Able-ism at the YMCA…a brief Rant and perspective

Alright, I am going to diverge from my normal blogs to tackle the prevailing issues and images of able-ism in society.

Able-ism @ the YMCA

Able-ism @ the YMCA

First, I am going to state this loud and clear…the intent of this image is not to cause harm, I understand that this is supposed to be supportive and for folks who take things at face value and do not read into the subtext would not see this as disrespectful or harmful in anyway.  It is not “bad” people who do this, in fact it is the very opposite, very well intentioned people create these things in an attempt to show solidarity and compassion for folks who are disabled, in this particular case physically disabled.

Now, I have used a cane for going on 13 years, and I have been forced to live a life where the perception of infirmity by society writ large becomes my defining characteristic. Let us not even go into what happens when I self-advocate as someone with an autism spectrum disorder.  The problem is, these images reduce us to the perceived physical impairment as somehow needing more assistance, and certainly in a few situations accommodations are needed, but when they take front stage over a healthy sense of identity and self-determination, it reduces us to nothing more than the perception of our infirmities.

Why did this image upset me so much though? I see examples of able-ism all the time. The chosen caption is what makes this image so offensive to those of us with physical disabilities.  The word “Responsibility” as defined by Merriam-Webster ( includes two pertinent uses of the word, that of being morally obligated and that of being bound by duty.  So, in short something one is forced to do as a result of societal expectations versus assisting someone, ANYONE, simply because it is the right and moral thing to do.  Now, the intent in this case could simply be that the individual is responsible for assisting, heck even responsible for allowing self-determination, but one cannot infer these things from a simple one word example.  Denotative definition aside, we then have to look at the connotative meaning of the word, which sadly becomes synonymous with obligation and even being burdened by having to do so.  So in classic correlative over-thinking, one can then interpret this as a burden to assist the individual.  Not the intent I am quite certain, I believe this was done with the utmost compassion.  But it is still offensive none the less, it puts the focus on the disability and then puts the burden on those who are able bodied to take care of or assist the disabled individual in a paternalistic fashion.  If I was to apply basic research ethics to this image ala the Belmont Report (See it Here) this is an example of something that fails the harm/benefit analysis, because it unintentionally singles out a population and has the potential to cause harm, in this case, emotional and social. Yeah I know, all touchy feely, be a man a grow a pair right? Wrong, see it is the small details that reinforced stereotypes, that feed into the social model for disability, and continue to define individuals by what others perceive in object reality but is than subjectively categorized into a paternalistic worldview.

No one should be forced to feel responsible for someone’s physical challenges, and quite frankly I am offended when I hear parents shush their children to not point out my physical disability, it is there, it is obvious, and the children simply want answers.  Instead of telling them not to stare, which reinforces our difference and sets us apart as “other”, we should be able to inquire, show general interest and de-mystify the perceived disabilities in a healthy manner that lets us move on to other more important things, an able bodied person’s attempt to shield us from something we deal with everyday just seems asinine.  Quite frankly I don’t have the time or interest in having to constantly pander to ableist guilt, much like white guilt in race relations, we need to move past the guilt if we hope to have a healthy and meaningful conversation on the subject.

So in summation, images and captions, like anything written loses the intended context too easily because of how everyone subjectively processing the information, what seems beneficent to one is harmful to another, and ethically we need to move past this. In this case, I sincerely hope the YMCA not only removes and replaces this, but takes it not as me attacking them, but as a teachable moment on how we unintentionally cause harm.  Yelling, screaming, and attacking the people who are attempting to do “good” just alienates them, it is not able-splanning to point out the intentions are good, good people do harmful things, the ole quote “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” applies quite readily.  But I refuse to attack people who are attempting to be decent people, that just alienates and draws lines in the sand, and defensive people cannot communicate effectively.  But we should point out these things when we see them, we should do so with compassion and understanding though, we need to educate not alienate.