Guest Post: Positive Ableism

This guest post has been submitted by Ivanova Smith, an Outreach and Advocacy intern at The Arc of King County. Ivanova is a recent newlywed who lives happily with her husband in Lakewood.

The term positive ableism is strange because most social justice advocates don’t see anything positive about ableism. I think there might be a little positive to be found in positive ableism. Sometimes I can get a small benefit in ways that may or may not be intentional.

For example, I went to Leavenworth with a bunch of friends from my Special Olympic swim team, along with other people with developmental disabilities who lived in Ellensburg. While there, I went to a chocolate shop by myself which had lots of tasty chocolate. I had my special Olympic sweatshirt on as I looked at the assorted chocolate treats. I had a hard time deciding what to get, so I talked to myself while trying to choose. The store clerks may have thought that I was odd, but it is just the way I am. I finally made my selection, and then I had to decide whether to use my cash or my debit card. The store clerk saw my confusion and said, “Don’t worry about it” and then gave me the chocolate for free. I walked out of the store with free chocolate, but I was now confused about why I got free stuff for having trouble making a decision.

Honestly, I loved it. It is an epic day when you get free, tasty chocolate. But then I wondered why they did that. Did my developmental disability stick out and they felt sorry for me? I don’t know. I almost felt guilty for getting the chocolate because I did not pay for it. Even though she gave it to me freely.

The only thing that I really debate about this incident was the feeling that a stereotype about people with disabilities was responsible for my treat. People with I/DD are often treated like children because they have childlike personalities. And of course, lots of people give free candy to children. The mental age theorists would look at things I do as childlike – playing videos games and having great collections of bouncy balls, stuffed bears and Pokémon are not typical for a 26 year old adult. But my personality is naturally childlike, and many people without developmental disabilities share these personality traits. (Of course, I know several abled-bodied adults that also collect care bears; yet nobody says they are mentally children!)

Another time I will experience positive ableism is on the bus. As I person with autism, I have stimming behaviors. Because I stem, people prefer to not sit next to me. I get more room which is nice, but it also sucks to be isolated. When I get on the bus and sit next to someone already seated, they often complain about me. Others may not think about this, but I go through this stress every time I take public transportation. I’m just happy that God made me naturally need to be early for everything – it helps me to get a good seat.

We live in a society that says people who have a disability are a burden and not deserving of equal rights. Some people say that I belong in an institution because I have a fun, childlike personality. Yet, I am enjoying my life, traveling with friends, and living with my husband independently. While positive ableism may not be exactly what I want to see more of in our community, I have to admit that receiving free chocolate and a little extra room on the bus is a lot better than being denied my rights and freedom.

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