Grace Stratton x Ashton Applewhite
Exploring the intersections between Ageism and Ableism
With the goal of changing the conversation around inclusivity, aging and accessibility, every month we will present a fresh approach by bringing together leaders in the community to talk about any and all subjects. This month, we paired author and ageism activist Ashton Applewhite and social entrepreneur and disability activist Grace Stratton to explore the intersections between Ageism and Ableism. Here’s what they had to say:
Ashton: The reason I started trying to walk the walk about the intersectionality of ageism and ableism is because the pandemic made it so obvious, instantly. The original messaging was “Don’t worry, the virus will only affect the old and the ill,” which was a huge factor behind the lax global response. I posted the thought experiment below on my Facebook page because I wanted people to grasp the lethal, global consequences of ageism and ableism, and the fact that these prejudices impact us all.
THOUGHT EXPERIMENT: What would the infection rate, the unemployment rate, and the economy look like now if we’d known sooner that the young and healthy were vulnerable, too? #ExposeAgeism #ExposeAbleism
Grace: There’s still that kind of misjudgement that “oh, it’s not gonna be me, it’s gonna be somebody else who may be old, already sick, or disabled - so I don’t need to worry”
A: The good news is that there’s enormous potential for our communities to come together and challenge people’s thinking.
G: Yes. I think we tackle this prejudice by recentering the conversation, which is something that lots of activists have been doing. Stella Young famously said that, “being disabled does not make you extraordinary, but questioning what you think about it does.” The center of the conversation for disabled people has always been that it’s their disability that is the barrier to whatever you want to enter. Whether it’s a job, relationship, participation in sports and we need to recenter that conversation. To instead say “disabilities don’t need to change but what needs to change are these outside forces, these social structures that are plaguing the experience of being disabled.”
A: Exactly. The disability rights movement has brilliantly succeeded in shifting the way we see disability, from a personal misfortune to a shared political and structural problem: the problem is not that I’m in a wheelchair, the problem is that there are steps between me and where I want to go. Likewise, the problem is not that we get wrinkles, but that we’re discriminated against because of it. I couldn’t agree more that we need to recenter the conversation. Oldschool.info is doing this for ageism. It is a clearing house of free, vetted anti-ageism resources and a campaigns section, which is growing fast. Antiageism campaigns are being created around the world, with the first national one being in Australia. So, it’s real and it’s growing fast.
G: Why do you think it’s taken longer for ageism to be illuminated in the minds of the public. Do you think it’s because unlike wheelchair use for example, which is not experienced by everyone, age is a part of natural life experience that everybody’s going to get to?
A: You would think that because age is the only prejudice that everyone encounters, ageism would be tackled sooner rather than later. I always point out that ageism is any judgement on the basis of age, and that younger people experience a lot of it too. I’m sure people diminish your experience and your voice all the time, because you’re young. That’s ageism too. The fact that everyone experiences ageism can make it harder to mobilize against. There’s no “out group” to compare yourself to. But everyone ages.
I think we have to ask ourselves, why does it take everybody having a problem to make these changes that are obviously going to improve the world at large?
Older people are often the most ageist of all, because we’re bombarded by negative messages about age and aging, unless we stop to question them, they become part of our identity. Older people are also incredibly diverse: the longer we live, the more different from each other we become, and the less our age says about us. Disabilities, likewise, differ enormously. Yet disabled people have been able to come together and create community across those differences, which is an astonishing achievement. So, I think the lesson I’m most interested in exploring with you and others is how we can work to effect that shift in consciousness in older people.
As to why ageism has taken so long to bleep onto the radar, I suspect it’s partly because it’s taken this long for my generation – I was born in 1952, dead center of the baby boom – to acknowledge that we’re going to get old, even though we’re healthier and more active than our parents and grandparents were, there’s a lot more denial. People think, “If I eat more kale and do Sudoku that bad stuff isn’t going to happen to me.”
We need to accept that we’re going to get old, and that much age-related change enriches us. Think of the potential if we could acknowledge the ways that ageism and ableism compound one another, they expose and confront the dual stigma. I’m especially interested in how older people could learn about adjusting to diminished capacity. I think it has enormous movement-building potential. There’s a lot of old people in the world.
G: I think people make the mistake of saying or thinking that disabled people are a small group in society and that’s certainly not true. And, of course, a large amount of people will experience disability when they’re older, which is why it makes sense to bring them on board in the movement now.
A: Most of them are terrified of that possibility, and that’s what we need to work on.
G: And I think it’s about asking, “Why are you terrified of it? People say to me, “You are not defined by your disability,” because they associate disability with terrible things. I associate my disability with a lot of my positive qualities – resilience, courage, compassion. So, I think it’s about working to undo the misplaced fear and judgement of disability
A: You can also work it from the other end: help older people to see that we age well not by avoiding disability, but by learning to accept it and ideally embrace it. To see it not as shameful, but as a source of self-knowledge and identity, even pride. That’s a big ask. It’s a work of a lifetime, and we have to embark on it in the community. I do think COVID-19 has woken up some of the general public to the way both olders and disabled people are marginalized, that the consequences can be lethal, and that we can support each other. For example, all the adaptations for working from home that disabled people have been asking for for decades, suddenly become possible once the health of the general public was at risk. How do we make sure they don’t become “impossible” again? How can we stand in solidarity? There is something powerful about the levelling.
G: COVID-19 highlighted that actually most people are able to adapt to a new way of working and it actually works just as well as being in an office in person. I know someone who, before COVID-19, was headhunted for a job and didn’t get the job because of the layout of the office. It was inaccessible to them. They weren’t offered the ability to do the job remotely. The boss didn’t say anything. But now, of course, with COVID-19, everyone is doing jobs remotely and everything is totally fine. I think we have to ask ourselves, why does it take everybody having a problem to make these changes that are obviously going to improve the world at large? Why did we need a global pandemic to make changes that should have been made years ago?
Younger people don’t deserve to have to wait until they’re old to achieve voice and access.
A: Right. A very tangible analogy is curb cuts, which were mandated when the ADA passed. Of course, everyone uses them, whether pushing a stroller or a delivery cart, or riding a skateboard, and because they were universal, there was no stigma. The things that make a community good to live in for olders and disabled people, are the same things that make it good for families, kids, commuters, for everyone. And, of course, families and communities include people of all ages and abilities. Framing it that way is so important.
When I ask people to name their criteria for diversity, everyone says, “race, gender, sexual orientation.” I think people say ‘disability’ more than they used to, but most people still omit “age”. But when I ask, “how about age?” they’re like, “why didn’t I think of that?”
So, in a sense, we’re on the vanguard of pushing for an awareness of how these two forms of prejudice compound and reinforce each other, and how we can build on that awareness to reduce fear and stigma and foster solidarity. Especially in the face of COVID-19.
G: I’ll be honest, it does bother me sometimes when people say, “old people are going to experience disability and that’s what makes disability more relevant.”
A: Yes. Younger people don’t deserve to have to wait until they’re old to achieve voice and access.
G: Exactly, yeah. We are stronger by coming together.