The dehumanization of mentally and physically disabled people is a bigger problem than you may think, and it’s the average, well-meaning, neurotypical and able-bodied person that is the biggest perpetrator.
Now, dehumanization is a big, bad sounding word. One that makes you say, “no, no, I’d never do that,” and, “I think disabled people are brave, it’s amazing they can get through every day, so this isn’t about me.” Unfortunately, this is absolutely about you.
Let’s start with a very common thing people say, which is that disabled people are brave. In plenty of cases, that’s a true, positive thing to say, but it isn’t always. When you say that all disabled people are brave, it’s not only a generalization but also perpetuates the idea that a disability is a monster of a thing that makes every waking moment an impossible struggle. In some cases, that’s true, but in a lot of other cases, it’s not. People are not their disability. It’s only a part of them, something they have to deal with, something that can even affect their life in a positive way. You’re warping their disability into an evil villain that it’s not.
Beyond claiming that all disabled people are “brave,” saying that you could never handle being disabled is even worse. It is not the compliment you think it is. Take a hard look at the implications of what you’re saying. You couldn’t “handle” being disabled? Disabled people don’t get to choose if they want to “handle” their disability or not. They have to “handle” it. You are essentially saying that you consider a disabled life to be one too difficult to be worth living, and that is very, very far from alright.
The dehumanization of the physically disabled and mentally ill is more than words. It’s pitying someone with Down syndrome for simply existing as they are. It’s befriending the kid in a wheelchair just because they’re in a wheelchair. It’s seeing an autistic person as an inspiration for simply living their life. It’s giving disabled people no more of a role in film and literature than to be the sick, sad person for one tear-jerker scene or immediately discarding a character from the main plot when they get injured or develop a mental illness. Disabled people have personalities, aspirations, hobbies, and a life like your own. They are far more than just disabled.
This type of ableism often does not come from a place of hate, but a place of misunderstanding. These prejudices can be unlearned if you make an effort to not assume or stereotype. Even if you think something is a “good” stereotype, you should remember that an assumption is still an assumption, and that assumption may not be as good as it sounds on the surface. Be careful of your words and be careful of your actions. It’s hard to break habits, but all we can do is try our very best. Just remember: always see the person first, and their disability as one of their many, many puzzle pieces.