Expanding understandings of ableism
I don’t deserve the casual ableism of being defined by my illness; none of us do. But I so often find that I am defined in this way, or at least feel that I am, to the point where the rest of my personhood becomes valueless. Chronic depression, for me, exhibits some symptoms, which are rightfully pathologised and others, which, as far as I can see, are less rightfully pathologised. It is both an illness and a disability, the meaning of which must be evaluated.
Disability is socially constructed; it is not conferred to people by virtue of an inherent incapacity to thrive or to live well and freely. Disability describes a compromised ability to meet societally imposed demands, Western capitalist ones, in particular. It is because of this that we construct disability to represent such a diversity of states and conditions, both physical and mental. We have a tendency to conceptualise disability in purely physical terms, because we sometimes operate under the assumption that we, in post-industrialised societies, retain a greater degree of psychological agency than we do, and because we maintain an individualistic value system.
But in so doing, we often fail to consider how our understanding of ability extends to affect regulation and our valuation of personality. When we consider disability, we primarily relate it to productivity, because it is indeed borne out of the capitalist prescription that value can only be achieved through some form of market labour participation. And as such, when we expand our definition of disability to include mental health conditions, it takes little effort, as we see the disabling aspects of such conditions as those which inhibit task completion.
For example, I experience both hypersomnia and insomnia, both of which produce intense lethargy, resulting in frequent lateness. I am afflicted by automatic negative thoughts, panic anxiety and distressing cognitive loops, the result being that I may have to take time away from work due to inhibited focus. People understand why the above collections of symptoms can be disabling because of their very obvious inhibition of productivity.
However, is there are an argument for considering heightened rejection sensitivity, emotional dysregulation and social withdrawal under the same arch of constructed disability? Are we not held to inaccessible standards in these domains of experience too? And does the conventionality of our communication not influence the level at which we might engage with production?
Universal accessibility can never be assured. But I want to push us to further consider how we might enact ableism when we monitor, reject, seek to control or discriminate on the grounds of ‘socially’ aberrant modes of emotional expression and reactivity.
As a depressed person, I often experience stigma because I struggle to regulate my emotions in a way that is considered normal. Being typecast on the basis of at least partially uncontrollable aspects of your personhood, or your identity, is always unpleasant. But beyond that, it is oppressive, and, therefore, painful.
When oppression is enacted upon us, we undertake processes of adaptation to mitigate the impact of stress. We can only handle so much and carry so much resilience.
Now because it causes me significant distress, it may appear that my emotional aberrance is pathological. And I would agree that the strain caused indicates that there are aspects of my affective functioning that warrant treatment, and which I very much perceive as illness. However, much of this strain derives from stigmatisation, from the external affliction of oppressive standards, such that treatment, as would be the case with any pathological invasion, should focus, rather, on supporting internal mechanisms to limit damage. The focus should not be on reform. It is not my responsibility to undergo a process of self-modification because my social behaviour is incompatible with accepted norms.
Of course, none of the above means anything without being rooted in wider oppressive power structures. And of course, individual protection does still matter. I am not arguing that all diverse forms of emotional regulation should be accepted, even if they cause significant harm to others, for the sake of critiquing normativity. But it is clear that, the persistent policing and stigmatisation of often innocuous variations in our emotional output and processing, as a result of neurodiversity, is far from innocuous, may cause significant harm, progressively constitute trauma and, therefore, is an act of violence.
It is hard in this world to differentiate between aspects of yourself, which seem to warrant reform because they cause personal distress or because they clash with oppressive imposition. Of course, these two strands cannot be separated. But our understanding of ableism and accessibility sometimes doesn’t go far enough, and we would benefit from applying our conceptualisation and general understanding of the effects and genesis of discriminatory aggression to more nuanced emotional and social contexts.