2022 California Council of Community Behavioral Health Agencies (CBHA) Conference

What Do Age and Disability Mean in Our Culture

People with disabilities come in all ages, and almost all of us encounter some change in physical or mental capacity as we grow old. Yet, we act as though old people never become disabled and disabled people never grow old. Academics and policymakers approach disability and aging as separate fields. Why? Because people in the aging field are understandably leery of seeming to equate aging and disability, and because disability activists tend to be younger and mainly focused on issues that affect people of working age. Because we’re short-sighted and we’re all prejudiced. This does none of us any favors. Ageism feeds ableism (prejudice against people with disabilities), and vice versa.

Disability and aging are different. They also overlap in important ways. Both olders and people with disabilities encounter discrimination and prejudice. And both groups face stigma. Many olders refuse to use wheelchairs or walkers, even when it means never leaving home. My uncle wouldn’t use a white cane even when he grew completely blind, preferring to rely on the kindness of strangers and taxi drivers. As for the ageism stigma, after breaking a bone in her foot, a not-yet-forty-year-old friend likewise declined a cane, deferring to crutches because they signal “injured,” not “old” or “disabled.” Cognitive impairment is even more stigmatized.

Being older or having a disability doesn’t keep us from being ageist or ableist. People with disabilities make me uncomfortable! People with serious mental illness scare me! That’s how prejudice works: it frames the other group—what we think of as the other group, that is—as alien and lesser than ourselves. This defies common sense, because people with disabilities come in all ages, after all, and most of us, if we live long enough, will encounter changes in physical or mental capacity. Healthy aging can, and does, involve disability. Ignoring the overlap leaves the stigma unchallenged, and rules out collective activism.

We have a lot to learn from the activists who in the 1970s and ‘80s reframed the way we see disability. They changed it from an individual medical problem into a social problem—bingo!—and then demanded integration, access, and equal rights. Olders and people with disabilities share the same goal: a culture that rejects narrow definitions of “productivity” and “attractiveness,” finds meaning within limitations and takes a realistic and inclusive view of what it means to be human. Let’s join forces.

I’m an activist against ageism, much of which is rooted in fear of becoming disabled. Likewise, much stigma around disability has to do with what I’ve dubbed “age cooties.” Of course, people with disabilities come in all ages; of course, healthy aging can and does involve disability; of course prejudice is not rational. And of course, disability and aging are different, but ignoring the ways in which they overlap compounds stigma and blinds us to the potential of collective activism.

Both aging and disability are incredibly diverse; how could we create some kind of shared identity or campaign in order to dismantle shared stigma? How could age equality activists learn from the brilliant advocates who got the ADA passed, and institutions for people with mental illness shuttered by changing disability from a personal problem into a social one? How might we apply those strategies to reframe the way most people see aging—the one universal human experience? How might the disability justice movement benefit from growing global activism against ageism?

My goal is to help catalyze a movement against ageism that’s genuinely inclusive, which means bringing people of different races, classes, abilities, genders etc. to the table from the get-go, and making sure all voices are heard. I’m scouting for those voices and wondering if some of you readers of BH News might be interested in being one of them, and/or if you’d pass along this query to others in your community who might be.

When groups within companies don’t share information or knowledge, it’s called a “silo mentality.” It reduces efficiency and compromises the culture. Siloing is just as damaging in the social justice sphere, where it fosters disconnection and marginalization.

The antidote is to think and act intersectionally—a clumsy word for a powerful idea. Black feminist Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality in the 1970s, to address the ways that different forms of oppression—like racism, sexism, discrimination on the basis of behavioral health conditions, and ageism—interact and combine to undermine us all. It’s also a way of thinking about the relationship between identity and power: how people and institutions use identity—old, for example, or disabled, or fat, or Muslim, or crazy—to withhold or confer advantage. In Crenshaw’s words, in an article called “Why Intersectionality Can’t Wait,” “intersectionality isn’t just about identities—race, gender, class—but about the institutions that use identity to exclude and privilege.”

These relationships explain why the poorest of the poor, everywhere in the world, are old women of color. Add disability to the mix, and vulnerability increases even more. It’s no wonder that so many people who are homeless around the world are people with serious mental illness or addictions. It’s why, as Crenshaw wrote, “We simply do not have the luxury of building social movements that are not intersectional, nor can we believe we are doing intersectional work just by saying words.”

A vivid example came my way this week in an eloquent article by Kate Bunting, the CEO of HelpAge USA called “Putting inclusion into practice.” A term that came out of disability rights, inclusion means giving people with disabilities full access to society, whether by providing closed captions or building wheelchair ramps or simply inviting them into the conversation. Inclusion is core to HelpAge’s mission to improve the lives of the world’s poorest olders, and Bunting wants it to be a mainstream humanitarian priority.

We’re not there yet, because we don’t collect much information on older people and what data we do collect isn’t broken down by age or disability. Without data, we can’t design programs with those populations in mind. “What this translates to in practice,” she writes, “are distribution centers reachable only by those who can walk there; food only for those capable of digesting it; and emergency warnings understood only by those who can see and hear.” During wartime or emergencies, this makes people with disabilities, many of whom are older, the last to receive resources and the first to die.

What can the rest of us do? Bust out of our silos. Ask honestly whether we’ve been reaching out to those with less privilege, to people who don’t look like us, or live far away, or don’t seem to have much in common with us. At heart, there’s only “us.” I used to say that ageism was the only form of discrimination that affects everyone, but in fact all oppression burdens us all. Like the T-shirt says, “None of us are free until all of us are free.”

A movement against ageism is underway. If we want it to leave no one out—to be genuinely inclusive—it has to engage people at the margins of society, the ones whom people in power deliberately overlook because they can get away with it. It’s no surprise that queer women of color are leading the charge. They’re the ones, in the words of Rutgers professor Brittney Cooper, “who meld race, gender and queer politics into an expansive, inclusive, and just vision of the world.” That world is better for all of us. It’s the world I want to inhabit and that I’m learning to work towards. As a white woman of privilege not used to abandoning her comfort zone, I have a long way to go.

I’m committed to making the journey. Will you join me?

An internationally recognized expert on ageism, Ashton Applewhite is the author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, published this March by Celadon Books. She speaks widely at venues that have included the TED mainstage and the United Nations and is a leading spokesperson for a movement to mobilize against discrimination on the basis of age.

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