It's time to shut down ableism and its microaggressions

ABLEISM, or ableist thinking - what is it? Some of you reading this might have heard of this term.

Basically, ableism is active or passive prejudice directed at people with physical or mental disabilities.

This prejudice can take many forms and a person living with a disability can face ableist attitudes that come from many different people on a daily basis, such as family members, teachers, employers or strangers.

And one key way ableism can hit hard is through microagressions.

Microagressions are the everyday slights, insults, put-downs and indignities that people - such as people with disabilities and other marginalised groups - face in their day-to-day interactions with people.

They can often appear as complements, but contain a backhanded insult to the person on the receiving end.

And before you step to think this is something that doesn't happen here in Malaysia, let me set you straight.

Microaggressions form a barrier of prejudice that Malaysians with disabilities have to deal with every day, as my friend Amanda Kong Hwei Zhen pointed out when I asked her about her experiences as a Malaysian living with visual impairments.

"For instance, people tend to stare at me and my family for a long time before shaking their head or giving a sad smile whenever I go out shopping with my family or go on a holiday with them.

“Some might pluck up the courage to ask my family about my condition and most of those who ask are shocked to learn that I managed to survive school and college," said Kong, who is a first class honors law graduate from the University of Liverpool.

Kong added that other prejudicial microaggressions came in the form of how people questioned the capabilities of people with disabilities.

"People tend to ask me the same questions when I tell them I'm pursuing a law degree.

“They ask me when I am going to start work, they question whether I can find a job and whether I can work as I am blind.

“I was rather taken aback by these negative assumptions, and I do hope this will change as every person deserves to be given a chance to pursue their dreams," said Kong.

She also pointed out other challenges she faced in a world that's primarily designed for people who do not live with disabilities like hers.

"There is prejudice in terms of the facilities to aid our daily lives. We need more accessible, safer walkways and more accessible public amenities like ATMs.

“And it is time to begin changing perceptions about seeing-eye or guide dogs," said Kong.

Indeed, speaking with Kong reminded me of other microaggressions faced by young Malaysians with different disabilities, a fact that was highlighted when I spoke to Unicef Malaysia senior child protection specialist Phenny Kakama earlier this year.

"Many people in Malaysia think children with disabilities are inferior or lesser in terms of capacity, in terms of abilities and that is taken for granted.

“The result of that is that many people do not attempt to provide these children with the opportunity to demonstrate their capabilities, which they could if they were supported," said Kakama.

Kakama pointed out that Unicef Malaysia's 2012 study found that only 1% of all children with disabilities in Malaysia were in the public school system, either in inclusive education programs or in special needs classes.

He added that prejudice is still a clear barrier excluding Malaysian children with disabilities from equal access to facilities, services and opportunities like other children.

"A challenge comes from our own prejudices and misconceptions about these children, which translates into how we look at them and interact with them - it can reinforce stereotypes about their disabilities.

This can mean that children with disabilities do not receive the support they deserve, the support they are entitled to," said Kakama.

And aside from education, these microagressions are also present in other areas - such as in our health system, as I have seen doctors in government hospitals choose to speak to the patient's caregiver as opposed to speaking directly to the patient as soon as they learned the patient was deaf.

From where I stood as I watched the way these doctors acted, it seemed as if they were operating under the belief that the patient in the consultation room was mentally incapable of responding to them without even checking to see if that was truly the case.

In these circumstances, can you truly blame the patient for being hesitant to form a proper working relationship with these doctors?

At this point, I'll also add this - it isn't just people with physical disabilities who face microaggressions- as those with mental health issues face them too, as those around them choose to invalidate what they are going through by minimizing the symptoms someone experiences such as believing that because they can function in certain ways the mental illness must not be severe.

They could face patronizing statements like "“He was out riding a bike. I don't think there's anything wrong with him", aimed at trivialising or diminishing the seriousness of the mental health challenges faced by an individual.

So, having said all this - how can we overcome the hurt that microaggressions and ableist prejudice cause?

I asked Kong this, and she gave me a solid suggestion.

"Malaysians should keep an open mind and try their best to challenge their pre-conceived notions about people with disabilities.

“People who have the capabilities to do so should channel their strengths to work together with us to help change how society views people with disabilities," she said.

And Kong has a good point there. If we can play a role to help lift the barriers of prejudice in our personal or professional capacity, I believe we should do it - and this is a point echoed by Columbia University Professor Derald Wing Sue in his advice into steps to curb microaggressions against marginalised groups.

"Learn from constant vigilance of your own biases and fears. Don't be defensive when your missteps are pointed out, and be open to discussing your own attitudes and biases and how they may have hurt others or in some sense revealed bias on your part.

“Finally, be an ally. Speak up against bias," said the author of Microagressions in Everyday Life.

So, with all this in mind - I believe we can all do our part to end ableism and ableist microaggressions. This is something we should all do, as everyone has a right to be let into society and given a fair chance.
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ableism , microaggressions , health , tan yi liang


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