Imagine that when you wake up in the morning you are handed a bunch of literal metal spoons and each of them represents an amount of energy you have at your disposal. Those are the spoons you are stuck with and, to complete tasks, you give them up. Hold them in your hand, okay. Now get dressed, give up a spoon. Make breakfast, lose a spoon. Hand me one of your spoons for each task. Soon, you will be holding no spoons, you will have no more energy. I will be holding all your spoons, but that’s not part of this. This is called spoon theory.
Here is a small experiment: this semester I wait until one of the very last weeks of class to tell my students I am disabled, and I only tell them because I worry they will think I am just lazy instead of a person with a disability slash illness who needs to cancel class more than other teachers might. The experiment is the next time one of their stories or poems or essays is ableist, the experiment is whether the next time they think my calling it ableist is a real academic thought or just the way I feel. The experiment is I don’t have an answer yet because this happened today, but I do have a kind of strong guess.
- Which famous writer is secretly disabled?
a. You shouldn’t ask that.
- Replace the word ‘deaf’ in the following sentence: Her warnings fell on deaf ears.
a. Different metaphor.
b. Literally deaf.
c. Maybe we need to talk about the difference between verbs, like what is hearing vs. what is listening vs. what is processing vs. what is understanding.
Ableism as daily practice, I imagine, goes like this:
—You wake up with your legs, you think that you could not wake up without legs or live without legs and you might kill yourself without legs. You go to Starbucks with your legs and you don’t check to see if they have accessible bathrooms or automatic door buttons.
—You go to class. Your purse isn’t full of pill bottles because you’re not, like, a trainwreck who takes pills in the middle of class.
—In class, which is poetry workshop, someone reads their poem which includes a lover who is blind to the speaker of the poem, a lover who is spineless. You nod with your head that doesn’t get dizzy from nodding, you take notes in class with your hands that can hold pens or pencils all the time and not just sometimes with the right medication.
—Someone who is me says something about ableism, which the professor then asks me to explain and to provide a solution for, but you kind of tune me out, because this happens every week, and you don’t understand why I’m even there, don’t I write nonfiction, and do I read looking to find ableism in like every goddamn fucking poem, which you asked me about a few weeks ago because you were genuinely curious and—
I text my disabled poet friend, I am a mess (said out loud: I am MS.) She texts back, Idk how you made that into poetry but you did. Here is a tiny miniscule multiplied sclerosis of an experiment: I stop making disability jokes to my nondisabled friends. I start again by accident. I stop. I start.
If there are a limited number of spoons at my disposal and they represent the energy I have for a day or a week or a year, I might spend a lot of spoons trying to write two books at once or plan a wedding or bathe myself. If there are a limited number of spoons at my disposal, I might find myself unwilling to start projects just for fun, or to have arguments for the sake of arguing. The idea of a devil’s advocate becomes very quickly unappealing. For a workshop, I’m supposed to be designing and executing a writing experiment but the idea of an experiment becomes very quickly unappealing, unless it’s something I’m already doing, already spending spoons on. The question becomes whether there’s something I’m already doing that I can call an experiment, how many things in my life can I co-opt into other things in order to minimize the expenditure of unnecessary spoons.
Like how I already have begun to spend my time calling out ableism when I encounter it, but if I need to have an experiment, I might decide this ongoing project also can count as a new experiment, I might try to force the connection into being. Yes, I think yes. And I do not enjoy the calling out, so I think that maybe if I make calling out into an experiment, I will have a reason to continue, and I will not be ashamed, and I will not be afraid. I call it an experiment privately to just myself, and I am still ashamed, and I am still afraid.
Dear nondisabled person: I tend to assume that when you wake up, you have unlimited (or at least refillable) energy that will be at your disposal for the rest of the day. From my time as a nondisabled person, I sometimes remember that this is not entirely true. Like as a nondisabled person sometimes I was very sleepy at high school or needed a cup of coffee or an hour of sleep or a RedBull, and these things did not always succeed in waking me up. At the time I was also very capable of going to one of those interchangeable by-the-port Barcelona nightclubs until three in the morning and then waking up at six and attending school, maintaining my painfully high GPA with the aid of an occasional RedBull which was sometimes mixed with vodka, mixed in a glass with a long spoon, or, that’s a fake detail, you just pour the two things in and basically they mix themselves, there is no need for a spoon or for expenditure of carefully measured energy.
- How can you, a nondisabled person, best help to fight ableism?
a. Befriend a disabled person.
b. Befriend a disabled person and ask them what is ableism really?
c. Befriend a disabled person and ask them what is ableism really but then take their answer and turn it into your own think piece on HuffPo.
- What will make me feel better?
b. No more ableism.
c. A nap.
Sometimes, if I am feeling especially angry, I perform this more serious experiment: I pretend this is all happening twenty years ago instead of right now. I pretend that if I am patient and kind and generous with my audience, my oppressors, my audience, they will listen. I pretend that this approach will result in the ability to change hearts and minds. Then I pretend that I didn’t just read an essay about how there’s a lot of tone-policing that happens around that phrase, changing hearts and minds, like people tell activists that they need to be more patient and kind and generous and only then will they change hearts and minds.
When I pretend on that first level, that twenty-years-ago level, it sometimes makes me more cheerful because I can thus think that in twenty years I will feel very vindicated by all the woke folks who know what I’m talking about when I say ableism just like they know what I’m talking about when I say transphobia patriarchy racism model minority rape culture classism fat-shaming slut-shaming shame shame shame shame shame shame. What a vocabulary that is, already somehow ingrained and at their disposal.
It is hard to maintain the first level of pretense because this conversation about ableism was happening twenty years ago, the ADA was passed more than twenty years ago, and that’s why you know it’s bad to say retard, because it’s not chill to discriminate against disabled people, and you already knew that.
I am not the right kind of disabled person for spoon theory. It reads as too simplistic to me, a false equation requiring too many props. Like if I hand you all my spoons, your nondisabled hands render my spoons dirty, and then I have to either wash them with my disabled tired spoon-hungry hands or put them in the dishwasher and worry about water usage, which, depending on amount of time spent worrying about the eventual demise of our earth which often seems too theoretical, might require an extra spoon of energy. In an experiment, I stop explaining spoon theory to discover if I can say something more direct, something about today I have less energy, I discover what is lost. I discover that I think nothing is lost. I discover that discover is a verb that draws attention to itself when repeated, even if that repetition exists to avoid ability-based verbs, see and hear. In an experiment, I attempt to remove all ableist language from my own small vocabulary. I discover discovery, I discover spoon-free energy, and its lack.
What if some days I have six spoons and other days I have thirty-five?
I cancel class again. I text my mother, I feel like a bad teacher. She texts back, Teachers are people, we are not robots.
My house always runs out of clean forks before we run out of clean spoons which is useful if I have a nondisabled person at my kitchen table asking what on earth spoon theory is. I wonder if it is a coincidence or not that spoons are the least violent utensil, but I do not ask Google about this question. I prefer my experiments researchless, but I’ll pretend it’s so I’m unaffected by bias. Like here I am all alone in my bedroom, typing up my results, this experiment is controlled. My result is that I don’t think it’s a coincidence that disabled people have spoon theory instead of fork or knife theory. I think it’s a small spoon jab, like fuck you for thinking we commit the most violence. We commit the least. We are more likely to be victims than to victimize. When I talk disability, I’m always really careful to put that in. I think it helps to cancel out my bias, by which I mean: your fear of me.
- Which famous writer is secretly disabled?
b. Maybe we need to talk about why this would be a secret.
c. No one, ever.
- What has happened to you recently to make you understand ableism and/or the specific barriers faced by disabled people?
a. A disabled person told you about it.
b. The headache you had yesterday.
c. You are still figuring this out.
It might not be about violence at all. It might just be that a spoon is the utensil that functions as a boat, you can hold things in it. Like booze or coffee or air or get-well-soon you’ll-feel-better chicken-noodle-soup or theoretical energy. It might be that fork theory and knife theory sounded worse. It might be, now, that spoon functions as code, all the people I follow on Twitter with #Spoonie and #SpoonieProblems and #SpoonieLife in their bios who are the right kind of disabled people for a theory I’ve tried to distance myself from. And yet, the favorites. And yet, the retweets. My Twitter bio for a while said previously described as a bitch who won’t roll over, but maybe instead of won’t I should have said can’t, like I expended all my spoons and now this is it for the day, I have to lie on my back and cancel class from bed.
My nondisabled friend tells me in workshop that a call-out is something that requires power to do, that in order to call someone out for something, I am assuming I know something that they do not know. I am having trouble wrapping my brain around this idea, which seems to essentially be that knowledge of one’s own oppression is a type of power.
I am wondering if she has ever had to call something out, if she’s ever sat in a body while that body said things quietly like don’t open your mouth, and the brain said back, but this is my experiment, and the mouth opened, and the mouth gently said, so gently, as gently as it could manage: I just want to voice a bit of concern about the way sight is functioning in this essay. I am wondering if she knows that while this happens, the hands might go numb, and the brain braces for the impact of whatever comes next. What comes next is likely the call-and-response feedback to a call-out: the shut-down. The I don’t understand what you mean or perhaps you are particularly sensitive or but sight must function this way in this essay for reasons you clearly don’t see. If this is power, I am glad to not often experience it.
In workshop, nondisabled people talk a lot about the embodied process of writing, they talk about how writing is like walking, how it is so important to write with an actual pen and paper. Sometimes I call them out for this, sometimes I stay silent instead. Sometimes I describe a panic attack or disability in an embodied way because they say embodiedness is so important but apparently that is only true when the body is able. Not all bodies can do the same things, but I think they already know that. They just for some reason need me to say it again.
The week after I tell my students that I am disabled, eleven out of twenty of them show up for workshop. I tell myself there is a concert or a party that I don’t know about. I make jokes about how nice the weather is, I try to not sound accusatory because oh how I do suddenly love the eleven students in front of me. After class, I ask my friend who teaches at the same time in the same building, her classroom just across the hallway from mine, this experiment as controlled as it could be, I ask her how her attendance was. And she says eighteen, eighteen out of twenty.
Ableism as daily practice:
—You are my partner and the worst fights we have are the ones where you tell me that the way I talk about ableism borders on moralistic, you tell me I am too quick to judge, too quick to dismiss. You are my friend and you tell me that I should give my peers with the Most Ableist Poems endless more chances. You are my professor and you thank me for the work I do weekly and I want to ask if you would have said this twenty years ago to a person of color force
d to explain racism. Yes, I think yes. You are a person on the internet and you tell me disabled people are too sensitive. You are a comedian and you quote the definition of the word retarded at my friend on Twitter to explain to her why your joke is actually, in fact, and if she were less sensitive she would understand: it is really so funny.
Imagine that you wake up in the morning and I hand you twenty-five very sharp forks. Every time you say something ableist to me, I take a fork away from you. When you are all out of forks, each ableist thing you say means I get to stab you really hard with a fork, and leave it stuck in your skin. If you’re paying attention, you might notice that I am cripping your body, I am making it unwhole. I look at you and wonder why you won’t stop talking. I convince myself it is just that you are really jealous, you want to be like me. The holes in your skin mirroring the holes in my brain, you are so hopeful. The forks sticking out of you are like lightning rods, like useless numb stiff lame shameful limbs. You are still talking. And so I take the last fork, and I shove it down your throat. This is called fork theory and it’s about how angry I am. It’s about how ableist you are, it’s about my bias. This is called fork theory, and instead of using a spoon like a bowl to hold and show you your ableism, I am cancelling class from bed. I’m mirroring you back at yourself, I am your constant inspiration. I’m taking pills in class, in a class that I take, in a class that I teach, I’m taking pills in front of you and you are my student who thinks I am lazy. I’m twirling your last fork in my not-so-nimble fingers. I’m waiting in line behind you at Starbucks.