In the Introduction chapter of Ableism: The Causes and Consequences of Disability Prejudice, Michelle R. Nario-Redmond begins with selections from Maria Palacios's 2017 poem, Naming Ableism. It is an apt way to introduce a dauntingly researched book about the multi-layered term. It is also a forecast of how Nario-Redmond will parse, analyze, and contextualize ableism. While the majority of the content consists of findings from her own research, and of many other social-science and social-psychology researchers, Nario-Redmond also includes provocative images and helpful resources between the chapters and in the Appendix, such as links to blogs and websites. The author also personalizes the quantitative data with autobiographical voices between sections. They act as useful breathing spaces within the density of scientific research. As she explains, while this subject is replete with personal narratives, it is lacking in multi-disciplinary research about the conditions that cause ableism in intergroup, group and individual identity formation, and as a result of stereotyping. The purpose of the book is to fill this void in disability studies scholarship and to call for future research. The five primary questions she addresses are: What does ableism look like? What are its common manifestations? What are the causes of ableism against disabled people, and how are these perpetuated? How do disabled people respond to ableism, and how do responses affect well-being? What works to reduce ableism, promote understanding, and increase equality? And finally she asks, what research questions remain unanswered for a future research agenda? Nario-Redmond methodically examines these questions within the eight chapters of the book. She reminds the reader that the study of ableism, often defined as disability discrimination and prejudice, is still in a nascent stage compared with racism, homophobia, and sexism. Therefore, this book is seminal in its ambitious reach; it includes studies of people with physical, mental, and developmental disabilities, intersectional identities, and terminal and temporary disabilities in diverse geographical locations and social positions, and the stereotyping and hate crimes against these individuals and groups.

In the chapters that follow, Nario-Redmond describes the historical roots of ableism as embedded in the DNA of early hominids, and our success in passing on the heritable dispositions of danger avoidance. Even superficial differences that have no possibility of contagion can set off alarms of danger. This alarm system is interpreted as unconscious avoidance behavior, which often leads to conscious decisions about human value on individual and institutional levels. One of the existential origins of ableism lies in disability's inconvenient reminder of our mortality. Violent responses to the disabled body are explained by the author as the profound fear of death, especially in Western society. These ancient unconscious hold-overs translate today into institutional language, particularly the terminology of special education, such as "special needs," which has massive repercussions in how we perceive, treat, and understand disabled students and adults. As Simi Linton noted (1998), separation and low expectation in schools predict how children will internalize their own worth and will be valued as adults. Nario-Redmond suggests that the significantly broader consequence of institutional language, embedded in social discourse and reinforced in popular media and literature, is its negative influence on medical decisions, allocation of resources, and policies: the non-recognition that disability accommodation is a civil right.

Nario-Redmond introduces a large body of research in Chapter five and six (Chapter six is written in collaboration with Dr. Arielle Silverman) that examines how these learned and deeply embedded fears are manifested in ableist behaviors, from subtle non-verbal gestures, microaggressions, and inappropriate questions, to overt violence and harm. Yet the complexity of intergroup relations does not often result in purely negative attitudes, but rather ambivalence resulting from unfulfilled expectations of disability dependency and incompetency. As such, competent and ambitious disabled people pose a threat to non-disabled people in professional positions. The opposite and equally demeaning attitude toward disabled people who disrupt stereotypical expectations is the so-called object of admiration and inspiration. The danger of "inspirational porn" is the assumption that all people with disabilities have the power to "overcome" their disability, and are thus not in need of environmental support and legal protections.

Perhaps the most comprehensive messages are found in the final chapter, which also serves as a summary for the book. Nario-Redmond reminds us what the American landscape looked like before the passage of ADA. The benefits that contributed to the lives of both disabled and non-disabled people in its aftermath would not have been possible were it not for the struggle for disability rights. Chapter eight begins with a history of the disability rights movement that transformed US society beginning in the late 1970s with protests demanding the enforcement of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The protests included the well-known occupation of the San Francisco Office of Housing, Education, and Welfare for 25 days. The legislative breakthroughs of IDEA and the ADA in the 1980s and 1990s, were not without their failures, however, such as the slow enforcement of the latter and the limitations of both. Parallel to these political events was the theoretical shift from the medical definition of disability to a social-political framework: the reframing of disability as existing within an oppressive, dehumanizing, and discriminatory environment. The culminating effect was the collective action of disability groups in which the common experiences of oppression, misrepresentation, and discrimination were the primary issues that held these disparate groups together.

In conclusion, Nario-Redmond returns to the five critical queries that were introduced in the Introduction chapter and restated in the beginning of this review. In response to the first question, "what does ableism look like?," the author explains that depending on context, ableism has a range of visible effects—the primary components of prejudice: benevolence, paternalism, envy, derision and hostility. For example, benevolent ableism might look like inspiration porn, paternalism might take the form of pity, and envy might appear as a backlash when disabled people compete for positions of power and resources. The most damaging effects are derision and hostility, the result of the deeply embedded evolutionary fear rooted in survival, the fear of death, and the primitive need to dehumanize, violate, and pathologize the Other. Manifesting social change and equality in society will require collective action that confronts both interpersonal and institutionalized prejudice. Ambitious change, she says, lies in the action of allies that have the power to influence public opinion and policies that discriminate against disadvantaged groups. Finally, Nario-Redmond asks non-disabled readers to assume that disabled people will be in your life, in your audience, in your community, and that they are living quality lives; she asks her readers to discuss and acknowledge disability experiences without fear; to become an ally. I question, however, if being an ally of disabled people makes for true collaboration if uneven power relations remain unchanged. Does this framework perpetuate the dualism of self/other? I wonder whether support might instead become a form of collaboration. For example, Estée Klar (2020) suggests that activation might indicate more possibility and movement than activism, and intra-dependency might be a more dynamic word (in the sense of movement, change and relation) than interdependency, since both evoke connected rather than hierarchical relationships. Shouldn't we go all the way and envision disability futures as existing in an altered system, a world of relations "that cultivate mutual collaboration and new possibilities to emerge?" (p. 36, footnote 29), especially for neurodiverse people who have a more relational and saturated connection to the environment.

References

  • Klar, E. (2020). Neurodiversity in relation: An artistic intraethnography. Doctoral dissertation, York University, Toronto Ontario.
  • Linton S. (1998). Claiming disability: Knowledge and identity. New York University Press.
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