Comparing ageism and ableism—what are some lessons?

Disability rights activist Simi Linton’s memoir, My Body Politic, shook up my thinking on topics ranging from sex to suicide, and got me comparing ableism and ageism. We act as though old people never become disabled and disabled people never grow old, despite the fact that one third of disabled Americans are sixty-five or older, and that the same medical advances that have swelled the number of people with disabilities are keeping more and more of the rest of us alive long enough to join their ranks.

It doesn’t take much head-scratching to figure out that a tremendous amount of ageism is rooted in fear of becoming disabled. It didn’t really surprise me when a 38-year-old friend stuck to crutches after foot surgery rather than switch to a cane; all those old-people-with-cane signs cast a long shadow. The stigma is so powerful that it’s not uncommon for olders to refuse to use walkers or wheelchairs—even if the alternative is being homebound. A geriatrician at Weill Cornell bemoaned the fact that many of her patients shun walkers, including a 78-year-old patient who’s disabled by MS and keeps falling, yet who snarls when offered a seat on the bus. My partner’s parents weren’t happy renting wheelchairs during a trip Iceland for his mother’s 90th birthday last June, because we wanted to see more than their painfully slow—and painful—gaits would have allowed.

 This seems nuts. The bull looks different, I know, but I’m pretty sure I’m going to love having my grandchildren scoot me around Helsinki or the Hermitage. Wheelchairs will be cooler after we boomers fully commodify them, and they go way more places thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. But I have a lot to learn, so I was thrilled when my partner’s high-school girlfriend offered to introduce me to Linton, her friend since childhood. (New Yorkers all, but still, what are the odds?)

 Simi took an evening off from promoting her wonderful new film, Invitation to Dance, to have dinner with me and had the best opener ever: “This chair rocks, and”—pointing to her wheelchair—“this chair rolls!” (That night she also tweaked the excellent disability rights motto, “Nothing about us without us” that night by simplifying it to “Nothing without us.”) I peppered her with questions, her answer to many of them was “Read Chapter Two,” so I did. This second book, Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity, is a call to incorporate disability studies into the liberal arts. A little specialized for me, but the book’s broader intent is anything but.

 Linton rejects the medicalization of disability, and writes that the ways in which disability is covered over, layered with meaning, and rendered invisible are “not inevitable reactions to human conditions labeled disabilities but devices used to sort human beings according to the social and economic needs of a society. She also challenges the centrality—even the possibility—of “normalcy” as a universal position from which disabled people deviate. “Rather, it is a category of people whose power and cultural capital keep them at the center,” Linton writes. So, too, with race. As historian Robin D. G. Kelley says: “Race was never just a matter of how you look, it’s about how people assign meaning to how you look.” So too with age . . . or only to some degree? Since everyone ages, the binary operates differently. On that axis we all move into and out of the group with the cultural capital. What are the implications—for identity, visibility, coalition-building? I’m chewing on it. Analogies between “isms” are inherently complex, and problematic in ways that I’m just beginning to understand. 

 All, however, are socially constructed ideas that have changed over time and serve a social and economic purpose. Each “is a linchpin in a complex web of social ideals, institutional structures, and government policies.” Those are Linton’s words, about disability alone. Nevertheless they explain why so many people in aging policy, indoctrinated by the deficit model on which their salaries and dogma depend, are deaf to the argument that the biggest impediments to a decent old age are prejudice and structural discrimination. When it comes to late life, the overlap with ableism is huge. Yet this goes unstated, by Linton as well.

 Most of us will age into some degree of disability, which is why I used to quote the saying, “We’re all disabled sometime.” I don’t say it any more, because Linton feels that until ableism is in full retreat, it’s important not to blur the line between those who identify as disabled and whose daily lives are affected by it, and the rest of us. In the same vein, since the early 90s the term “disabled people” has supplanted “people with disabilities” in disability rights circles because it highlights the identity that the group wishes to call attention to. “I started calling myself a disabled woman because it influences my life in so many ways,” Linton told me. 

 I’ve proposed a diametrically opposite approach when it comes to age as an identifier, because it plays a far bigger role than it should. Let’s downgrade it. Let’s omit it from newspaper stories unless they’re obituaries or describe prodigies. Let’s omit it from dating sites as first-order screening information. Let’s follow the example of gender-nonconforming people and start identifying as age-nonconforming when filling out anything except on legal forms, suggests social worker Natalia Granger. Let’s identify as age queer, proposes environmental activist Colin Beavan, who “isn’t comfortable with the roles and stereotypes associated with the age of the body I was born into.” He acknowledges that it’s appropriation, which will both attract and repel, and points out that it suggests solidarity. Or make like biochemist Silvia Moreira, who refuses to give her age, not because she wants people to take her for younger but because she is acutely aware of how age functions as a shorthand, a way to contextualize accomplishments and calibrate expectations, and refuses to be pigeonholed in that way. Her consciousness makes it a radical act. I think it’s important to claim my 61 years, but at the same time challenge its primacy and value as a signifier. Identity is tricky.

 Do Linton’s and my narratives diverge because of inherent differences between ageism and ableism, or because a radical aging movement has yet to develop? Linton is at the forefront of a movement that has won significant civil rights victories and created a community of people with disabilities, >no small feat given the hetereogeneity of the population. The new century has seen the emergence of disability pride: “I’m disabled, hear me roar.” Age pride has yet to come into being. It will.  

One thought on “Comparing ageism and ableism—what are some lessons?

  1. Well, this is terrifically interesting. This on-line conversation, and the one we had in the restaurant. There are a couple of places where I would like to tussle with your position. I do not agree that we hold divergent views on the identification of age/disability. For instance, you state: “I’ve proposed a diametrically opposite approach when it comes to age as an identifier, because it plays a far bigger role than it should. Let’s downgrade it.”

    While I use the term disabled woman/person, rather than woman with a disability [which is known as person-first terminology] to “upgrade” my disability status as primary, I almost NEVER identify my impairment in a public forum. I want to forefront my social/political positioning, but downgrade [basically dismiss] my “condition” to a non-issue – irrelevant and personal. The distinction between impairment and disability [discussed in the aforementioned Chapter Two of Claiming Disability] is critical here. In brief, it is a distinction analogous to sex and gender in womens studies.

    I agree that the inclusion of the age of individuals in news articles is ridiculous and problematic, and almost alway irrelevant.

    Also – I suggest avoiding the term used above “deaf to the argument “.

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