Who would be mean to someone with a disability? We function under the belief that we take special care of those that are differently-abled, because of their vulnerability, yet the truth is quite opposite of that. Ableism has become a normalized part of the social discourse, which often leads to disastrous results for those whose bodies have been understood as different and therefore “inferior.”
According to MSNBC:
“Fiona Pilkington suffered more than a decade of abuse from a gang of youths who terrorized her family by urinating on her house, taunting her developmentally challenged daughter and beating her severely dyslexic son. Despite repeated calls to police and desperate letters to her local lawmaker, no one intervened to stop the persecution, and Pilkington killed herself and her 18-year-old daughter when she set fire to their family car in October 2007.”
Here we had the tragic loss of two lives because of the abuse of people who were neurologically atypical went unchallenged and unheard. Socially we protect those who we value, and a refusal to intervene can only be understood as a desire to make the Pilkington family disappear. Each time Fiona reported these incidents and they in turn went unchecked by local authorities, the behaviour of her abusers was encouraged. Now, following a lengthy inquest, Leicestershire police have been found partially responsible for the tragedy. It’s too late for Pilkington and her child, though.
The differently-abled are understood to exist without power because some of them need accommodation to negotiate the world today. The accommodation can come in the form of alteration, to make the environment physically accessible and it may also come in the form of a refusal to subject themselves to the same sort of standards as a neurotypical person, depending upon the circumstances.
How many adults would stand idly by while a four year old girl was being abused by a gang? I daresay any adult within eyesight would intervene, yet the police force ignored the hate aimed at Francesca Hardwick, Pilkington’s daughter, who had the mental development of a four year old girl.
Fiona Pilkington was told that she was “overreacting” and to “draw her drapes.” It is difficult for many to believe that such cruelty is actually intentional, but those that must negotiate ableism face this sort of behaviour on a regular basis. Some of the violence is fear-based. Even though it is common knowledge that disability is not contagious, there is an irrational fear of difference that leads to rejection and a devaluation of our shared humanity.
Some of the able-bodied have internalized the hierarchies within our society. We understand the ability to express power coercively as representative of our social standing, and those that are able-bodied actively seek to reaffirm their place by reminding those that are differently-abled that they are second-class citizens. We may initially respond to such behaviour with incredulity and yet when we examine the way in which other isms (sexism, racism, ageism, etc.) are maintained, it is clear that such actions are not only normalized but accepted.
Blogs like The Deal with Disability chronicle the experiences of a woman living with Cerebral Palsy. The author is an educated woman who is often treated like a child. Even those that claim to want to help the differently-abled often succumb to their privilege, demeaning the people they are supposedly trying to care for.
Jerry Lewis, for example, was recently awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Academy Awards, despite protests. Lewis stood proudly as he received a standing ovation from his peers, and orgotten were the many infantilizing comments he made about those with Muscular Dystrophy. It was a conscious decision on the part of the Academy to bestow this award upon Lewis, despite the fact that disability activists were protesting outside of the building as Lewis was being honoured.
Time after time, the concerns of the differently abled are overlooked to privilege the opinions and/or bodies of the able-bodied. Issues from job discrimination to outright abuse arise over and over again. The differently-abled are constructed as over-sensitive when they complain about this treatment, because the right to oppress is assumed to exist for those that are able bodied.
Following the inquest, the police who so badly mishandled the Pilkington case may now see the error of their ways, but there will be many more victims before it is understood that different does not mean “less than.”