I screwed up yesterday.
I gave a presentation in front of hundreds of people last night, along with several of my colleagues. It mostly went pretty well. I was informative. I was candid. I was witty.
And I was ableist.
I say this because I am a huge proponent of growing and changing. Learning how to be better. I am not above reproach, and when I am in the wrong I need to be truthful about it, apologize sincerely, and strive not to err in the same way. I might not always succeed, but it has to be a priority.
I ended my presentation by asking the people who were part of the HIV community “to stand and remain standing,” followed by a similar request for staff, researchers, and allies to do the same. In closing, I said something to the effect of, “At this time, everyone in the room who can should be standing. Thank you for all that you do, and let’s continue standing together – until there’s a cure.”
This ending was suggested to me by a good friend, and I agreed to utilize it. His suggestion in and of itself was not ableist – the way I conducted it was.
I view “standing” as not necessarily something that requires “being upright on two legs.” If someone is in a power chair or scooter; if someone is on crutches or using a cane; if someone is leaning on someone or something I still consider them to be “standing.” Similarly, if I have a conversation with a non-speaking or Deaf friend via text or IM, I still view that as us “talking.” I don’t think that “talking” has to mean speaking aloud. I consider people to be “using their voice” if they email, tweet, or otherwise share their thoughts.
But it isn’t about what I think or how I perceive these terms (not to mention the way I worded it was far less than ideal). It’s about the way they are typically perceived by others. Society largely considers “standing” to mean something different than what I do. Dictionary.com defines the verb stand in this way: “to be in an upright position on the feet.” Its secondary definition is “to rise to one’s feet.”
Merriam-Webster dictionary provides the following primary definition for the verb stand: “to be in or take an upright position on the feet.” It does provide a more inclusive definition as the secondary definition: “to take up or stay in a specified position or condition.” But primary definitions are often considered the “main” definition of a word.
There are other dictionaries that take a more holistic view of what it means to stand that is less ableist, such as the Cambridge dictionary: “to be on your feet or to get into a vertical position or to put someone or something into a vertical position,” but you get the point.
I did not clarify what I meant, and thus I othered the people in the room who are in wheelchairs, have limited mobility, or who might be technically able to stand but are not comfortable doing so. I effed up.
I didn’t mean any harm. But no one does when they are being ableist, or racist, or homophobic, or whatever. It isn’t about my intentions, though; it’s about the results of my actions. I know I am not perfect, but it grieves me to think that by being careless and not communicating clearly I unnecessarily added to the micro-aggressions that people already deal with all day every day.
In a room full of people, many of whom are living with HIV, I had no right to request anyone to “stand” knowing the issues with neuropathy, joint pain, inflammation, bone thinning and loss, and aging that are prevalent within some, perhaps several, of those present. And as an Autistic woman who comes off as an extrovert but is actually an extreme introvert, I should have known better than to request that people stand, knowing how uncomfortable it might be for some people to have to stand up while everyone is looking at you – even if you are standing up with numerous other people. The presence of other people standing too doesn’t lessen the anxiety factor. There could have been, and likely were, people with social anxiety or other things that might have made being asked to stand uncomfortable.
I could have easily inserted a statement that made it clear what “standing” meant. I could have offered people an opportunity to raise their hand instead, or to identify themselves in some other way that more people would be likely to participate in without being left out. Or something.
But nope. I didn’t do any of that. And even worse, it wasn’t until this morning that I realized how completely messed up my choices were.
I lived three decades of my life not knowing I was Autistic. I am still navigating my identity as a disabled woman. I embrace it – just as I embrace being African, being a woman, being black, being Christian, being a parent. I’m not struggling with accepting who I am. But I cannot deny that the ableist construct that permeates society has impacted me, and in some ways I still have problematic aspects of my language and actions that are still in the process of being purged. I need to be more mindful. It isn’t okay to make people feel like crap because I was imprecise. I don’t get a “pass” on my screw up because people might think that I’m a nice person.
To anyone who was in the room whom I offended, whether you are abled or disabled, I am truly sorry. To anyone who was not in the room whom I offended, I apologize. And maybe you weren’t offended, but were disappointed. Or saddened. Or shocked. Or annoyed or angered. Whatever emotion I caused you to feel, I take ownership and I take responsibility. I effed up, and I was wrong. My intentions don’t erase the reality. Please know that I recognize why this wasn’t appropriate, I regret it, and I will try hard to do better, God as my witness.
And if you’re reading this and you’re like me – someone who should know better – or if you haven’t done something like this, but don’t know how you would handle it if you unintentionally misspoke in a similar manner, I hope that you learn from me. Be thoughtful of what you say and do before you say and do it. Constantly evaluate yourself after the fact also to make sure you are not alienating others. Know that you are never “too good” to apologize and to improve.
Thank you to all of you whom I learn from every day. Bit by bit, I hope I am shaping up to be who God made me to be.
|Image is a meme whose text reads, “Own your mistakes. That’s the only way to own your success.” -Hrithik Roshan (Source: rainboz dot com)|