Third Place

Introduction: Dina El Dessouky

Lecturer, Writing Program

Alex Paulsen

"Love in the Time of Ableism"

Instructor: Dina El Dessouky

“I felt that I had a responsibility to prove that disabled lives are not just worth living, but worth celebrating.”

– Alex Paulsen

Hello, my name is Alex Paulsen. There’s a pernicious myth that one can only write what one knows. Personally, I find this deeply reductive. But I have lived my life in a non-normative body. I am disabled, both physically and cognitively, and as such I do have a particularly intimate knowledge of all the ways that ableism weaves its way into the fabric of our society.

I wrote this piece in response to a New York Times article that framed the murder of a disabled woman at the hands of her caretaker and husband as a love story. It was hard, to say the least. Staring baldly into the face of a system that deems you a burden takes its toll. On the technical side of things, I was also trying to improve my rhetoric at the same time. There’s a tendency to try to appeal to logic when arguing for equality, and I wanted to push as far away from that as possible. I was exhausted by the end of it, but in a culture that does all it can to devalue disabled lives, I felt that I had a responsibility to prove that disabled life is not just worth living, but worth celebrating.

This is a passage from “Love in the Time of Ableism”

Robert Dawidoff, in his foreword to Paul Longmore’s Why I Burned My Book, explains that seeing a disabled person “challenges our uncomfortable, if usually repressed awareness that anyone can become disabled... We regard disability as a kind of memento mori, except that we take it as reminding us of a difficult and torturous life rather than the inevitability of death.” This is frightening, this memento debili, and that fear is mirrored in the systemic treatment of disabled people. The last Ugly Law, which made it illegal for “any person, who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or deformed in any way, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, to expose himself or herself to public view”, saw its demise in 1974, and systemic ableism still threatens immigration status, safety, voting, reproductive rights, employment, education, and marriage equality. Ableism is present in our news, our entertainment, our advertising, present in our legislature, present in the very architecture we live in. It’s the supervillain in a wheelchair beaten to a pulp by the brawny hero, the sexless autistic best friend who serves more as a plot device than a person. It’s the wrongful life claims (Brown), involuntary sterilization (Buck v. Bell, 1927), the Ugly Laws. It’s the man who brutally ripped his wife’s autonomy from her with the business end of a firearm being framed as a Byronic hero.

To love is akin to planting a garden; it takes care and effort and nourishment. One must tend a garden, trim and water and fertilize the living things one wishes to grow. When weeds begin to sprout, one does not set the garden ablaze. Love, then, exists in antithesis to murder: one cannot love what one wishes to kill.The framing of disabled murders as acts of love belies a gross misunderstanding of what love is, what mercy is.

Where is the mercy in looking another human being in the eye and deciding for them that they are better off dead?


See Also