A while back I wrote a post called “Another Word for Stigma” (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-oz), which was about the new-to-me term “sanism” and how it set up a dichotomy between the sane and the insane. While sanism may have been intended to reframe the discussion about mental health issues, I said, “We already know that stigma exists surrounding mental illness. We don’t really need the word ‘sanism’ to redefine it. Or to pit us against one another.”
When applied to mental illness, “ableism” is another word that subtly reinforces stigma. It implies that, unlike the neurotypical population, those of us with mental disorders are differently abled, mentally challenged, or – dare I say it – disabled.
Many of us – including me – have applied for disability and many – including me – have been turned down. Despite that, many of us live with varying levels of ability and disability, which are nearly impossible to see and therefore to prove.
When I applied for disability, I was in the depths of what would once have been called a nervous breakdown. I had mental deficits, emotional instability, trouble performing the skills of daily life, inability to hold a job – certainly at the level that I formerly had, or possibly not at all. My thoughts were disordered. My life was disordered. I got by only with the help of a caregiver – my husband. If that’s not at least partial disability, I don’t know what is.
By the time my claim was denied and my disability lawyer was prepping me for a hearing, however, I was, if not well, at least better. I had found part-time work that I could do at home, which provided as much income as disability would have. At his suggestion, I dropped my claim. Perhaps I shouldn’t have, because the lack of medical benefits has been a constant difficulty.
So, am I disabled? I would have to say, partly. I still cannot hold a full-time job – certainly not without accommodations – and my caregiver (still my husband) has to help me with many of the tasks of daily living.
The notion of requiring accommodations leads us to the subject of discrimination. Employers are required by federal law to provide “reasonable accommodations” to persons with disabilities, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), for conditions including “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities,” and also to “a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment. The ADA does not specifically name all of the impairments that are covered.”
“Reasonable accommodations” are not defined for mental disabilities, but examples of accommodations for other conditions include modifying work schedules, as well as leave flexibility and unpaid leave. But just try telling a prospective employer (as you are entitled to do) that you will need flexible hours to accommodate appointments, panic attacks, or other phenomena; or asking someone you work for to give you unpaid leave for a hospitalization. I think you know the result as well as I do.
One problem is that these forms of discrimination – which is what they are – are damnably hard to prove, as onerous and unlikely as being classified disabled in the first place. Yet the protections against these forms of discrimination are defined by law. But how many of us have the wherewithal to challenge them, prove our cases, and get by while waiting for the results of a lawsuit?
Even the act of asking for an accommodation opens us to yet another instance of stigma, and the outcome depends on the individual knowledge and understanding of an employer, when it should follow the law. We approach employers and prospective employers hat in hand, asking for – but not expecting – to get the treatment that is legally, rightfully ours.
In these days of rampant discrimination against people of any number of races, religions, national or ethnic origins, sexual orientations, and disabling conditions, our voices may not be the first to be heard. But we, the neurodivergent, the mentally ill, the emotionally disabled, the psychiatric patients, and our caregivers and loved ones deserve to be free from the effects of ableism, discrimination, and stigma.
Let’s speak up, keep educating about our issues, and support each other in banishing stigma, ending discrimination, and putting ableists on notice that we will not shut up until our rights are acknowledged.