Hello everyone. I did a lay-led sermon at my Unitarian Universalist fellowship on July 17th, 2022. This was edited to remove the names of people from my congregation and I also went off-script a few times. Before I share my sermon, I have two things I need to share first:
- Unitarian Universalism has Seven Principles in which guide our morals. The link from the governing body shares the seven principles. The first two principles are:
- We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of everyone.
- We affirm and promote justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.
- Trigger Warning! This post will talk about ableism and will mention the ableist r-slur twice (in the context that I tell people to stop saying it). If these are triggering for you, please stop reading this blog post. Thank you.
Earlier this year after the Disability Day of Mourning vigil, my minister said that disability issues should continue to be talked about, so I’m doing that now.
Many people don’t know this, but every March, the disabled community remembers those who were victims of the mindset “It’s better to be dead than disabled.” These are the people whose inherent worth and dignity were not affirmed. People who are not respected or shown compassion. People who are included in the list of people who receive no justice when something bad happens to them.
If you’re someone who believes in God, especially a God who doesn’t make mistakes, then why would you try to fix the mistake we call disabled people? Why do we not accept them for who they are and meet their needs? Why do we wish for or even try to make the mistake go away?
When I was a kid, being around disabled people, or other people who didn’t meet society’s definition of normal, was my normal. I grew up around an uncle who had autism during a time when autism wasn’t a spectrum and only people of below average intelligence could be considered autistic. He received a diagnosis during a time when it was thought best to institutionalize disabled people as they were considered a family and societal shame. It was considered okay to warehouse people like him. I didn’t know about the institutionalization of disabled people until 2010 when my cell biology professor told us about it when there were talks of my alma mater buying the property that previously held an institution for disabled people.
Many years later as an adult, I was back in the world of disabled people, but with me this time. Last year, I found out that my anxieties and social troubles are due to being autistic.
Okay, I know some of you are thinking that I don’t seem autistic. Many of those on the autism spectrum, which now includes Asperger Syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder, worry about being told that they don’t seem autistic whenever they disclose. We only disclose to people we think we trust because of it, and many on the autism spectrum may have lost friends or family members due to the diagnosis.
Not being believed is not unique to those on the autism spectrum; this is experienced by many people with invisible disabilities. It’s bad enough that doctors don’t believe their patients or take health issues seriously enough to investigate chronic illnesses more quickly. They’re told that they don’t look sick. In the words of the Devo song “Peek A Boo”, “If you cannot see it, you think it’s not there. It doesn’t work that way.” If they’re having a good day one day but aren’t feeling well the next day, people say “You were fine yesterday. What’s wrong with you?” They are often not invited to events because they may have had to cancel one too many times due to health issues. Some people may want to make their invisible disabilities more visible, but that is a risk not everyone is willing or able to take. As mentioned earlier, a person could lose friends for being disabled. They may be treated with pity, which gets annoying after awhile, especially since people don’t want to be pitied. Others will automatically assume the things you can’t do instead of figuring out what you can do, like what happened in an episode of Degrassi High.
In a season one episode from the late 80s, there is a character named Maya who is in a wheelchair. A group of friends wanted to go to a movie, but the closest movie theater was not wheelchair accessible and neither were the buses, so they didn’t invite Maya. At the end of the episode, Maya called them out on their ableism because the friends didn’t think of alternative and accessible options for her to be included. There was another movie theater in town that was wheelchair accessible and Maya’s mom could have driven her to that theater. They made a decision without her input and robbed her of her agency. It was also hinted that the friends intentionally went to an inaccessible movie and took inaccessible transportation due to being embarrassed of been seen in public with a disabled person.
As mentioned by Kim Nielsen, disability has been, and still is, used as a weapon. There are times when people use words as a way to demean people and their differences have been weaponized. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me? News flash! Words hurt and since people know the power of words, people use words as weapons against people who are different. We have used outdated names for medical conditions as slurs, for example. In high school, the autism program director did a campaign called “Spread the Word to End the Word” with the goal of people ending the use of the word “retarded”. I saw this campaign happen once when I was in college and for years, I stopped hearing that word. However, when I worked at an old job, I started hearing that word again. Calling someone out on using that slur carries a big risk of being called a “social justice warrior,” which is a term I hate so much because it is used to silence people who speak about social justice issues.
Some of you know about hostile architecture. For those who don’t know, hostile architecture is a method used to restrict behaviors using the building environment around people. This can be as obvious as spikes built on top of ledges, but can be as subtle as removing benches so people can no longer sit in certain areas that were once accessible. The original intent of hostile architecture was to keep homeless people away from urban areas so as to not make the city unattractive to tourists. However, this type of urban planning also affects other people: the elderly, pregnant people, and disabled people. Disney World removed benches years ago so people don’t sit around often. You can’t ride rides or spend money at Disney if you’re sitting on a bench! You know what Disney’s answer is for people with stamina issues when they want accommodations? Rent a wheelchair or a mobility scooter. Most of the lines in Disney World and Disneyland are either wheelchair accessible or there is a separate entrance for people in wheelchairs. Hey Disney, maybe people don’t want to spend more cash than they have to and want free seating.
There’s also the issue of being invisible when you are using mobility devices such as a wheelchair or a mobility scooter. For some reason, people don’t see you or get in your way. I feel like this was originally done as a way for people to not stare at someone with a physical disability. We’re taught at a young age not to stare. If you are able to, you need to see where you’re going so you’re going to glance. Just don’t look at them for a long time. Also, if you see someone using a cane for mobility purposes or as a way to navigate the world when someone has low vision, for the love of whatever you believe in, don’t tamper with it when it’s in use! My boss’ wife uses a white cane due to sudden low sight issues. My boss and his family went to Universal Studios parks in Florida earlier this year when someone walked up to his wife, looked at the cane, and kicked it out of the way. You can’t make these stories of ableism up, people.
Our society is a deficiency-focused and fix-it culture. We focus way too much on what people can’t do and focus way too much on fixing people. A prime example of the fix-the-deficiency culture is Applied Behavioral Analysis therapy. This therapy is often used as an early intervention for autistic children to stop their negative autistic-based behaviors in order to pass as normal to society. The autism community is against ABA therapy due to how many therapists use aversions to stop negative behaviors. People see the therapy and make one comment: I wouldn’t even do this to my dog. The fact that animal lives are seen to matter more than marginalized people’s lives in America is very disturbing.
Disabled people have various strengths just like able-bodied or neurotypical people. When picking out the music videos for today’s service, I intentionally picked songs by disabled artists. These artists show that with the proper supports and the right people believing in them, they can achieve whatever they want that is within their interests and capabilities. However, we need to be mindful that just because a person with a specific disability can do certain things doesn’t mean that every person with that disability can do the same thing.
So how can you help with disability justice, accessibility efforts, and the fight against ableism? Honestly, the first thing you should do is to listen to the stories and voices of disabled people. They know what it’s like to live with a disability and they know what helps them live in an able-bodied and neurotypical world. Non-disabled people have tried, yet many times failed, at creating spaces and tools to help. Once you find out what works best for disabled people, you can start using your accomplice powers to work alongside disabled people to help improve accessibility.
Examine the language you use every day and think about any terms you use that are considered ableist. Yesterday was the last day any of you can use the term “retarded”. Also think about your thoughts. Do you have negative biases regarding disability? Do you focus too much on what a disabled person can’t do? While you need to be realistic about the challenges disabled people face, think about their strengths too! A nonverbal person can still communicate by writing or using AACs, Augmentative or Alternative Communication systems.
It is also wise to believe those with the lived experience of invisible disabilities. If you don’t live it, you don’t fully know it. Otherwise, you are invalidating their experience and are making it seem like you know more about their medical condition than they do.
UUFHC has made efforts to raise awareness and accommodate others. In March, my minister and I hosted the first Disability Day of Mourning vigil. While attendance was very low, people became aware of disability justice, which is a social justice issue that is not talked about much in our congregation or in Unitarian Universalism as a whole. Our Director of Faith Formation has made efforts to accommodate people who need to fidget and struggle with sitting still in a chair by providing sensory toys and a pad for kids to sit on the floor during worship. As many neurodivergent people have experienced, society forcing us to be normal like everyone else contributes to comorbid mental health issues.
Parents and guardians, let your kids use fidgets and other sensory toys. They serve a purpose of helping people focus and are effective tools for self-soothing. If you think your child is too old to have sensory toys, I’ll be 30 later this year and I have some self-soothing toys to use. The fidget toy I use the most is the infinity cube. Doctor’s appointments and dentist appointments cause me a lot of anxiety due to the unexpected nature of the appointments, so I play with the infinity cube to help calm me in the waiting rooms. People of all ages can benefit from these self-soothing tools, but many fidgets are marketed towards children so many adults don’t feel comfortable using something that is called a “toy”.
EqUUal Access, a UU organization made up of congregants with disabilities, their families, and allies, created a certification called Accessibility and Inclusion Ministry (AIM). The goal of the AIM certification was to recognize UU congregations who worked on accessible and inclusive ministries as well as dismantling ableism. Getting this certification was a goal my minister and I wanted to work on. However, due to a lack of participation, disabled Unitarian Universalists were not getting much benefit from the program and EqUUal Access decided to end the program on June 30th. However, anti-ableism efforts will not stop.
I know there are children and youth sitting in during this service and I have something for you all to think about too. I want you to think about whether there is a classmate or other student in your school with a disability. How do your classmates treat them? How do the teachers treat them? How do you treat them? Are you kind to them or do you stay away from them for being different from your classmates? I want you and your families to have a conversation about how people treat disabled people.
As Unitarian Universalists, we must include disability justice and anti-ableism efforts in our anti-oppression efforts. We cannot have one or two social justice issues dominate Unitarian Universalism, and I do not want us failing a group of UUs who may have had their issues ignored in the past. I encourage you all to be accomplices in the fight against ableism, but please be mindful to not speak on behalf of those with disabilities who are present. Ashe, blessed be, and in the words of Captain Planet, “The power is yours.”