Save Me from Ableism and Ageism

Image provided by United Church Homes.

By Kim Moeller, M.Div., Abundant Aging Education & Program Specialist at the Ruth Frost Parker Center for Abundant Aging, United Church Homes. Reprinted with permission from United Church Homes Parker Center blog.

I am handicapped. There … I said it.

As a result of a runaway infection, I have had a prosthetic left leg for almost seven years. That was followed two years later by a mismanaged broken right ankle that delivers intense pain when I am on my feet for any length of time. Consequently, if I have to walk very far or stand for more than three or four minutes, I’ll use my wheelchair.

I have been asked why I don’t use crutches. The implication seemed to be that the wheelchair communicates that I am “old,” whereas crutches mean “injury” and make me seem younger. (That may be true until I trip over one of crutches and fall flat on my face; I have always been a bit clumsy even in the best of circumstances.) I have also been asked about using a cane or a walker. And here is where I must admit to my own implicit bias because to me a walker or a cane signals “old.”

I Have an Impairment

I have a hard time using the word “handicapped” to describe myself. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines handicapped as “having a physical or mental disability.” For me, the word puts a focus on the idea that something in my life/body is missing, broken, or abnormal (and just what is normal?). The word “handicapped” makes me feel “less than.”

What words would I prefer? Handicapable? For me, that is a hard no. Physically challenged? Maybe. Disabled? No, for the same reason as handicapped. But for me, person-first language is my preference and I am most likely to say, “I am a person with an impairment.” There is no perfect description, because even the definition of impairment — a function being weakened or damaged — implies a “less than” state of being.

The thing is, everyone may have a different opinion on how they would like their impairment to be described. If you have any question, ask them their preference.

I Am Aging

I also have lived for more than six decades. To be more specific, I am 63 and my hair is completely gray (or silver as I call it when I read, “silver hairstyles are currently trending. They are a perfect choice for women of all ages!”). Just when did we get so very fearful at continuing to live longer that we even worry that our hair will reveal the secret if our true age?

When I am in my wheelchair, I am often surprised by the number of people who ask if I would like them to help by pushing my chair or helping me to get my chair out of the back of my car. Most often I say no, because I believe myself to be fiercely independent. (See my blog, “You Have Permission to Ask for Help.)

But there are times, like needing to go to the other side of a massive convention center or airport, where I will say yes to offers of help. I have considered myself lucky that there are so many kind people in the world. But now, I wonder. A friend asked me if I had ever considered that so many people offer to help because, with my grey hair, they think I am much older and, because of the chair, that I am incapable of being independent. Mmmm …  Something I had not considered.

Ageism and Ableism Defined

Am I the object of both AGEISM and ABLEISM? Ageism is defined by the World Health Organization as “the stereotypes (how we think), prejudices (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) towards others or oneself based on age.” Researcher and author Dr. Tracey Gendron defined Ableism as a “set of beliefs and practices that places value and judgment on physical, cognitive, and intellectual ability.” She goes on to quote F.A. Campbell as saying that disability is then cast “as a diminished state of being.”

I may very well be the object of both ageism and ableism. So what will I do about it? First, I need to look at my own ageist and ableist beliefs. You can see for yourself my ableist/ageist thinking in believing a cane or a walker communicate “old” and less valuable. Interestingly, I am somehow certain that in my wheelchair, I am assumed to be the same as if I were not in a wheelchair. Self-delusion? Most definitely.

Dr. Gendron and her co-authors write in the Background and Objectives of her most recent research paper, The Next Critical Turn for Ageism Research: The Intersections of Ageism and Ableism, “Given the natural occurrence of physical decline accompanying aging, it is essential to understand if fear and prejudice toward disability (ableism) intersect and influence fear and anxiety about aging (ageism). The results of the research showed “internalized ageism was significantly positively correlated with internalized ableism for physical, cognitive, and sensory disability as well as relational ableism.” Relational ableism is the concern about being judged by others based on disability.

So take a moment to ponder. If, as Dr. Gendron says, much of the “stigma and fear regarding aging appears to be grounded in ableism,” can you be more specific about any aging fears you may have? For some, the fear might be physical decline or disability. For others, it might be a fear of cognitive decline and disability, such as dementia. For still others, it might be a fear of being seen as irrelevant, or being ignored and disregarded. Do you believe you can have a good life even as you age or experience an impairment? Will you have meaning and purpose in your life?

How do your thoughts about aging and impairment affect how you make your way in the world? United Church Homes supports its residents to age abundantly. That means finding purpose in each day, making new social connections and embracing positivity, maintaining choice and control over their lives. It can also mean contributing to the greater good. What will you do to age abundantly?

The Parker Center is hosting its eighth annual symposium on ageism Oct. 6. The keynote will be delivered by Dr. Tracey Gendron. Learn more and register.

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