Ableism in Parenting: How to Explore it in Four Ways

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I am the mom of an incredible, funny, and charming four-year-old who is autistic and legally blind. I also work for Inclusive Arts Vermont, a non-profit focused on making our state more accessible for people with disabilities. A significant portion of my life is spent advocating for and teaching others about engaging in the work of anti-ableism.

A few weeks ago, when speaking with a fellow mama about this work, she asked me if I had any tips to address ableism in parenting. I told her I would get back to her, and I sat down and wrote this post as a result.

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) just celebrated its 31st anniversary. It was a product of the civil rights movement in the United States, and was enacted to “prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities in several areas, including employment, transportation, public accommodations, communications and access to state and local government programs and services,” according to the National Department of Labor.

While this law is thirty years old and was an important first step towards building a more accessible and inclusive society, it falls short when it comes to true change. In order for true inclusion to take place, we must undergo the work of fighting against ableism. When it comes to raising tiny humans, that means we need to address ableism in our own parenting.

Yes, let’s make buildings physically accessible, and while we’re at it, expand our minds too.

What is ableism?

Ableism is defined as “discrimination in favor of able-bodied people.” I much prefer the far richer explanation from author Rebekah Taussig, who states that:

Ableism is the process of favoring nondisabled bodies while discriminating against those that move, see, hear, process, or look differently. The application of this idea can morph into ten thousand shifting shapes, and for the world we live in today, it’s usually more subtle than overt cruelty. Some examples to get us started: the assumption that all those who are deaf would prefer to be hearing – the belief that walking down the aisle at your wedding is obviously preferable to moving down that aisle in a wheelchair – parents physically holding their children back as a person with a disability passes by – the assumption that a nondisabled person who chooses a partner with a disability is necessarily brave, strong, and especially good. All of these are different flashes of the same, oppressive structure. Ableism separates, isolates, assumes. It’s starved for imagination, creativity, curiosity.

Ableism can be overt, like gasping and pointing as someone with a physical disability or facial difference. But as Rebekah notes, it’s often far more subtle.

Ableism is the assumption that one body is preferable or somehow better than another. Ableism assumes that there is one “perfect” body, and to be anything that deviates from that is inherently bad or less-than.

So, how can we address ableism in parenting?

The truth is that ableism lives within all of us, whether we recognize it or not. Eradicating it is a lifelong process that takes reflection, self-awareness, and time.

If you’re looking for somewhere to start, here are four ways to address ableism in parenting.

A girl in a wheelchair

  1. Using outdated language.

I am acutely aware that I am a non-disabled person who works in the disability field and parents a disabled child. Because of this, I spend a lot of time listening to and learning from disabled people to inform my work and my parenting. One of the most common cries for change among the disability justice advocates I follow on social media is for a change in language.

Words and phrases like handicapped, special needs, differently-abled, alter-abled, and the worst one of all, the-R-word, are all euphemisms or slurs for the same word: disabled. If saying that someone has a disability feels negative or uncomfortable to you, I invite you to explore why.

Additionally, I encourage you to learn about person-first and identity-first language. Person-first language literally puts the individual ahead of their disability. Here are some examples of how to use person-first language:

  • Jamie is a person with a disability.
  • The other day I met Rose, a person with low vision.
  • Clark is seated to the left, next to a person who uses a wheelchair.

Identity-first language takes ownership of a disability. For example:

  • Susan is autistic.
  • My brother Oliver is disabled.

I often get questions about the language I use when I talk about my daughter. I say that she is an autistic child with albinism. This is because the autistic community largely prefers identity-first language and the albinism community uses people-first language.

I say that she is disabled, or a child with disabilities. This is after learning what adults with the same disabilities as her (largely) prefer. If, as she ages, she asks us to use different language, we will honor that.

If I get blowback on the words I use to describe my daughter, it usually comes from people who realize that the words they have been using for years might be upsetting to someone. The solution is simple: let disabled folks define themselves. If someone corrects the language you use, accept it and move forward.

A correction of language is not a judgment of character or morality. When someone says what language they want used to identify themself, it is a question not up for debate. Much of the discomfort with this comes from a place of not wanting to use the word “disabled.”

I get it. I went through this work and had to confront the negativity around the word “disability” for myself. My conclusion was that disability isn’t a negative. It’s neutral. It’s as much a part of my kid as her long eyelashes and round cheeks. It’s more than okay to say it!

2. Looking at accommodations as “extra.”

My daughter was diagnosed with albinism at birth. Along with this came low vision. She was also diagnosed autistic at age two. This means that she will receive some level of accommodations for the rest of her life in school. It also means that she will require accessibility accommodations at community events in order to participate. While discussing this with someone shortly after my daughter was born, this person said, “oooh! So, does that mean you always get to sit in the front row at the theater? And she’ll probably get an iPad in school and a special seat, right? How lucky are you?!” 

Her accommodations are not lucky.

They’re not extra.

Accommodations are not special. Accommodations allow disabled people to navigate and live in a world that was not created with them in mind.

Things like tablets in school make it possible for her to see what’s being shared on the board. If we don’t sit in the front row at an event, she can’t see what’s happening. It’s not preferential treatment, it’s fairness.

A black and white image of a public bathroom

3. Using accessible bathroom stalls.

Who uses what bathroom stall is one of the most simple pieces of ableism in parenting to eradicate. Are you or your child disabled? If the answer is no, then the accessible bathroom stall should be left for the folks it was designed for.

I know, I know. Accessible bathroom stalls have more room and they’re easier to navigate with a tiny person in tow. However, those stalls are created with more room and handles for folks who use mobility aids such as wheelchairs and walkers. They’re also designed for and used by individuals who need to be accompanied by a caregiver. (Imagine trying to fit two grown adults into a smaller stall – yikes!) Additionally, some disabled people deal with incontinence, and by taking up that stall you could make an already delicate situation an emergency.

Now, using an accessible stall is not illegal. Unlike taking up an accessible parking space without a placard, you can’t get fined for misusing it. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, businesses are required by law to provide both parking spaces and bathrooms that are accessible to disabled people. However, unlike parking spaces, bathroom stalls do not need to be reserved.

While we’re leaving the accessible bathroom stall available to those who need it, can we also not question its use?

Recently, I listened to the story of an autistic teenager who was in the bathroom with his mother. They waited in line, and when the accessible stall became available they walked past a few folks to enter it. What followed was a series of hushed remarks that eventually ended in the mother having a conversation with the manager and explaining why she needed to use the accessible stall.

Disabilities can be both visible and invisible. You might automatically recognize someone as disabled when they use a mobility aid, but you might not if they have a developmental or vision-related disability.

When people question if someone is “disabled enough” to need an accessibility feature, it essentially negates the access. When it comes to doing our business, let’s all mind our own business.

4. Not including broad representation in the media you consume.

Another simple yet effective way to examine ableism in parenting is to check out your children’s book collection. How many feature characters with disabilities?

Just like expanding the books, TV shows, and movies your children consume to include BIPOC characters and work by BIPOC creators, I encourage you to make sure that disability is represented as well. Our own social circles and worlds can be incredibly small, especially as the pandemic continues on. By including representation from a diverse array of characters in the books and television our children consume, we are expanding their view of “normal.” One of my personal favorites is It’s Okay To Be Different by Todd Parr. For more ideas, check out this list. 

If we want to build a generation of kind, compassionate, and inclusive humans, it starts with us as parents. What’s something from this list you can use to make a positive change related to ableism in parenting today?

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