Ableism is so pervasive that it is difficult to identify until one begins to interrogate the governing assumptions of well-intentioned society. Within the space allowed by these rhetorical premises, ableism appears natural, necessary, and ultimately moral discrimination required for the normal functioning of civilization.--James L. Cherney
Last night, we went to Barnes and Nobles. This, as those of you who know my family, is nothing new. We go to Barnes and Nobles nearly every week. Having children on the different age spectrum this is one of the few activities that appeals to everyone. Cafe treats and an endless supply of reading material means there's something for everyone. But last night Camille started whining after about an hour. She's in a weird place with her reading as she's finished The Warrior Cat series and I know she's struggling to find something to replace that big gap.
When Camille gets bored, she also gets anxious. And sometimes when she gets anxious she starts to engage in behaviors that are not seen as "natural," "necessary," or ""normal." Last night this happened. Camille started to run, jumping up on chairs and benches. We've talked before that one can't do that because of safety issues aka please don't plow down small children in your leaping upon benches. Once we settled that one shouldn't run through the store at top speed, she started to act like a cat. This involved hiding under tables, crawling around and peeking out from behind bookshelves.
She would pounce on me every once in awhile. And last night, I fucked up. You see for all my talk about ableism and for all the work I am making on rooting it out, I still fall into the rhetoric. I do this because it such a part of my thinking that it feels normal. And this is the problem with things like ableism. It feels like common sense. I should be teaching my daughter to act normal right? It's the best thing for her, right? I don't want her to embarrass herself, and, if I'm really honest, to embarrass us.
When Umberto came over and told me that Camille was hiding out under a table in the main area of the store. I told him to go get her and I was feeling pretty annoyed with her. When she came back, she started to crawl around, hide behind book shelves, jump on to me with her hands like cat paws. And I? Well, I was irritated, snappy. I told her to she needed to act "Normal." That the way she was behaving was going to make people "annoyed." That sometimes in public that we needed to behave properly. I did, dear readers, I really did say all those things.
Camille pounced on me and I snapped at her. H looked over and said quietly "Ginger, she's just trying to connect to you." And whoosh it was like all the air went out of my indignation. My frustration with this behavior. I had to take a minute to think about where I was coming from.
The problem is not that deviance is bad, it is that ableism teaches seeing it that way. The problem is not that being abnormal is unnatural, it is that ableism teaches valuing normalcy that way. The problem is not that ability resides in the body, and that a body with different skills is inherently unable to function in society, it is that ableism teaches knowing ability that way. Confronting ableism as visual, ideological, and epistemic problems does not require us to set aside efforts to change the material order of society—such as working to provide access to public spaces—but it does empower disability literature, art, slogans, and protests as crucial to the effort to change what disability means. --James L. Cherney
What was happening in my head was that I wanted Camille to act "normal." I wanted her to be the kind of kid that people didn't raise their eyebrows at. It was reasonable to ask her to behave properly right? I wasn't asking for her to totally conform to just use manners. And it was all too easy to hear the voices of "others" in my head. "Oh my, why are those parents allowing their child to act like this?" "Get that child under control!" "You're being too permissible with her." "When I was a kid..." Those voices sometimes hammer at my confidence, I admit it.
But I know it's ableism deep down. There is no reason why Camille can't hide under a damn table so long as she is not harming someone else. It might make some uptight adults uncomfortable but is it really a problem? Of course not. Camille's behavior might go against some social conventions but are those conventions really normal? Natural? If hiding out under a table, helps Camille to deal with her anxiety doesn't that make this behavior functional? What are we afraid of really?
This has come up again and again. It came up when Camille wouldn't wear shoes. And then again when she would finally would wear shoes it was only Crocs without socks in January. We endured the looks, the comments that we weren't good parents. We came up against censure when Camille refused to wear a real winter coat aka the fat coats. We had to fight with the school about her only wearing a fleece and then one day I went on a field trip to find her forced into a winter coat. She refused to put her arms down and the teachers and aids were laughing at her. When I confronted them, insisted she be able to take the coat off, they whispered that I was spoiling her, indulging her. And there were times when I wondered if they were right. If I was wrong. If I was just going about this the wrong way. If I what really should be doing is helping her to be normal. Fixing her.
Most days I know the answer.
Public demonstrations, countercultural performances, autobiography, transformative histories of disability and disabling practices, and critiques of ableist films and novels all apply rhetorical solutions to the problem. Identifying ableism as rhetoric and exploring its systems dynamic reveals how these corrective practices work. We can use such information to refine the successful techniques, reinvent those that fail, and realize new tactics.In many ways, allowing Camille to be herself is protesting an ableist society. I was doing this with her before I even knew the term ableist. I knew this because in many ways, I had felt the constraints of a society that demands normalcy and the pain of trying so hard to fit that role. I wondered if by allowing Camille to feel safe in her behaviors would build up her confidence. And now that she's ten, I think, we're seeing the results. She's confident, unashamed of her difference. I know it is not always easier for her because she does encounter people who look at her askance. But I think that by being allowed to challenge categories of normalcy she is finding that there is nothing wrong with her. And I am slowly learning to root out my roots of ableism. We are finding new ways to challenge the rhetoric and perhaps pretending to be cat in a public book store, pouncing on your mama when she least expects it is a counter cultural performance of protest.