In my last blog post “I’m the Man”, I began to unpack how Greg and I strive for a partnership built on equality, looking specifically at how we address sexism and patriarchy in our relationship. I referenced towards the end of the post that part of building an equal partnership is being aware of other systems of oppression impacting our relationships including ableism. Greg was born with a disability that impacted his speech and fine motor skills and he has faced discrimination and oppression as a person with a disability throughout his life. I am (currently) an able bodied person.
In that last post, I made it sound as if it were so simple and easy for me to address my ableism when in reality, it has been and continues to be a difficult and ongoing journey. In fact, acknowledging my ableism was a key step in the story of Greg and I coming together.
See Greg and I are were friends 1½ years before we started dating. Greg pursued me within 4 months of us meeting with homemade pumpkin pie and drinks at a bar and a night of cooking. And while I can easily reference our differing opinions about living in an urban vs. rural setting or my commitment issues and fear of being in a serious relationship as the reasons for not dating when first pursued – all of which is part of the truth – I often omit from the tale my own prejudices towards people with disabilities. It took me confronting my ableism before I took Greg seriously as a dating partner.
In the fall of 2010 (a year after meeting Greg), I started my Masters of Social Work and took a diversity class with Dr. Michael Sheridan. In this course, we looked at different systems of oppression and examined our status within each system – whether in the privileged/agent group or oppressed/targeted group. Early on, we were encouraged to visit Project Implicit which has tests for measuring implicit thoughts/attitudes towards groups. When I took the test that measured implicit thoughts/attitudes on disability/ability, I was shocked at the result – a strong implicit preference for abled bodied persons if memory serves. This realization led to a cascade of reading, self-reflection, research and writing that semester to challenge my implicit attitudes, stereotypes and prejudice towards people with disabilities.
I share below a couple (of many) of the attitudes/prejudices/stereotypes I examined.
Disability as an Unbearable Condition / The Devaluing of Persons with Disabilities
It’s common to think or say in reaction to people with disabilities, whether physical, emotional, or cognitive, “I am blessed” or “I am lucky”. Within these statements, an implicit value is placed upon the person with the disability as a person less than. These statements say “I’m lucky not to be like that” with that being an undesirable/unbearable condition. In writing this blog, I re-read one of my personal learning journals from my diversity class that reveals me realizing my own devaluing of persons with disabilities. (Note this one paragraph could probably spur it’s own series of posts and makes me cringe today but here goes):
“I remember thinking when I was a kid how awful it would be to have a disability, particularly one that impacted cognitive abilities. This thought was often followed by a worry that God/Fate would punish me for these thoughts by giving me a child with disabilities if I ever had kids. When I was a child, I put a lot of meaning into being book smart as doing good in school was a means for affirmation and attention and really came to define who I was. I imagine I found it hard to believe that life could be just as rich and meaningful for persons that have disabilities.”
These attitudes engender at best feelings of pity in the abled bodied person and at worst fear, dislike, and scorn. And for the person with the disability, being confronted with these attitudes can potentially make one feel shame, guilt, and a lack of confidence.
Greg powerfully said in a sermon: “People with disabilities are not here for abled body people to feel blessed or feel lucky. We are not here for others’ self-realizations.”
Persons with Disabilities as Non-Sexual
A common myth about people with disabilities is that they are non-sexual. In the mainstream media, there is little representation of people with disabilities engaging in dating, relationships, or sex. A recent article in the Atlantic titled “Disabled and Fighting for a Sex Life” includes a quote from actor Matt Fraser stating: “When you are disabled the two things people think you can’t do are fight and have sex … so I’ve got a black belt and I’m really good at shagging. The physical pleasures in life are really important to me.”
Take this attitude to another level and you get a perspective that sex with a person with a disability is gross or disgusting. And, an even darker version of this attitude is the idea that people with disabilities shouldn’t engage in sex and procreate which is of course an attitude that fueled eugenics in the 20th century.
Creating fertile ground. These attitudes, stereotypes, and prejudices were not fertile ground for attraction or love. I’m not sure I ever consciously thought to myself, “Sure. Greg’s nice but I pity him and am a little weirded out by him because he’s got a speech impediment. And is he really shagg-able with his disability?”. But it wasn’t until I confronted my ableism and the implicit attitudes/beliefs/prejudices/stereotypes that came with it that I took Greg seriously as a suitor. And so one day, after I had also worked through the before mentioned commitment issues, the ground was fertile for me to say yes to Greg, let’s give this relationship a try.
My partner Greg has several blog posts and sermons relating to his experiences with a disability that are linked to below: