowing that I had Mental Illness)

These are still wrong, great we’ve reached Stage 1 of understanding and stopping Ableism time to party. Except now we think a bit deeper. Are you still using some of these words in your everyday language? It doesn’t really matter that you’re not ‘technically calling somebody that word’ you’re still negatively affecting people in your life who you may not even know has Mental Illness. You’re creating a space for these people where they don’t even feel comfortable coming out about their Disabilities.

Now, we’re not having this conversation as anything other than me choosing to educate the whole. Once again, I am not here to shame anybody; one of the biggest judges of character to me is the ability to learn everyday, admit faults and mistakes of the past, and integrate the new knowledge into their lives. My intention here is to be clear and concise about certain things and bring these subjects forward to educate. Change is uncomfortable, trust me I know; I’m literally Autistic it’s one of our things.

I’ve been back and forth about the format of this post, and I have made up my damn mind! I will bring forward different phrases, cases, and situations; then we will dissect them a bit and explain why these things perpetuate negativity towards people with Disabilities. That way, things are 100% clear, and we can look at things in a purely educational manner.

I will say, these are things that I have personally heard, or seen as a problem societally, in addition to things I have heard from others in the community. Unfortunately as somebody who is capable of masking very well in public, I have heard some things that are very outwardly ableist. (including having customers tell me how they’re sick of seeing their r*t*rded relative, and we should all just be locked up somewhere) But again, these things seem to be more obviously wrong to say, and I feel like there is less point dissecting these. So if you’re worried that I’m focusing on things that aren’t overtly ableist; that’s why.

Anyway, uh, without further ado.

Closed Captioning “inconveniences” someone; they’re vocal about hating CC

I use Closed Captioning for multiple reasons. First of all, I have Central Auditory Processing Disorder, which is a fancy way of saying my brain has trouble interpreting sounds, with extra trouble deciphering speaking. For me, words needs to be loud, clear, and I need to be paying full attention to hear things completely. (If I ever laugh awkwardly after you said something that didn’t warrant a laugh, sorry, I’ve been hardwired after years of making people mad to not ask for clarification more than once, and so I just default to laughing)

The problem is, to bring up a game’s, movie’s, or television show’s volume enough to hear the dialogue also invites a bombardment of other sounds. I don’t need to feel like a bomb is going off in my house just to hear some characters on a screen speak to each other.

This leads into my second reason, over-stimulation. As someone with Autism, I understandably don’t like very loud sounds, and I have trouble picking out specific sounds when there is a lot of stimulation. That means, even when I turn it up I may not even be able to hear the dialogue because of other sounds in the mix! So obviously Closed Captions are a quite common thing in our household.

Now the problem is, I have heard before from people that they refuse to watch TV with certain friends because they must “put up” with Closed Captioning if they do. As if it’s not inconvenient for us to not hear whole scenes of dialogue because of something we can’t control? The main reasons I’ve heard defending this thinking is that they “don’t want plot details or lines ruined for them before they are spoken” or “they don’t like seeing text on the screen because it ruins the aesthetic of the show.”

These seem like… very minor inconveniences in the grand scheme of things, and it baffles me that these things seem more important than people being able to access the media at all. Ultimately, yes, if it really is THAT much of a problem for you, technically you can just not hang out with these friends. However, are you really being a friend to them then? By refusing to watch TV with people who need Closed Captioning because of these reasons, you are then sending the message that they are less important to you than some minor preferential inconveniences.

“You don’t look Autistic/ I couldn’t even tell you’re Autistic”

This one is a tough one to talk about. In most instances that I have personally seen, this has been said with the best of intentions. Unfortunately, you know what they say about the best intentions. Something about burning bridges… or uh paved stones… Look, what I’m trying to say is that even if something is done with good intentions, it can still have an inadvertently negative impact to others.

I’ve always felt weird hearing this one, in some misguided moments of the past, I wore it as a badge of honour, in other times a phrase that had an obtuse meaning to me. Autism is such a massive Spectrum, what did it mean to not “look” Autistic? Was that somehow an inherently positive thing? What parts of Autism were being picked as Autistic Chic?

The thing is, when you deconstruct a phrase like this, it sets up the precedent that there is “good” Autistic Traits, and “bad” Autistic Traits. Usually, this is dependant on how we act and react in non-Autistic society; with traits being deemed as “good” the more in-line with the good ol’ ‘social norm’ they land. We’re pushed more to desire certain traits we don’t have, and not develop the skills and traits we already have.

This leads into a certain act in the Autism community, masking. Masking is many things, but specifically pertaining to this conversation, it’s what a percentage of the community uses to push themselves into a ‘socially acceptable’ box while interacting with the world. Masking can actually be very damaging, as it can create a slip between who we are and what we constantly need to present. While masking we are shown how society CAN treat us when they don’t know we are on the Spectrum, and it can create a sense of depression and self-hatred to the true self. (Also it takes SO MUCH ENERGY, I can only do it for so long.)

In addition, not everyone on the Spectrum is able to Mask, which is perfectly fine and should be treated as such, but when it is put on such a pedestal as a ‘desirable trait’, it can both be damaging on the self, and damaging as a society; creating a societal norm of what desirable Autism should be.

One more thing, there is a more sinister version of this phrase. Usually it is just used against those of us who are able to Mask as a way to somehow tell us we’re not Autistic because of it. Unfortunately, some people have one view of Autism (usually as a negative) and tell everyone else that if we can ‘speak normal’ (something I’ve heard) that we’re not Autistic. Also you just don’t know us, you don’t know what we struggle and triumph with behind the scenes; because like everyone else sometimes that’s just not others’ business.

(That is not my view, I believe everyone on the Spectrum is valid, and should be able to live their own best lives)

Can’t Find Disabled Actors/Actresses and/or can’t handle us on Set

So this one I talked more heavily in my previous post, which you can find right Here.

Y’all know my feelings on this already. I think it’s absolutely a bonkers idea that we are too hard to find for roles. We’re in the same places as everyone else, but the problem is many times we aren’t wanted on production because of a couple of reasons.

Reason one: We’ll be able to call out Ableist scripts, caricatures and tropes, which will just bruise egos and stop them from getting those sweet, sweet awards.

Reason two: Many times we are considered ‘too difficult to understand’ so there’s no way they’re going to spend any extra time or effort to make Sets accessible and welcoming for all people in the industry.

Prove me wrong, PLEASE. Start hiring us, start changing how the industry views casting, and production timelines. Again, make Sets accessible for all Crew and Cast, give more roles to Disabled Actors/Actresses.

Until then, unfortunately this just seems to be the case for now.

“Everyone is a little Autistic”

This is another one that is often said with the best of intentions. Usually, it is used as a way for people to try and empathize with us. While this is a particularly good mindset, the execution is just a little misguided. As per the last phrase like this, despite the good intentions it often also conveys another meaning.

When you say something like “Everyone is a little Autistic” I’m going to stake a guess and it’s usually as a way to help somebody feel comfortable talking about something that may affect them as somebody with Autism. Unfortunately, this can often convey a flipped meaning, and may have the opposite affect to what was intended. The thing is, yes Autism is not an inherently negative thing, that does not mean that there aren’t many struggles that can stem from it.

Some of these things may not be more than an inconvenience to others, but for us they can affect us deeply. By likening serious symptoms to mild symptoms each time we bring things up, it can feel like what we deal with is being minimalized. I know that isn’t the intention most times, but that doesn’t make our feelings about this any less real or valid; which is why I bring this up in a format like this.

Now, I will say like the previous one too, this has been used as a way to deny Autism and act as if what we deal with isn’t real and to the severity we describe because others also deal with it. The thing is, the Spectrum is massive, and everyone has different traits, and how these traits affect them vary.

I’ve had non-Autistic people tell me that I don’t have Autism because I don’t display every single trait that they liken to Autism every time they see me on camera or outside as an adult. They also don’t know that growing up, my traits had a much stronger hold on me, and I struggled and worked my ass off to get to the point where I am now. Some things I just have to deal with to a certain degree, some things I was able to dampen, and all of it makes me who I am.

The Stim>Popularity>Cringe Cycle

Don’t know what this means? This is something we need to sit down and have a conversation about. First, Stimming refers to self-stimulating behaviour which usually involves repetitive motions or sounds. There is also Positive-Stim which is usually either a tool, be it a physical object, certain audio, or certain visuals. These are used by many people as a way to help relieve stress or negative feelings; or to calm when over-stimulated. This is used in many communities, but one major example is people with Autism.

Unfortunately, people really love latching onto these things. In a sense, you would think that this would be great because it normalizes these behaviours, unfortunately it has the adverse affect in the long term. As a society we are ravenous for a constant flow of new content or new things, and then leave them by the wayside just as quickly.

Once something becomes popular, EVERYONE needs to get in on it. Next thing you know it’s mentioned everywhere, you can’t escape seeing the new fad somewhere. Understandably, you start getting sick of seeing it. Instead of just letting things die though, society tends to have more of a tendency to label something as ‘cringe’ once it’s overdone. Basically putting the dead stamp on it, and making life hell for those people that use it for a reason.

Let’s look at a recent one, fidget spinners. If you just let out a little groan, that right there is a result of this cycle. As you can guess by the name, a fidget spinner is a toy used for people to fidget (or Stim) and it spins. Seems simple enough, but it can be extremely useful for people that need to constantly move their hands. So what’s the big deal? Some company in 2017 made it and it picked up more steam than expected.

Well what if I told you that fidget spinners have been around as early as 1993 used as a tool for Stimming. So you see now, there’s history behind this and we’ve used these for a long time. Now, more people start realizing they’re fun to mess with, you start seeing videos on them and friends telling friends about them.

Now it’s picking up steam, all of a sudden the prices for them skyrocket, and they’re in every store you can think of. You see them on TV, you see celebrities talking about them.

Now people start acting like fools with them in different places, getting them banned in classrooms for everyone, including the people who really needed them. The masses start getting bored with fidget spinner content, and they push back as they continue to see ads, tv references, etc. Now, they HATE all things fidget spinners, and anyone who uses one is deemed as Cringe.

Now, the people who NEEDED these tools, are ostracized even more for just trying to live their lives. This is just one example of many, and is constantly happening for us. We’re not saying not to enjoy these things too, but please just remember that even when you’re done with it, a lot of us will still use these things.

The final note, and Closing Remarks

Okay, so I wanted to bring up one more thing before we close off this post. I need to talk a little about Medical Bias towards Mental Illness and Developmental Disorders. Obviously, Medical Bias is a MUCH bigger problem than this, and it seriously affects medical access and diagnosis to vulnerable communities. I truly don’t think it’s not my place to talk about it as a whole; at least not by myself; but I do want to talk about this aspect.

I am not saying doctors and nurses are evil and can’t be trusted, that’s ridiculous. However, they are meant to be unbiased and not motivated by hate. That is just not the case sometimes, as personal biases can easily seep into these environments. There have been Doctors and Nurses I have met that actually didn’t believe much in Mental Illness.

I’ve also just met some vile people in hospital settings. (Stressed or not some things feel inexcusable)

So this is a very personal story for me, but it is important in explaining this better. About a year and a half ago, I had a really bad suicidal break, and my wife found me before I could go and do anything and took me to the hospital. I waited there for most the day before finally someone came into the big vault safe they put me in. She was one of the on-hand nurses (non-mental health unit) they had given a clipboard of questions to ask me.

In one of the questions, I confided in her that I thought I negatively impacted the lives of the people around me, and by existing in people’s lives I was causing problems. Now there are several things to say to this, one of the ones I don’t personally recommend is:

“Wow, you must think you’re pretty important huh?” and kind of just called me full of myself that I thought I had any impact on the lives around me.

That stung, so you’re going to tell someone that wants to die, that their life has literally no bearing on the lives around them; smart. I unfortunately had to weigh the option that I was more in danger of suicide in that locked room than at home, which is f*cked up because I was in the centre of a hospital.

The point of that story is that nurse let her own personal bias about mental illness spilling into her work, and saying things like that to ANYONE in danger of that is negligible, at best. I was lucky I had my wife there that day, because truly if I had felt any more alone in that moment I don’t know what would have happened.

That is why we need to take all of these things seriously, because they aren’t just hypotheticals, or tales, or legends; these things are real and they’re serious. I hope that the format in this post really helped educate everyone in a more clear and concise way.

Anyway, this one was a lot for me, so have a fantastic day! (I’m gonna go lie down)

Consider subscribing to keep updated on any future posts!

© Copyright 2020, Benjamin Imlau