Ableism and Social Stigma – My Story

I learned a new word the other day. Ableism.

Ableism is a form of discrimination or social prejudice against people with disabilities… Similar to many of the assumptions underlying the medical model of disability amongst many clinicians, the “ableist” societal world-view is that the able-bodied are the norm in society, and that people who have disabilities must either strive to become that norm or should keep their distance from able-bodied people. A disability is thus, inherently, a “bad” thing that must be overcome. The ableist worldview holds that disability is an error, a mistake, or a failing, rather than a simple consequence of human diversity, akin to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender – Wikipedia.com

Ableism is very similar to social stigma.

Social stigma is the extreme disapproval of (or discontent with) a person or group on socially characteristic grounds that are perceived, and serve to distinguish them, from other members of a society. Stigma may then be affixed to such a person, by the greater society, who differs from their cultural norms. Wikipedia.com

According to the U.S. Government, I have been disabled since 2003. In my case, the severity of my illness caused me to not be able to work or keep a job. I have tried to work during this time, but it always ends in disaster. Because of this, I have been receiving SSDI benefits, except for one year when Social Security tried to take me off the program by having a medical doctor prove I could work. I had to reapply for benefits and it took me a year to get them back and caused me to be away from my family in the Philippines and miss my daughter’s birth and the first year of her life.

When I first began to receive benefits, if people asked what I did for a living I would tell them I was disabled. They invariably looked me over to try and find the reason, and when I told them it was because of my mental illness, they looked at me or mentioned that I was just trying to avoid working. To them, I was lazy because they felt I should be able to work because “I just had a mental problem.” In their eyes a mental illness was not a real disability. A real disability was fatal cancer or missing a limb. With a mental illness, I should just be able to “suck it up” and work no matter what.

What if other illnesses were treated like mental illness?

After a while, I stopped telling people I was disabled, because of how different they treated me. Earlier on, I would just say I was a freelance web designer (which in a way I was because I used to sometimes build sites for people) and now I just tell people I am a writer. It’s not until I really get to know a person that I tell them the truth, and many times I still get a bad reaction. Just saying the word “disabled” to someone changes their perception of you.

Even though I receive benefits from the U.S. Government, I have chosen to live in the Philippines. This is totally legal – I am not breaking any laws. Because of this, people think I am “living it up” in paradise on the government dime, but nothing could be farther from the truth. I moved to the Philippines for several reasons. One, it’s much cheaper to live here, and that helps because it is very hard to survive on what the government pays you in benefits. And, everything is so expensive in the States – rent, food, gas. The other reason is that my wife and daughter are Filipino and I don’t make enough money to bring them to live in the States.

Here in the Philippines, Ableism is the norm. People who are disabled are laughed at and looked down upon, so I am very careful who I tell about my situation. Even the foreigners who live here frown at me for being on benefits, even though for most of my life, I paid into the Social Security system in case something bad happened to me.

Because I am so tired of explaining why I am on benefits, I have been looking for ways to make money so I can remove myself from SSDI. There are very few jobs for foreigners here, and the ones that are available pay so little, that I couldn’t survive and provide for my family. So I am starting my own business, and I hope one day soon to be able to call myself a writer and entrepreneur.

It’s really a shame how someone who is disabled is treated in this world, and I am a little more than embarrassed that I haven’t fought harder against Ableism and Stigma. But, it’s just hard enough for me to make it through each day, and when you are just trying to survive, it’s hard to practice activism.

I hope one day soon that will change I can do my part to destroy these words from our vocabulary.

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