Disability History: Overlooked but Not Forgotten

*Author’s note: I am aware of discourse on person-first language (people with disabilities) versus identity-first language (disabled people). I identify as disabled (chronic illness is a form of disability) and personally prefer identity-first over person-first, but I will use both forms in this blog as to avoid repetition.

“Classroom scene with teacher Kate Hobart showing students how to use mirrors to assist speech-learning.” 1893, Horace Mann School for the Deaf. Source: Boston City Archives, Creative Commons.

The history of disability is asymmetrical. We know that history is always written by those with the power to wield the pen, and the powerful have always trodden on disabled people*. This is why history has most commonly staged people with disabilities as passive subjects — voiceless patients, preserved in history as miserable recipients of medical treatments, cures, and operations. Before the acknowledgement of dis/ability as a socially constructed identity much like gender or race, the dominant framework was the medical model. Impairments were seen from a medical standpoint as afflictions to remove, and “disability history” is full of famed doctors who found apparent solutions to bodily deviance. [Read more about the difference in the medical and social models in this post by graduate student and IHR intern Shane Burns!]

Disability scholars, in the past few decades, have begun to reclaim disabled narratives and frame them in ways that empower and enrich the social matrix of ability.

Like African American revisionists, we strive to reevaluate history with an additional, more critical lens. Before critical race scholars/theorists reasserted historic perspectives to reveal deep-seated racism (alongside the influential Civil Rights and Black Power movements), American society accepted racial discrimination as a fact of life. Ableism can be subverted in a similar way. Modern principles of universal justice and equity equip us to destroy structural injustice wherever it lurks within the depths of unchallenged social praxis. Additionally, revisionism – in disability history, Black history, LGBTQ history, etc. – grants the option to see historically oppressed groups as agents of change rather than sufferers of fate. Obviously, the lingering trauma experienced by oppressed identities cannot be ignored, and it would be detrimental to assume that the same forces of oppression no longer exist. But viewing disabled people as individuals with power, richness, and complexity is an empowering perspective.

 

Disability activist Stella Young chats with Paralympic medalist Ann Cody. Both women use wheelchairs.
“Stella Young with Ann Cody.” Source: Exchanges Photos, Creative Commons. [Watch Stella Young’s phenomenal TED talk, “I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much,” here.]
In that spirit, this blog will give a brief overview of the disability rights movement, and will highlight some overlooked historical perspectives of persons with disabilities. I will condense the obligatory section detailing the terrible harms suffered by people with disabilities over the centuries : subjugation, abuse, isolation, eugenic extermination, etc. Disabled people have suffered in a wide range of circumstances and continue to suffer today from a toxic mixture of economic, social, political, and cultural barriers. It’s exhausting and demoralizing to read about these things as a disabled person. It also encourages unneeded pity from non-disabled people. Though pity may come from good intentions, it only reinforces dehumanizing attitudes. These attitudes replicate through supposedly innocent interactions like “oh, you poor thing,” and “if I were you, I’d just want to die! I can’t believe you do it!” These sentiments are fairly common reactions from non-disabled people, and they are often said with emphatic sympathy. Yet these are the same attitudes that have stolen agency from disabled people, used their life struggles as perverted inspiration, and used as an excuse to suppress, subject, torture, and extinguish people with disabilities.

Ableism, like many other “isms,” is bound and sustained through micro-level interactions rooted in unconscious yet detrimental assumptions. If you are a non-disabled person, I urge you to reflect before you react to disabled narratives, and consider how your assumptions have been informed by bias. Be sure to actively listen with compassion, react with empathy instead of pity, and always practice validation. It’s okay to have questions, and it’s okay to feel uncomfortable. Sit with your discomfort. Explore it. Decide to challenge it, and you may find yourself with a new perspective.

A group of disabled protesters are staged outside of a healthcare clinic, protesting welfare cuts that have harmed many disabled people in the UK.
“Disabled people protest outside St Mary’s House, Norwich.” Source: Roger Blackwell, Creative Commons.

The Disability Rights Movement

“People with disabilities have been socially dispersed and have lacked both a common identity and the economic and political resources to coalesce into an active and effective movement capable of political action. A rights-oriented consciousness and an adequate organizational apparatus have both been essential to creating the disability rights movement.” – Scotch (1989, p. 4).

In other words, the disability rights movement required a) the collective understanding that disabled people as a group deserved rights and b) the resources to organize and motivate that group effectively.

This effort began to gather momentum in the 1960s, inspired by the grassroots activism of the time (another significant nod to the Civil Rights & Black Power movements). The early disability rights movement also benefited from community programs for disabled people, such as disabled student programs on college campuses. These programs were meant to provide services for people with disabilities, but they also inadvertently connected disabled people.

This was a radical change in society. Most disabled people were physically and socially isolated from one another prior to this movement — individuals with diverse impairments didn’t recognize each other under a “disabled” identity. This disconnect is caused by compounding issues. For instance, an epileptic person has a different set of struggles than a Deaf person or a wheelchair user. In other words, different impairments look and function differently, and it can be hard to conceptualize shared identity between such diverse experiences. Community spaces are often inaccessible, while home environments are isolating. In these situations (especially when surrounded by non-disabled caretakers/family) personal autonomy and dignity can be limited. Without opportunities to share narratives among peers, disabled people had no way of knowing the vast network who shared their experiences. But when this network began to develop, it became apparent that many of us feel the same pain. Together, we could investigate our experiences and find that they’re all rooted in the same institutional structures, harmful biases, and violent enforcement of so-called normalcy.

Three people in wheelchairs face each other while talking.
“Creative Accessibility Mapping Tour.” Source: Andi Weiland / SOZIALHELDEN, Creative Commons.

The first major assertion of collective disabled power came in the early 1970’s. Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) was a British group whose radical publications – including Fundamental Principles of Disability (1975) — formed the ideological foundations from which the social model of disability emerged in the early eighties. Penned by Mike Oliver, the social model pointed out that having a disability is not an impairment in itself, but that impairments are created by an inaccessible society. The impairment of poor vision would be disabling if glasses weren’t widely accessible. This shifted the entire paradigm of ability. Everyone experiences limitation and impairment, ability exists on a spectrum, and the social mechanisms that separate “abled” from “disabled” can be torn down. The suffering experienced by disabled people isn’t inherent and should not be accepted. Disabled people can celebrate their own existence, and can demand a better existence for themselves and their peers. Judy Heumann says it much better than I can:

“As long as you believe that your life is a tragedy, you can’t do very many good things with your life. Once you believe that the tragedy isn’t your fault, that it is the failure of the political system to acknowledge your rights as a human being, to be equal in society, that you can as an individual have a voice as part of a group, then you can make a difference.”

Disabled Perspectives in History

Historical records lack the perspective of most disabled people themselves, save for a notable few whose privilege awarded access to education and personal acclaim. Helen Keller was certainly not the first person to be born both Deaf and blind, but her family’s relative privilege granted Ms. Keller access to education and the social positioning to benefit from it. Helen Keller is an inspirational, barrier-breaking figure. That’s not up for debate. But it is noteworthy to mention that her privilege – having a well-connected white family with roots in Southern aristocracy – facilitated her success. Helen learned a variety of communication methods, including ASL, Braille, touch lip-reading, and speaking verbally. She attended college – a notable feat for any woman in her era – and went on to publish a dozen books, helped found several organizations (ACLU, American Foundation for the Blind, Helen Keller International), and even won an Oscar (Helen Keller International).

“Helen Keller taking a speech lesson from Annie Sullivan.” 1890-1895, Horace Mann School for the Deaf records. Source: City of Boston Archives, Collection 0420.047, Creative Commons.

Frida Kahlo is a famous Mexican artist and painter whose disabilities greatly impacted her work. The story of Kahlo’s trolley accident at age 18 is infamous, as well as the physical impact – a broken spine, broken pelvis, and a severe abdominal injury. Prior to this accident, she contracted polio at age 6, and is believed to have been born with spina bifida (Daunton). These experiences are well-known; Kahlo’s legacy has been tainted by pity and morbid fascination with her painful experiences. I believe she should be celebrated in a light that honors her experience. Not only was Kahlo a fierce, vibrant spirit with immense artistic talent, but she broke barriers for other disabled women of color.   Kahlo embraced the unique, rich perspective that she had gained through dealing with years of pain, vulnerability, and isolation – channeling it into powerful art. Frida Kahlo unapologetically existed as a disabled woman of color, presenting her body in all its beautiful, sexual, and painful complexities.

A painting by Frida Kahlo features two versions of herself side by side. One is in a white dress, the other in a blue top and green skirt. Both Fridas' hearts are visible, and connected by a vein.
“Frida Kahlo – Two Fridas (1939).” Source: Cea, Creative Commons.

Harriet Tubman is another extraordinary woman of color who was affected by disability. Tubman experienced a traumatic brain injury at age 12 at the hands of a slave owner. Tubman dealt with complications for the rest of her life including severe pain, seizures and/or narcoleptic episodes. Her disabilities may have contributed to her success, as Tubman’s narcoleptic trance-like episodes offered moments of great spiritual impact (Sabourin et al, 2016). A deeply religious woman, Harriet Tubman was guided by her faith to rescue hundreds of slaves over the course of thirteen incredibly dangerous escape missions. Tubman also is the first woman to plan and lead a military operation against the Confederacy – with stealth skills and knowledge of Southern geography, “General Tubman” conducted a successful raid on Combahee River that freed over 700 slaves (National Museum of African American History & Culture).

“Harriet Tubman (far left) with family and neighbors, circa 1887.” Source: Bettman/Corbis, Creative Commons.

Conclusion

The history of disability – as a movement, as individuals, as an identity – is rich, compelling, and intersectional. We should see it as an under-explored reserve of knowledge hidden by suppression, and a perspective to be treasured. Disability history demands to be re-examined and reclaimed in a framework of empowerment. It’s critical for incorporating disability rights into wider society. When you apply modern standards to historical events and figures, a narrative of agency and power can emerge. Simultaneously, it can reveal the despicable mechanisms that create, inform, and enforce oppression. As I said earlier — modern principles of universal justice and equity equip us to destroy structural injustice wherever it lurks within the depths of unchallenged social praxis.

Disability Advocacy and Technology in the 21st Century

Images of The Gang of 19 and “Capitol Crawl” will forever be remembered as pivotal moments in the U.S. disability rights movement alongside international achievements such as the first Paralympic Games in Rome, African Decade of Disabled People, and UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities. There are those who foster the value-based assumption that picketing, chanting, and public fervor are the appropriate methods to fighting the good fight. However, as digitalization rapidly enters our homes, schools, and places of work, modern technology offers a myriad of new ways to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities, namely social networking platforms and phone apps.

Many of those who engage with social networking platforms have heard of social media subcultures such as Asian-American Twitter, Black Twitter, and Feminist Twitter. These digital subcultures often address sociocultural issues related to their communities and galvanize captivating hashtags, like #BeingAsian, #BlackLivesMatter, and #MeToo, that take the mainstream media by storm. Among, and often intersecting with, these social causes is a growing phenomenon that could be referred to as Disability Twitter. Here, disabled activists share individual narratives coupled with hashtags, such as #AbledsAreExhausting, #DisabledAndCute, and #ThisIsAbleism, as well as address cultural, social, and political issues affecting the disability community through sentiments like #CripTheVote (accessible voting), #DisabilityTooWhite (limited representation of people of color with disabilities), and #SuckItAbleism (plastic straw ban). Such efforts have also been extended to social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, further capturing the attention of disability rights to internet users worldwide, generating dialogue and solutions that relate to accessibility.

smartphone. Source: pixabay.com, Creative Commons

With two-thirds of the globe connected by a mobile device, usage of phone apps has become the norm for many people. While many people use such apps for daily tasks and leisure, others utilize these platforms to amplify justice-related causes, namely access for people with disabilities. For example, Wheelmap is a service that allows users to locate and mark accessible places in seven languages. One does so by rating a respective space with a traffic light system that indicates green markings are wheelchair accessible, yellow markings have restricted wheelchair access, and red markings are not wheelchair accessible. Voice of Specially Abled People (VOSAP) is an India-based organization who created a phone app with the same name which crowdsources accessibility data so it can be used to inform community leaders and promote awareness. VOSAP also allows users to make an action pledge that supports people with disabilities so communities can correspond with allied parties. Parking Mobility is another phone app that offers a self-reporting mechanism, although this service allows users to report abuse of accessible parking spots. For partnering communities, such reports are forwarded to local law enforcement and citations are mailed to the registrant of the vehicle. Please contact Parking Mobility to inquire about getting your community involved in this program. There are also many other phone apps designed for personal assistive use such as Be My Eyes (navigation for blind and visually impaired), RogerVoice (subtitled phone calls), Miracle Modus (self-relief for Autistic persons), and Medication Reminder (people with Alzheimer’s and dementia). As a result of these diverse phone apps, there are multiple ways for people to self-advocate as well as spread information about accessibility.

As demonstrated, social media and digital technology have engendered revolutionary ways to address issues salient to the disability community, allowing self-advocates and allies to communicate about current challenges, successes, and resources. Therefore, simply opening your computer, tablet, or phone to navigate these issues, alongside other intersecting causes, shines a brighter light on the importance of disability rights, access, and representation in the 21st century.

Keep up with the latest announcements related to the upcoming Symposium on Disability Rights by following the IHR on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Representing Disability 

Representation shapes the way we view the world – media regularly exposes us to perspectives and truths that we may otherwise never experience. Disability is one perspective that abled society frequently avoids. Persons with disabilities are heavily under-represented in media, and existing representations often perpetuate harmful stereotypes. Persons with disabilities are rarely depicted with agency or dignity. More often, disability in media is associated with helplessness, pity, or as a perverted source of inspiration for abled people.

However, times are changing. GLAAD’s Where We Are On TV is an annual report on diversity in television; findings from the recent 2018-2019 television season report a positive trend on representation for people with disabilities. Last year’s report found that 1.8% of all series regulars on primetime broadcast television had disabilities, while this year’s report lists 2.1%. This is only a small increase, and still under-represents the proportion of Americans with disabilities. According to the United States Census Bureau, Americans with disabilities make up between 1219% of the population (variation in range is due to inconsistent definitions of disability).

Three people in wheelchairs face each other while talking.
“Creative Accessibility Mapping Tour.” Source: Andi Weiland / SOZIALHELDEN, Creative Commons.

But that 2.1% consists of a variety of compelling characters with disabilities. Popular television shows Speechless is groundbreaking for its representations of differently-abled youth. The show is centered around a young man with cerebral palsy, JJ, and his wacky family and friends. Speechless is unique in its approach of wholesome humor to deal with the difficulties of navigating personal agency, inclusivity and the struggles of teen life. Disability is so often viewed from a lens of misery, alienation, and darkness, but this show handles tough topics without demonizing disability. Speechless demonstrates that life with disabilities is much like any other, filled with pain but also joy and laughter. Though this is only one show, Speechless empowers persons with disabilities and sets a better tone for disability representation.

Despite under-representation in mainstream media, people with disabilities have found power in creating a culture of agency within their respective communities. Superfest, a disability film festival, was held in October of this year and showcased a range of perspectives from quadriplegia to cerebral palsy to Deafness. Social media allows persons with disabilities to present their own image of independence and beauty, empowering themselves and others. Advocate/blogger/model Mama Cax is an amputee woman of color with nearly 200k followers on Instagram (@mamacaxx). Cax, who modeled in popular designer brand Chromat’s inclusive Pool Rules campaign, is an inspiration to many women with disabilities who have never seen bodies like theirs proudly and unapologetically represented as beautiful.

Positive strides are also being taken in terms of political representation. Notable people with disabilities in politics include former president Franklin Delano Roosevelt and former Senator Tammy Duckworth. FDR was the first and only United States president who used a wheelchair; Duckworth was the first woman with a disability to be elected to Congress. Currently, no member of Congress has openly identified as having a disability, but the recent midterms did include several candidates with disabilities. Disability Action for America is an organization dedicated to increasing representation for persons with disabilities in the American political arena. Disability Action for American endorsed 16 candidates and raised money to aid their campaigns through the grassroots effort Disability Action Network. With their help, Jennifer Longdon is the first full-time wheelchair user to be elected to Arizona’s State Legislature.

“Ignite Phoenix 9 – Jennifer Longdon.” Source: Sheila Dee, Creative Commons.

“I think that my own marginalization, my own minority status, gives me a point of view that some of the other candidates might not share. It’s all interconnected. We’ve got to work together to get solutions… It touches education and employment. It touches housing and public transportation and health care and how the criminal justice system works. It touches disability and being LGBTQ, disability and being undocumented, disability and being black or brown, disability and being poor, being uneducated, being whatever else that made you ‘other.” – Jennifer Longdon

People with disabilities are a large and significant community. Increasing representation in media and politics is a critical step towards the acknowledgement of the rights of persons of disabilities at all levels, in all arenas. The examples discussed in this blog are few, but I believe that representation will grow from here. As more people see disability through better representation, disability becomes less distant and more easily understood and accepted. Disability advocates and activists are already growing in number as social justice movements have made efforts towards inclusion and intersectionality. These factors combine to create a positive force for change. Though there are still plenty of barriers to dismantle, disability representation and inclusion in society is on an upward swing.

International Day of Persons with Disabilities 2018

Today, December 3, 2018, is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD), an observance promoted by the United Nations (UN). This year’s theme, “Empowering persons with disabilities and ensuring inclusiveness and equality,” accommodates the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’s pledge to “leave no one behind” which envisions sustainable urbanization, namely through a smart-city approach that prioritizes digitalization, clean energy, technologies, and service delivery. Such ambition is salient to persons with disabilities because, above all, achieving these goals will result in communities that are more accessible and inclusive for everyone.

It is argued the main contribution to why persons with disabilities have been excluded from public life is the practice of the medical model of disability (MMD) which embraces the perspective of non-disabled persons, reducing persons with disabilities to dysfunctional people in-need of medical treatment, with emphasis on normative functioning of the body. As a result, persons with disabilities are often assigned a sick role that exempts them from activities and expectations of productivity, leaving them as passive recipients of medical goods and services. These medicalized expectations of normality, restoration, and functional independence can devalue the lived experiences of persons with disabilities, thus inviting discrimination into their daily lives.

On the contrary, the social model of disability (SMD) challenges the knowledge/power differential employed by medical authorities and suggests empowerment for persons with disabilities, ultimately strengthening the patient role and influencing changes in treatment paradigms. Furthermore, the SMD argues that social practices are what disable persons with impairments, placing many persons with disabilities into isolating circumstances and preventing full civil participation. Whether it be employment in Alabama or being a refugee in Kenya, the SMD challenges the MMD by suggesting persons with disabilities are an oppressed group that experiences discrimination and deserving of equal treatment.

On December 13, 2006, the UN adopted the Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), an international agreement which details the rights of persons with disabilities and lists codes for implementation, suggesting both states and disabled people’s organizations (DPOs) are to coordinate to fulfill such rights. In the following years, nations spanning the globe have ratified the CRPD, such as Jordan (2008) and Ireland (2018), thus strengthening protections for persons with disabilities. Although the United States is one of the only nations to have yet ratified the CRPD, this international document is largely modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), signed in 1990, which prohibits discrimination toward persons with disabilities. As a result, we are only seeing the beginning of what is to come for accessibility and inclusion for persons with disabilities, both domestically and globally.

Disabled people celebrate the passage of The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill, 2016 by the Lok Sabha, in New Delhi. Source: Hindustan Times, Creative Commons

 

To commemorate IDPD 2018, the Institute for Human Rights is holding a blog series today that addresses access, inclusion, and representation for persons with disabilities, namely through the influence of media and power of politics.

“Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.” – George H.W. Bush at the signing of the ADA

Old Habits Die Hard: The Self-Perpetuating Cycle of Ageism

Most of us have been told at some point to respect our elders. Opening doors, assisting in street transit, carrying groceries — all of these social niceties are expected to be paid specifically to older members of society. Respect for elders seems to occur universally as a cultural norm. Korean culture joyfully celebrates the one’s sixtieth birthday as the passage into old age, while honorific suffixes such as “-ji” in Hindi and “mzee” in Swahili indicate longstanding cultural respect for one’s elders. Some Ecuadorian cultures believe that their elder shamans, or mengatoi, become powerfully magical as they age (Jacobs). China even made it illegal to neglect one’s parents, outlining the legal duties of adult children to include frequent visitation and “occasional greetings” (Wong). Older people in America engage in vigorous self-advocacy, making the AARP one of the largest interest groups in the nation at nearly forty million members.

Happy Parishioners. Source: Joonas Tikkanen, Creative Commons.

So why then does society reflect the exact opposite of these norms? Old people are treated as feeble, unfortunate beings who are shown courtesy in public and yet face widespread discrimination. Both pernicious and insidious, ageism is defined as “the stereotyping and discrimination against individuals or groups on the basis of their age; [forms of ageism can include] prejudicial attitudes, discriminatory practices, or institutional policies and practices that perpetuate stereotypical beliefs” (World Health Organization). Ageism is an “ism” that is just as socially impactful as other forms of discrimination, yet the topic is rarely addressed and often disregarded. Despite lack of discursive engagement, ageism is a unique type of social discrimination in that it can transcend all other human identities. The process of aging affects every human being regardless of one’s sexuality, race, and political ideology. Most of us will eventually pass the cursed line that society demarcates between youth and old age and must suffer from the hostile, deeply discriminatory system that we ourselves once benefited from in our youth — and what a pervasive system it is. Surveys show that a whopping 80% of people over sixty have experienced some form of ageism (Dittman). Tad Friend supplies this neatly unpacked explanation in an article published by the New Yorker:

Like the racist and the sexist, the ageist rejects an Other based on a perceived difference. But ageism is singular, because it’s directed at a group that at one point wasn’t the Other—and at a group that the ageist will one day, if all goes well, join. The ageist thus insults his own future self.”

The Long Road. Source: Hansel and Regrettal, Creative Commons.

In just two years, it is predicted that more people will be over the age of sixty-five than under the age of five for the first time in Earth’s history (United States Census Bureau). In fact, according to the United Nations, the number of older persons is increasing more rapidly than other age group. This phenomenon is known as the “graying” of a population, and constitutes an urgent issue for affected countries. As people age, they become less able to physically care for themselves and usually exit the workforce at some point to retire for the latter part of their lives. As health conditions do generally worsen with age, the demand for medical and/or personal support services grows as older people continue to age and retire.

This becomes an issue when the size of a country’s workforce becomes insufficient to fill the demands of service-dependant older people. In nations with large workforces, the opposite issue — lack of opportunity for employment — still disproportionately harms older people. Many industries, particularly in America, push out older applicants and terminate veteran employees in favor of younger options. As industry culture has begun to tilt in favor of youth, older people have experienced a massive amount of workplace ageism. Nearly 65% of Americans between the ages of 45 and 60 had either seen or experienced age-based discrimination in the workplace (AARP). This may seem like a trivial issue, but unemployment is a dangerous state to endure at advanced ages. Worsening health conditions go hand in hand with both lower income and increased age; the combination of these factors can be fatal.

An elderly Sudanese womangets ready to receive her ration of emergency food aid.
Elderly Woman Receives Emergency Food Aid. Source: Tim McKulka/UN Photo, Creative Commons.

So why does ageism even exist? Princeton researchers found that most ageist arguments stem from issues with consumption (old people already consume too many scarce resources), identity (old people try to act younger than they are), or succession (old people had their turn, now they should move out of the workforce/society to make space for the new generation). All of these issues — consumption, identity, and succession — frame humanity in a way that associates one’s value with their usefulness to society. However, human beings should not be defined by their utility. Simply put, old people exist. They form one of the largest populations on the planet, and are rapidly growing. We cannot deny older people the dignity that we (supposedly) award to all else simply because they are perceived as “useless” to society. Human rights cannot and should not be applied conditionally.

This unfortunate phenomenon is surrounded by the related topic of disability. According to the 2016 Disability Statistics Annual Report, 35.4% of Americans over the age of 65 had a disability, which is over three times higher than the rate of working-age (18-64) Americans at 10.4%. Like advanced age, disability is also perceived as a barrier to social utility. Age and disability together form a potent one-two punch of compound discrimination, making older people with disabilities extremely vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

An old woman sits at a window next to a yellow flower in a vase.
Untitled. Source: Bas Bogers, Creative Commons.

Elder abuse, as it is termed, is widespread but often under-reported. National rates are reported to be around 10%, though researchers at the prominent New York Elder Prevention Society found self-reported rates of elder abuse to be up to 24 times higher than the documented rate. Only 3% of  older people in New York officially reported any form of elder abuse, though nearly three-quarters self-reported that they have experienced neglect or financial, physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. This number may be inflated by the instances where individuals experience multiple types of abuse, making exact numbers more difficult to isolate. The most common forms of elder abuse are financial and physical/sexual abuse, which can occur concurrently.

Nursing homes, meant to protect and nurture their patients, are actually one of the most dangerous environments for vulnerable older persons with disabilities. The Nursing Home Abuse Center reports a nursing home abuse rate of about 44%, and a neglect rate of nearly 95%. Elder abusers are rarely prosecuted due to stigma, social isolation of the victim, lack of support services, inaccessible reporting, and proximity of abusers. Relatives constitute about 90% of elder abuse perpetrators, which often makes the victim reluctant to prosecute their own spouses, adult children, or other relatives.

Skin. Source: Victor Camilo, Creative Commons.

Direct abuse and neglect of the elderly is widely sustained by the deeply pervasive public attitude of hostility towards aging. Beauty products are regularly marketed as “anti-aging,” covering up the crows’ feet, varicose veins, liver spots and silver hairs that inevitably accompany a well-lived life. Most of the stigma is inevitably directed at aging women, as femininity carries the heavy burden of visual appeal. The cosmetic surgery industry is booming as women are pressured to appear as veritable supermodels long after the glow of youth has faded. Social media surrounds us with visuals of gorgeous, toned, smooth-skinned women who never seem to age a day, while the rest of us have to keep up with whatever products, surgeries or diets we can find.

Gone are the days where women past a certain age could relax into frumpy mom jeans and orthopedic tennis shoes without fearing judgment. Modern grandmothers now face the strenuous expectation to maintain a Helen Mirren-esque figure with the style and poise of Meryl Streep. Notably, these two women are some of the very few well-known older actresses; both have had to work tirelessly to achieve that notoriety, considering Streep’s record-breaking two-dozen Academy Award nominations and Mirren’s prestigious Triple Crown of Acting that has only ever been awarded to 23 people. It’s undeniable that Hollywood has a major problem with representation of women over thirty. Men in the acting industry get a few extra decades of “silver fox” stardom while women face rejection at first wrinkle.

An older couple links arms as they carry bags and walk together.
Lean on Me. Source: Amro, Creative Commons.

Ageism sometimes feels like an inescapable facet of society, but it shouldn’t have to be. Encouraging and celebrating old age will eventually serve to benefit everyone, as positive attitudes towards aging have been shown to increase lifespan by nearly eight years. Elderly people have had autonomy and dignity systematically stolen from them through attitudes of derision and pity– they are constantly viewed as either cantankerous burdens to society or doddering, wretched old fools.  One’s social contribution or lack thereof should not be a determinant in preserving human dignity. After all, human rights are for all humans, right?

From here, we have to do better on a global scale. Any success in reducing ageism requires confrontation of our own internal prejudices, since youth are the major perpetrators of age-based discrimination. The efforts we make today in reducing oppression for older individuals will directly impact our future experiences. Psychologists have found three major components essential to active engagement in fighting ageism:

  1. Social integration
    • Often, elderly individuals are unable to fully participate in society due to social hostility and lack of accessibility. Many of us have not been educated on topics relating to older people, and some even may find engaging with the elderly to feel uncomfortable. Fuller integration into society would foster respect for the aged community, as increased public presence of older individuals would promote culture of tolerance.
  2. Reduce cultural shame
    • Current media culture is incredibly toxic towards older people, and portrays the elderly in a negative light far too frequently. Advertisements should attempt to portray older people with respect to their human dignity, rather than the foolish, bumbling representations that are far too common in current media.
  3. Accept aging as a fact of life
    • Ageism often stems from personal fears of death and dying. This fear is incredibly common but damaging to both society at large and to individuals who hold them– ironically, negative attitudes towards aging have been shown to decrease lifespans. To combat this, old age should be normalized and celebrated.

Clearly, ageism is not something that can be eradicated at all once. It requires active change on both an institutional and personal level, as age-based discrimination is deeply ingrained in cultural attitudes and everyday interactions. Monumental as it may seem, ageism is still an issue that we must tackle if we ourselves are to experience old age with the dignity that all humans deserve. So remember to always respect your elders, whether out of regard for human dignity, self-preservation, or both.