Can non-disabled people experience ableism? Short answer? Yes. This week, we discuss this fact in a very specific circumstance.
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TRANSCRIPT OF “IS IT ABLEIST?”
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MALE VO [00:03]
This is Bad Attitudes.
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Hello friends and strangers! Welcome to another episode of Bad Attitudes: An Uninspiring Podcast about Disability. I’m your host, Laura.
Fun fact: You can experience ableism without being disabled.
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As always, I want to remind you that disability is not a monolith. My experience as a disabled person is going to be different from the experiences of other disabled people. I am one voice for the disabled community but I am not the only voice.
I have a close friend who is training to be a postpartum doula. For the unaware (like me,) a postpartum doula, according to americanpregnancy.org, “provides evidence-based information on things such as infant feeding, emotional and physical recovery from birth, mother-baby bonding, infant soothing, and basic newborn care.”
She contacted me a couple of weeks ago with some questions about ableism, and I am always down for discussions about ableism with someone who is genuinely interested in learning and becoming better. Without going in to all the details about giving birth and stuff, she essentially wanted to know if a particular phrase she had heard in her training was ableist. For a bit of context, this phrase came about as a result of acknowledging that some women — particularly women of color — have experienced forced intervention in births. In effect, they have been forced into having unnecessary c-sections for example. But, as a result of acknowledging the treatment of women of color in giving birth, the certifying bodies have perhaps gone too far in the other direction.
The particular phrase my friend has a problem with: The body knows what to do.
Now, fully acknowledging that I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ no babies, the phrase is definitely problematic. But, is it ableist? That’s a tougher question to answer. If the birthing parent in question is disabled, absolutely, saying that “the body knows what to do” would be ableist.
The, quote, “official” definition of ableism is prioritizing non-disabled bodies over disabled bodies. However, I would say that at it’s most basic, ableism is the prioritizing of “normal” bodies over “abnormal” bodies. And because so few people fit the narrow definition of “normal,” it stands to reason that many people who would not necessarily be considered disabled have experienced ableism because their bodies are “abnormal.”
My friend had a lot of trouble giving birth and both of her children were born by c-section. She is not what anyone would call traditionally disabled. Yet, the idea that “the body knows what to do” when giving birth is fundamentally incorrect in her case. Her body, in fact, did NOT know what to do. In that sense, yes, saying “the body knows what to do” is ableist.
According to the CDC, in the United States in 2020, 861 women died as a result of pregnancy and childbirth, an increase of over 200 deaths since 2018. Admittedly, when you consider the total number of live births in the US during 2020, it can seem like a deceptively small number. But, if “the body knows what to do,” why is anyone dying of childbirth in the 21st century? It seems to me that if “the body knows what to do,” no one giving birth would need a doctor, midwife, or doula. If “the body knows what to do,” then women could quite literally squat down wherever they are and drop a baby.
But we all know that that isn’t reality.
In reality, childbearing is INCREDIBLY dangerous. It is the sixth most common cause of death among women between the ages of 20 and 34 in the United States. Any number of incidents could make pregnancy and childbirth a dangerous proposition, could make medical intervention a necessity. The idea that “the body knows what to do” sets a highly dangerous precedent for making people giving birth feel like failures if their bodies don’t, in fact, know what to do.
No one should be forced into having a c-section or other medical intervention during childbirth if it isn’t necessary and if it isn’t what that person wants. But neither should anyone be shamed for needing intervention to safely give birth.
That being said, is the idea of “the body knows what to do” ableist? Strictly speaking, yes. If the person giving birth is disabled, then it is absolutely ableist. If the person is not disabled, then it’s kind of like the idea of a white person experiencing racism. Can a white person experience racism? Theoretically, yes. But white people don’t suffer systemic oppression due to racism. So, yes, technically, non-disabled people can experience ableism. But, they don’t suffer systemic oppression due to ableism. So it probably would not be beneficial for them to claim ableism in this case.
There are plenty of ways to address this statement without saying ableism. Call it problematic. Say that is denies the reality of some people’s bodies. Acknowledge that it’s DANGEROUS. All of these are true. Perpetuating an idea like “the body knows what to do” is going to push people into staying silent when they would benefit from intervention. It’s going to bring people shame when their bodies don’t follow a textbook definition of pregnancy and childbirth. And people are going to be harmed.
If you’re in the position of giving birth and you want to claim ableism, you are free to do so. I’m not gatekeeping disability. If you identify as disabled, then as far as I’m concerned, you ARE disabled, unless and until you do or say something to make me think otherwise.
So, to recap. Is the idea that “the body knows what to do” ableist? A lot depends on context. If the person giving birth is disabled and they are denied necessary intervention because “the body knows what to do” then it is absolutely ableist. Asserting that a disabled person’s body “knows what to do” denies the reality of that disabled body.
If the person giving birth is not disabled, it is still technically an ableist concept, but because non-disabled people do not experience systemic oppression due to ableism, it is probably best to object in a different way.
Regardless of whether it is ableist, the idea that “the body knows what to do” is HIGHLY problematic. It disregards any issues that make it difficult or even impossible for a body to know what to do. It forces shame upon people for occurrences over which they have no control. It will drive people to remain silent instead of seeking out needing medical intervention or care.
Of course, none of this gives non-disabled people permission to run around half-cocked, claiming they’re victims of ableism. By and large, ableism is the purview of the disabled community. The intention is to illustrate how statements and actions that, on the surface, seem fairly innocuous can become something much more sinister. Ultimately all I’m hoping for here is that, if we stop perpetuating ableist attitudes against non-disabled people, maybe eventually it will carry over for the rest of us.
Thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you in the next one.
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