The Ableist = Me: an apology (2016)

I screwed up yesterday.

I gave a presentation in front of hundreds of people last night, along with several of my colleagues. It mostly went pretty well. I was informative. I was candid. I was witty. 

And I was ableist.

I say this because I am a huge proponent of growing and changing. Learning how to be better. I am not above reproach, and when I am in the wrong I need to be truthful about it, apologize sincerely, and strive not to err in the same way. I might not always succeed, but it has to be a priority.

I ended my presentation by asking the people who were part of the HIV community "to stand and remain standing," followed by a similar request for staff, researchers, and allies to do the same. In closing, I said something to the effect of, "At this time, everyone in the room who can should be standing. Thank you for all that you do, and let's continue standing together - until there's a cure."

This ending was suggested to me by a good friend, and I agreed to utilize it. His suggestion in and of itself was not ableist - the way I conducted it was.

I view "standing" as not necessarily something that requires "being upright on two legs." If someone is in a power chair or scooter; if someone is on crutches or using a cane; if someone is leaning on someone or something I still consider them to be "standing." Similarly, if I have a conversation with a non-speaking or Deaf friend via text or IM, I still view that as us "talking." I don't think that "talking" has to mean speaking aloud. I consider people to be "using their voice" if they email, tweet, or otherwise share their thoughts.

But it isn't about what I think or how I perceive these terms (not to mention the way I worded it was far less than ideal). It's about the way they are typically perceived by others. Society largely considers "standing" to mean something different than what I do. defines the verb stand in this way: "to be in an upright position on the feet." Its secondary definition is "to rise to one's feet."

Merriam-Webster dictionary provides the following primary definition for the verb stand: "to be in or take an upright position on the feet." It does provide a more inclusive definition as the secondary definition: "to take up or stay in a specified position or condition." But primary definitions are often considered the "main" definition of a word.

There are other dictionaries that take a more holistic view of what it means to stand that is less ableist, such as the Cambridge dictionary: "to be on your feet or to get into a vertical position or to put someone or something into a vertical position," but you get the point.

I did not clarify what I meant, and thus I othered the people in the room who are in wheelchairs, have limited mobility, or who might be technically able to stand but are not comfortable doing so. I effed up.

I didn't mean any harm. But no one does when they are being ableist, or racist, or homophobic, or whatever. It isn't about my intentions, though; it's about the results of my actions.  I know I am not perfect, but it grieves me to think that by being careless and not communicating clearly I unnecessarily added to the micro-aggressions that people already deal with all day every day.

In a room full of people, many of whom are living with HIV, I had no right to request anyone to "stand" knowing the issues with neuropathy, joint pain, inflammation, bone thinning and loss, and aging that are prevalent within some, perhaps several, of those present. And as an Autistic woman who comes off as an extrovert but is actually an extreme introvert, I should have known better than to request that people stand, knowing how uncomfortable it might be for some people to have to stand up while everyone is looking at you - even if you are standing up with numerous other people. The presence of other people standing too doesn't lessen the anxiety factor. There could have been, and likely were, people with social anxiety or other things that might have made being asked to stand uncomfortable.

I could have easily inserted a statement that made it clear what "standing" meant. I could have offered people an opportunity to raise their hand instead, or to identify themselves in some other way that more people would be likely to participate in without being left out. Or something.

But nope. I didn't do any of that. And even worse, it wasn't until this morning that I realized how completely messed up my choices were.

I lived three decades of my life not knowing I was Autistic. I am still navigating my identity as a disabled woman. I embrace it - just as I embrace being African, being a woman, being black, being Christian, being a parent. I'm not struggling with accepting who I am. But I cannot deny that the ableist construct that permeates society has impacted me, and in some ways I still have problematic aspects of my language and actions that are still in the process of being purged. I need to be more mindful. It isn't okay to make people feel like crap because I was imprecise. I don't get a "pass" on my screw up because people might think that I'm a nice person.

To anyone who was in the room whom I offended, whether you are abled or disabled, I am truly sorry. To anyone who was not in the room whom I offended, I apologize. And maybe you weren't offended, but were disappointed. Or saddened. Or shocked. Or annoyed or angered. Whatever emotion I caused you to feel, I take ownership and I take responsibility. I effed up, and I was wrong. My intentions don't erase the reality. Please know that I recognize why this wasn't appropriate, I regret it, and I will try hard to do better, God as my witness.

And if you're reading this and you're like me - someone who should know better - or if you haven't done something like this, but don't know how you would handle it if you unintentionally misspoke in a similar manner, I hope that you learn from me. Be thoughtful of what you say and do before you say and do it. Constantly evaluate yourself after the fact also to make sure you are not alienating others. Know that you are never "too good" to apologize and to improve. 

Thank you to all of you whom I learn from every day. Bit by bit, I hope I am shaping up to be who God made me to be.

Image is a meme whose text reads, "Own your mistakes. That's the only way to own your success." -Hrithik Roshan (Source: rainboz dot com)

Recommended citation: Giwa Onaiwu, Morénike. (2016). The Ableist = Me: an apology. Just Being Me...Who Needs "Normalcy," Anyway? [Personal essay.] 


  1. Also, if you guess what a racist/ableist/other -ist statement means, and you guess wrong, and it affects you argument so it looks like you are being prejudice, and someone tells you that the statement does not mean what you think it means, you need to keep that in mind and take into account the real meaning of those statements or others in the same category when making nuanced arguments in the future. Otherwise, you can end up accidentally sounding like you agree with the prejudice when you really don't.
    Oh, and by the way, Morenike, I can see where your mistake might have comm from; "stand with me" and other similar statements are common in black activism and anti-racist activism (it is the kind of thing Martin Luther King would say, for instance, and also Amazing Grace has the lyric, ""I was blind, but now I see"). The important thing is that you recognized the mistake, owned up to it, and resolved not to make a mistake like that again. Maybe next time, if you use that same metaphor, you will clarify what it means and do so in a way as to indicate that those who cannot stand do not have to do so.

    I wish people understood that "don't cry" statements or "crying is for babies"can be ableist, too. Not that you have done that. But they are common in society, and some people, at some point in their lives, have dealt with strong emotional floods that can barely be contained, and they can get to the point of feeling babyish for crying, even if they are exhausted or dealing with PMS (yes, PMS does make you more emotional, even though it doesn't make you irrational; those emotions are no less valid, though, as they are still connected to other things). I have never known anything on this blog to say this about crying, and I am not addressing you with this, Morenike. I am addressing people who do that, like a person I saw on Quora once who used the statement "Babies cry, big girls talk" as a way of telling her 4-year-old daughter not to whine for candy; that statement could unintentionally shame people, and while her 4-year old daughter understands it to mean whining, other people who have been told off for crying tears do not. Luckily, I got the lady to clarify that in a comment exchange with her, so another person, like me, who was previously shamed for crying, might see it and know statements like that do not always mean "crying", crying.
    I would also add that I detest parenting statements like "I can't understand you when you whine", because not only could that be devastating to attempts to communicate from someone unable to calm their whine and respond in a calm way (see above on crying to know the reason why), it also could inadvertently reinforce messages to kids that it is perfectly okay to pretend to misunderstand someone if you don't like the way their speech sounds. Not only could that encourage ableism, it could encourage racism too (i.e. people of minority races, as well as white immigrants, will have dialects and/or accents that people do not like to hear), and a person raised on anti-whining statements like that could feel encouraged to intentionally misunderstand or discount their communications if they don't already do so; that kind of parental statement alone is enough for that without all the societal messages that are there, too. Perhaps there is a reason I associate "I can't understand you when you whine" statements with white parents; maybe it is not just because of dialect and culture, but also because people of color, including Asians, can sense the implied, if unintentional, racism that could be indirectly encouraged by that statement.

  2. I am an extrovert (ESFJ ChlorSan) that comes off as an introvert. Since I am a rather linguistically-oriented person, I tend to make misjudgments about someone's comprehension based on what they can express with a language. *cue the embarrassed blushing* I am studying personality theories in the hopes of getting to understand others better (e.g. "This person is a MelPhleg I won't talk too much.").