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Saturday, July 7, 2012

Ageism: A Pillar of Ableism

   Several years back I began reading and learning about disability rights issues. As is the case with my interest in LGBT, women's, people of color, social justice, youth, and other issues, I was particularly drawn to the highly theoretical critical work that many disability rights theorists have been producing since the late twentieth century. One viewpoint I found repeatedly represented in this body of work (and which I have also heard expressed multiple times by my friends with disabilities) is that one of the primary pillars of disability oppression is the way in which people with disabilities, regardless of age, are treated as if they were forever children. My friend and fellow youth and disability rights advocate Matt Stafford has written about the ways in which parents and others use the institution of guardianship in order to exert undue influence in the lives of people with disabilities who have passed the age of majority. Another friend who is a youth and disability rights advocate has spoken with me about how the doctors they work with will refuse to talk respectfully and directly to them about their medical issues despite the fact that my friend has no cognitive impairments and even recently graduated from law school.

   Disability rights advocates have long sought greater rights and autonomy for all people with disabilities, including individuals with cognitive and communication impairments. They have challenged our entire society, especially the institutions set up by the non-disabled to manage people with disabilities, to view disabled persons as being as deserving of autonomy and dignity as everyone else no matter what mental or physical limitations or differences they may possess. In doing so they have not only greatly improved the lives of disabled people, they have also laid the theoretical groundwork for a compelling defense of youth liberation.

   Disability is a complicated issue. There are various types of disabilities and there are various frameworks for understanding the rights of disabled people and even disability itself. However, every serious advocate of disability rights will agree that centering the autonomy of disabled people is important and that all too many people believe that an inability on the part of disabled people to function according to the standards of non-disabled individuals justifies their lifelong infantilization. Of course, the reason that many people feel comfortable with denying rights and autonomy to persons with disabilities on these grounds is that we already have a widespread precedent within our society of using this as a pretense to deny rights and autonomy to children.

   The implicit assumption behind the actions and belief system of every judge that casually turns over guardianship of a person with cognitive disabilities to another adult, of every parent who believes they have an undisputed right to make medical decisions for a disabled adult son or daughter, and of every legislator who defends the corralling of disabled individuals into oppressive and even abusive institutional settings are not only ableist (although they are that). They are also profoundly ageist.

   The way our society treats minors has set the precedent for what we believe is the ideal way to relate to those whom we perceive (rightly or wrongly) as lacking the capacities of the average adult human being. We deny them bodily autonomy. We ignore their needs and preferences in the realm of education. We segregate them in various institutions where they are rarely permitted to interact in a meaningful way with the rest of the world. We deny them the right to their sexuality, either alone or partnered. We turn their decision-making authority over to various institutions and family members without asking them what they prefer in the matters which affect them most. We deny them opportunities for meaningful work. Finally, we expect them to react with gratitude for the nearly endless oppression they live under because first and foremost we view them as a burden who should feel fortunate that anyone wishes to fool with them at all. No wonder so many people believe that relating to disabled individuals this way is the best that can be done for them. It is the only way our society believes that we can relate to minors. Thus nearly universal acceptance of the oppression of youth opens the door to tolerance and even admiration of the oppression of disabled people of all ages. Of course, no one calls it oppression even though by any reasonable definition it is.

   It is important for disability rights advocates to recognize the link between youth and disability oppression. Ageism does much of ableism's heavy lifting and it is important to recognize that in order to combat the pernicious influence that ableism plays in the lives of disabled individuals. It is also important for youth rights advocates to recognize that support for youth liberation logically necessitates support for the disability rights movement. Allowing anyone in our society to be denied liberty, justice, and equality sets a precedent whereby doing this to any other group of individuals becomes much more widely accepted. We best protect youth and people with disabilities when we protect their rights and not when we pretend to protect them from themselves.

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