Beyond Ableism, Part Two

Cover art for Beyond Ableism by Adam D. Kearney. CREDIT: ADAM D. KEARNEY
In Part Two of this essay, Kearney looks at how we all can collectively work towards creating systemic change.

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

Eventually I graduated high school and went to college, a fresh start. I doubled down on my efforts not to be considered disabled, or at least not like one of “them.” However, I still wasn’t free of Johnny. During those first few years out of high school, we would still run into each other at parties because we had so many common friends. He still found ways to assert his dominance over me, such as pouring a full beer over my head at one party we were at, and stealing two full bottles of alcohol from my parent’s house at another. The latter of which I caught him doing and he just strong armed me away from the trunk of his car and continued to deny it all, both the theft and bullying me. Luckily, over time I made new college friends, and slowly stopped socializing with my high school friends shedding the skin of my identity as a person with disability and Johnny once and for all.

Despite trying to distance myself from my disability during this time, I obviously still acknowledged I was a wheelchair user. But, I relished in the feeling of joy when my friends would say things like, “I don’t even see you as disabled.” Though outwardly I was trying to ascend in the class system, the harsh reality was that no matter how hard I tried, society was always there to project its ableism onto me. This was when I really started using alcohol to push down all that cognitive dissonance to live in this new reality I had created. While sitting on a patio of a neighbourhood pub I couldn’t enter with my wheelchair, I would criticize people with disability I knew for complaining too much. They needed to accept the reality that the world wasn’t going to change for them, and they needed to stop whining so much. I completely ignored the irony of this situation.

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I became so lost in my ableism that I was willing to fight to remain in a toxic relationship, just so I could feel loved for once. Even though that person they loved was not the true version of myself. I was so far gone that I didn’t realize how much I hated myself. How little self-confidence I had. I was convinced I truly had no worth in this world, and to cope with that darkness I drank. Though I wasn't drinking every day (yet), I did lose all control of my drinking in search of oblivion. In that darkness I was free of all the guilt, shame and lack of honesty to myself. A lot of alcoholics will say that they started drinking because it was fun or that it worked to help them unwind, until it didn’t any more. After losing my job, my relationship, my place to live, and my self-respect, that is exactly where I found myself. At the bottom of a bottle.

“When you find peace within yourself, you become the kind of person who can live at peace with others.”

Peace Pilgrim, Mildred Lisette Norman

With nowhere left to turn, I got sober. I read the book Unf*ck Yourself by Gary John Bishop and learned that I was the biggest thing standing in my own way of changing. I reread Between the World and Me by Ta Nehisi Coates and witnessed what systems of oppression can do to the bodyminds of those marginalized and discriminated against. I read the memoirs of folks with disability, and learned what living in their individual bodyminds meant to them and how they identified with disability. Though it wasn’t until a tinder date turned good friend lent me their copy of Care Work by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha that something clicked in me. I started to fully realize how I had gotten to where I was and in what direction I needed to work towards. I didn’t stop there though. I kept reading more about disability. As I began to feel more comfortable in my own bodymind, I started finding ways of accepting myself, and dare I even mutter the words… love myself. The book The Body is Not an Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor helped with that as well.

Where did all of this shame and self-loathing start, though? Obviously, I wasn’t the first person to find myself in a situation like this. The good news was that there are a million other people who are far more educated on this topic than me, and they all have written about it in great length. I am going to try and simmer it down to the basics, some of which I already covered in my previous essays.

There is a book that a lot of people have invested a lot of time and energy into that tells them that they are “God’s chosen people.” For millennia these people have used those words as justification for why they should have supremacy overall, and to claim things as their own. Most troubling, they feel that they have the god given right to kill people who disagree with their beliefs. They went on to use this mindset to steal land from those they determined to be unworthy of it; to enslave bodyminds they claim to be told are lesser than themselves. Then, they wrote laws to give themselves the undeniable jurisdiction over everything they claim to be given by god. In order to maintain this supremacy in the pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (to quote our neighbours to the south), systems of oppression were created and maintained. For hundreds of years these systems removed the rights of those deemed lesser by incarcerating, mutilating, maiming and killing.

While all of this was happening a global phenomena named Capitalism was sweeping the world. Those already benefiting from these created systems of oppression continued to climb the social and financial pyramids on the backs of those under them. Further laws were passed to ensure their class supremacy in the hierarchy. Eventually the oppressed populations were seemingly being given freedoms and rights, yet laws to ensure they could never achieve true equality were continuing to be written. Regulations around wages, wealth, property and even physical movement were passed. The ugly laws of the 1880ss stand as a shining example of this, making it illegal for anyone seemingly impoverished or disabled to even be seen in public, punishable by incarceration/institutionalization. Even though laws like these were repealed in the 1970s the long-standing effects are still easily witnessed to this day. People who identify as female, BIPOC, 2SLGBTQIA+ and disabled statistically make up the highest percentage of people incarcerated, institutionalized or impoverished.

Outside of the obvious devastation this oppression has left, the most frustrating thing to witness is the infighting that happens within these communities keeping them largely distracted from advocating for real systemic change. I for one am a shining example of this. I spent over twenty years of my life chasing a dream I drunkenly thought was easily obtainable. Hell, I even have the privilege of being a masculine presenting white person going for me and I still fucked it all up. Why? Because I was lying to myself about who I was the entire time. I was too focused on throwing others under the bus in hopes that I could better my social class status. I believed the lie that others thought of me as an equal, only to have others throw me under the same bus. It really is a snake eating its own tail.

So how the fuck do we start breaking this cycle? One suggestion is that we stop looking to fix the problems created by a system, with the same system that created them in the first place. If we look at the Canadian penal system as an example, they are in the process of eliminating and limiting the use of solitary confinement within prisons. Yes, this needs to happen, as the UN even considers it torture, but this does nothing to address the damage being done by the prison system. Leaving folks feeling disenfranchised by society, and often leading them to reoffend. This issue disproportionately affects the BIPOC communities, in Canada it particularly affects indigenous communities. Who make up three per cent of the population but make up more than 25 per cent of folks in custody, a rate even higher for indigenous women. Changes like these don't address the larger systemic issues at play, and we must look outside of the current framework to find them.

Not only must we look outside of the current framework to solve the larger issues within our society, but we must do the same to start the healing at a community level as well. The pressures those of us in marginalized communities have been living under have not only led us to lash out and sabotage ourselves, but also to ostracize and excommunicate when one of us falters. Yes — an individual needs to be accountable for their actions, but if we are going to come together as a community to rise above this systemic oppression we must also learn to forgive ourselves, as well as each other. For there is strength in numbers, and we become fewer and fewer when we continue to completely write each other off as lost causes.

If we are coming to the table hoping to advocate for large systemic change, we also need to hold space for accepting that there are many things we still have to learn and change within ourselves. One of the greatest mistakes we can make is to fool ourselves that we know everything there is to know. We then feel confident in making judgment calls on other people’s thoughts or actions. In reality, things change. Knowledge bases grow. Hell, the science we accepted as fact in the 1950’s is largely laughable now. This evolution is natural though, it happens, and we have to accept it and should never weaponize it against others, especially those in our community. Given that we live in a toxic swamp of racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia etc, we must hold space for folks to grow into new understandings of how their learned toxic behaviours impact others.

All this being said, we shouldn’t roll over and accept half measures and compromises from those in power of the systems of oppression we are challenging for inclusion and rights. Instead if we keep in mind that the people we are talking to don't understand what we are really asking for just to be seen as a peer or equal. We can then try to bring them into our community and educate them with knowledge based on our collective shared life experiences.

There is an older gentleman who attends a meeting I chair that will often say “No person is completely useless; they can always serve as a bad example.” Something he often says about himself, and how far he has come in his journey. Here I want to use secular AA (the version which isn't focused on religiosity, but on recovery) as an example. It is a group of individuals who have made about as wide of a variety of mistakes as possible, that come together to help one another by sharing their experience, strength and hope. We hold each other accountable to heal and to grow through our recovery. Holding space to help each other as we stumble along the way. We can’t possibly be everything for everyone, but if we show up with peace, love and understanding we might be able to help each other on the way to burning down and rebuilding the fucking shitshow of a god damn circus we call our society.

“So why don’t we start making a history worth being proud of and start fighting the real fucking enemy?”

— Propagandhi, The Only Good Fascist Is a Very Dead Fascist

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

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