Beyond Ableism, Part One

Cover art for Beyond Ableism by Adam D. Kearney CREDIT: ADAM D. KEARNEY
This excerpt from Kearney’s essay begins with an exploration of growing up and unlearning internalized ableism.

This article is an excerpt from Fanshawe grad Adam D. Kearney’s essay, Beyond Ableism.

“Ableism is discrimination and social prejudice against people with physical or mental disabilities and/or people who perceive themselves as being disabled. Ableism characterizes people as they are defined by their disabilities and it also classifies disabled people as people who are inferior to non-disabled people.” — Wikipedia, The all knowing

Hello, my name is Adam and I am a recovering ableist and alcoholic. Something I learned the hard way on my road of recovery is that there is no shame to be found in “being” an alcoholic, especially a sober one. Where that shame lies is in the past, or most specifically in the decisions I made in my active alcoholism. After putting a lot of work into myself, I am far less ashamed of the decisions I am making today.

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All this is to say that I still make mistakes. The difference now is I know there is no shame in apologizing, learning from, and taking ownership of my mistakes. I can move beyond them; I can grow and become a better person from the experience. Some people say that is making a positive out of a negative, but I think that is a really fucking cheesy way of saying it. I acknowledge that even though I am sober from alcohol, I am still an alcoholic and that if I drink I will bring that negativity back into my life.

The tough reality I find now is that even though I have worked incredibly hard on my ableist behaviour (both internalized and external), I am still an ableist. This is true despite being connected to the disability community in a way that I have never been before. I try to read every book I am suggested on Disability. I watch every show or movie that has great disability representation. Yet, I can still fall back on some very toxic ableist behaviours and opinions. These moments happen far less frequently than they once did, but I accept that I am a work in progress. I have much more I still need to learn, and I will continue to learn until my dying day.

By having to live in a society that has been designed to exclude my body (buildings, sidewalks, and transportation) and mind (stereotypes, misinformation, and discrimination), I learned from an early age the many ways in which I have no value in a settler-colonial capitalist framework. This lens was how I learned to hate myself. Even within my own family unit I was the black sheep, being the only one in our house with disability. I subconsciously developed many unhealthy coping mechanisms in order to survive. My sense of humour may be the only one which has affected my life in any positive sense. By far the worst mechanism was my internalization of society’s unrelenting projection of ableism on my bodymind.

My mother recently shared with me what may have been my first act of ableism which occurred when I attended a preschool for children with disability. Up until that point in my life my experience with disability outside of my own (multiple fractures and surgeries) was at a handful of conferences for people with the same diagnosis as me. I seemed somewhat accustomed to people with Osteogenesis Imperfecta (more commonly known as OI or Brittle Bone Disorder), however when I ended up in the preschool classroom I found myself surrounded by individuals within the broad spectrum of disability. The classroom was a bit of a system overload for me, but I seemed to really focus in on a specific classmate of mine who has the diagnosis of cerebral palsy (CP). As a person with CP his motor skills and speech are affected in a way that I really hadn’t witnessed before. He used a large, and to my young mind, menacing custom wheelchair. Keep in mind this was the 1980s so all devices were twice the size and three times as ugly as they are today. I began to connect him and his disability directly to his assistive devices.

Up until that stage in my life, when I was not recovering from a break or a surgery, I was able to use a walker for short distances, or more often my trusty Fisher Price plastic trike to get around. As I continued to grow. My parents, knowing that the trike phase couldn't last forever, started to make suggestions about me getting my own wheelchair. A suggestion I flat out wouldn’t even consider this suggestion; I would dismiss it by throwing a tantrum while saying “I don't want to be like my classmate.” For me, using a wheelchair meant I was one of “them.” Sure, this is easily dismissed by a child’s limited ability to reason logically that a device does define who you are, but it now serves as a starting point for my cognitive awareness of my own internalized ableism. I wouldn’t actually know what that term meant until thirty years later. For the time being I felt that if I could ride my Fisher Price trike everywhere, surely no one would notice my disability. I only stopped using it when I started the second grade.

This touches on something that is rarely talked openly about outside of the disability community: there is an unspoken ableist class structure of disability hierarchy. Some folks with disability are perceived as better than others because of how their diagnosis affects their daily life. Generally those at the top of the pyramid are acknowledged to have the most cognitive and physical ability, and at the bottom are the folks with seemingly the least. This class structure is based in settler colonialism, and more specifically capitalism. Within this framework, a bodymind holds no inherent value unless it is able to generate money, and the more money it can generate the more value it holds. Even recently, people will ask me things like: “but you’re not that kind of “disabled” are you?” They offer air quotes while they say it to me, as if we are sharing the same prejudices, and are sharing an acceptance of the hierarchy of disability. Up until a few years ago, I would shrug this off and simply laugh and say, “oh no, not like that.”

As a young person, Being the only one in my school with a physical disability meant I didn’t need to really address this class system inside of the classroom. In truth, I can only remember one instance where someone actually made fun of me at school, and it was a misunderstanding. It was overheard by the teacher’s assistant, who reported it to the principal. It is now so long ago that I completely forget what it was all about, but we both got called into the principal's office. I had to sit there while my friend was forced to apologize to me through his tears, and I explained I understood and forgave him. It seemed very performative for the adults in the room. The whole thing now speaks volumes to how adults project their own concepts of disability onto children. It is this harmful perspective that has been passed on for generations. We need to actively work on breaking this ableist cycle.

High school was a big game changer on the ableism front. On the first day of grade nine I was introduced to Johnny, the person who would bully me throughout high school and beyond. As an attempt to ease the transition from grade to high school, my school had adopted a structure of one set group of students who would go from class to class together. It was within the first month or so of starting school that Johnny unprovokedly stole and then proceeded to rip up my dollar store pencil case in front of the class while the teacher was out of the room. I have no idea why he chose that day, moment, or item to act out that way, but Johnny treated it like the opening day of hunting season. I was somewhat oblivious to what had actually happened. I had zero emotional connection to the pencil case and was kind of happy the ugly thing was out of my life. Yet, the adults forced Johnny to buy me a new pencil case and apologize to me in front of the class. This apology felt pointless because he didn't mean it and only brought more unwanted attention towards me. In addition, this only angered him and he saw it as a reason to double down on his bullying of me. This was when he started whispering things to me in class after I would answer a question. “Shut up ret*rd.” “Think you’re so smart eh cr*pple?” “Stop being such a f*ggot.” It was mostly the same dismissive comments with whatever slur seemed popular to him that day.

Once grade nine was over and I didn’t have to sit in every class with him all day every day, things actually got unexpectedly more complicated. It was a small school and our social groups weren’t that big so there was a lot of overlap in our circles. A lot of my close friends ended up being friends of Johnny, or at least friends of his best friends. While the classroom comments still kept coming, now I had to find ways to pretend to be cool with it. What better way to do this than to internalize it all and lash out at other folks I thought were lower on the ableist class pyramid than me.

I have talked about my disassociation from disability in my previous essays, that it happened around the same time as my transition from being a camper to counselor at a camp for people with disability, and my first experiences with alcohol. This drastic change in my peer group also allowed me the opportunity to climb the all-important class pyramid. There was another factor that came into play I haven’t really explored as it tied into my school bullying situation. But, “hurt people, hurt people” and sometimes we act out in the harshest ways to communities we are most tightly connected to.

Midway through high school they converted a wing of the school to be the new home of the “special education program” which was being moved from an obsolete facility. This opened up a whole new realm of potential material for Johnny and his buddies to bully me with. I was now constantly being told I was in the wrong classroom. When I spoke, things I said would be mimicked to have a speech impediment and hand motions similar to those made by folks who have cerebral palsy. Sometimes these things were being shouted in order to silence me, or just making the hand gesture at me when they wanted to silent.

Although I now regret the decisions I made, at the time I thought my best tactic was to join in the mockery of the new wing of students as an effort to deflect the attention from me. I tried to make them realize that I was not like “them” and that I was as “normal” as Johnny and his football buddies. It may have taken the wind out of their sails a little, but it didn’t bring the torment to an end. I certainly was never going to be acknowledged as an equal. In hindsight, all this did was further my ableism and disassociation from my identity as a person with disability. I caused more harm than good in my wake.

To be continued…

This memoir essay was published as a zine in May 2023. For more information visit handcutcompany.com.


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