Let me start by saying that I respect people’s need for re-framing techniques and stress management. I really do. Even people who are mentally and physically average through and through who have no notable impairments whatsoever still get into very bad situations and struggle to cope. I don’t begrudge all of them their coping. However, sometimes their very public displays of coping run headfirst into my coping and others’ coping and make it harder. It is at that point that it becomes a problem.
I will share a few prominent strains of ableism I’m observed in inspirational materials.
1) Erasure of the disabled/the possibility that disability exists
One graphic, typical of the genre, reads “if you want to be happy, be.” This may make some kind of sense to someone who is psychologically healthy, but is complete balderdash to someone with a painful and severe mental illness. The assumption that everyone has an unlimited potential for emotional regulation is really irritating. If this statement makes sense to you, why not just enjoy your mental control and capacity for self regulation? Why broadly share this thing that erases the reality of others who struggle profoundly with emotional regulation?
Another graphic cheerfully pronounces that “you (presumably anyone) are only one workout away from a good mood.” Again, while that may be true for some portion of the population, many are embroiled in a protracted battle for mood stabilization for which there is no “cheat,” while many others are forced to endure excruciating exercises in service of debilitating health conditions. Someone may not see the big deal here, but these microagressions and moments of isolation for one person who has severe depression and another person with a newer prosthetic limb really add up to quite a shit pile of bad feels.
Another common inspirational phrase “pain is just weakness leaving your body” is the kind of thing you would feel very rude saying to someone going through chemotherapy, or with fibromyalgia or rheumatoid arthritis, but people do that exact thing every day by broadly sharing these image macros.
2) Content that really takes an unfortunate, discouraging meaning when it collides with a disabled person
This fitness inspirational graphic loudly pronounces “you earn your body.” While, on its own, it is already pretty rude and has a substantial whiff of fat shaming, it is an enormous, egregious “fuck you” to anyone with a physical disability.
This emotional regulation mantra “positive thinking will let you do everything better than negative thinking will” may seem like a gentle reminder, an obvious truism to someone who is mentally healthy. To someone with severe anxiety or depression, it’s like someone is gloating about their superior ability. It’s like they’re sort of rubbing it in that your disability presents obstacles to your functioning.
Another one that takes a very unfortunate meaning for people living with severe anxiety, this graphic reads “A head full of fears has no space for dreams.” This is a pretty harsh message of hopelessness for a fear disordered person, in service of a flowery reminder to the abled to chill out occasionally. Is it really necessary?
3) Brazen exploitation
This graphic shows two pictures of one legged men, possibly the same man. The one on the left is average in build but the one on the right is an advanced body builder. It is meant to resemble a “before and after” fitness comparison and is labeled with the phrase “excuses: let’s hear yours again.” First of all, I’m not convinced these are even the same guy, not because men with one leg can’t go from being average to being body builders, but because it just doesn’t look like the same guy to me. The idea that someone might juxtapose two disabled guys, conflating them as more or less the same because leg, and using them this way is staggeringly gross, but I can’t prove it. Second, and more importantly, I’m not sure why the man in the “after” picture became a body builder, but it is very unlikely that he did it in order to scold people who “make excuses” not to work out. It was clearly something that was very important to him and probably very personal. Repurposing his image and story in this way (and probably without his permission) is extremely exploitative.
This graphic features what looks like probably a stock photo of a guy in a wheelchair superimposed with the quote “The only disability in life is a bad attitude.” This quote is attributed to Scott Hamilton, a guy who is not only not a disabled person, but is an elite olympic athlete, an industry notoriously inaccessible to the physically disabled (yes, I do know there are exceptions). Needless to say, people in wheelchairs aren’t using them for your uplifting moments or daily affirmations. They’re just using them. To live their lives. Don’t exploit that to simulate sentimentality.
There is an abundance of inspirational material that seems to advise people to shun people with emotional difficulties, for fear of their contagion. Sure, one can argue that these images are speaking about meanies and haters as opposed to disabled people trapped in a depressive funk or an anxiety loop, but that is rarely clear. If that’s the case, why leave the ambiguity?
This graphic reads “you can’t keep a clean reputation hanging out with messy people”
This one reads “the less you respond to negative people, the more peaceful your life will become.”
This one reads “Protect your spirit from contamination. Limit your time with negative people.”
So, enough of this shit, alright? Like if you enjoy it privately and it holds a constrained, non-ableist meaning for you, that’s cool, but if you blast it in a public forum, it’s going to hit some people. Peace.