Losing Friends to Ableism

Text: Losing Friends to Ableism; Image: Multiple pins grouped together with one alone away from the group.“I would’ve made sure it was accessible if we were closer friends.”

An ex-friend said this after I expressed hurt over his party being held in an inaccessible venue. I wasn’t mad at him initially, since it was a surprise party, and it was planned by his family. They knew I couldn’t get inside, and they ignored guests who’d offered alternate, accessible spaces.

When this ex-friend told me of the event, all he said was, “sorry you can’t come.” That was it.

I wouldn’t have been too upset if this person offered to visit for a mini celebration with mutual friends. I wouldn’t have been angry if he gave a sincere apology rather than defensiveness and silence.

Ableism is the discrimination and oppression of people with disabilities in favor of people who are not disabled. It can take on many forms, from overt violence to inaccessible public spaces. Like racism or sexism, ableism is systematic and perpetuated regularly, and making accessibility a privilege offered only to closest friends or family is horrifically ableist. This person was someone I hung out with regularly, so I assumed we were good friends. But even if we were just acquaintances, what he said was dehumanizing.

To make things worse, he spouted that quote while knowing I was going through an emotionally vulnerable time in my life. I’m glad I ended that friendship, especially after realizing he was toxic in other ways as well.

This was not the first time folks have invited me to a party that was not accessible. One of my best friend’s mom hosted a party at a local VFW, and we all assumed it was wheelchair accessible because, you know, veterans.

But when I got there, there was a flight of stairs. Those friends were as upset and shocked as me, so we partied on another day at home — with ice cream cake. Compassion and following through to solve a problem make all the difference.

Dismissing my valid pain in the face of ableism is unacceptable. When that happens, the relationship needs to end. It can be hard (especially if you put a lot of energy into a friendship and genuinely enjoyed the company) but it’s necessary for survival. Healthy relationships begin with mutual respect. If you don’t respect each other, there is nothing to build on.

Losing friends to ableism exposes what people think of you as a human being, and that truth is painful. It’s another scar you get from living as a disabled person in a society that devalues you at every point. When I befriend abled people now, I do so cautiously and expect them to mess up occasionally. Unlearning ableism, for both abled and disabled people, is a process that never ends.

I still struggle with internalized ableism, and I am grateful to my disabled friends who help me through it. We learn from and hold each other responsible for breaking through those negative feelings. My abled friends who have put in the work to dismantle ableism through self-education and listening to/reading authentic disabled voices are people who I hold close. These are friendships I respect and cherish, and they’ll last a lifetime.

Read a longer version of this post on Erin Hawley’s Geeky Gimp blog.


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  1. Larry David Says:

    I have Aspergers. I’m on the spectrum.

  2. Jeanne Says:

    I have been very depressed about my disabilities after my husbands response to my complaint that I never get out of the house and I need more socializing. His answer was “ If you could walk more than ten minutes maybe you’d be welcome… . I didn’t need to hear the rest. I am not worth the trouble and embarrassment to be bothered with. I stayed in my house and stopped visiting on my front porch with him and the couple next door to see if anyone would notice or remark on my absence. Crickets…. nothing the I started going out to visit and when I do they stop talking and it is an uncomfortable feeling until I get up and go in. I am very lonely. I took care of my son for 12 yrs he passed 2003. I want a life! I deserve better. Don’t I? How many others are feeling this way? Cancer, brain tumors, arthritis and ostracized. What a life!

  3. Phyllis J Buchanan Says:

    Thank you Erin for putting to words how I feel I work for Easter Seals and Im disabled and some days they don’t get it,but I try my best to keep my head high and show the world that my wheelchair will not lock me out