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Beth Blick: More discussion needed about ableism, disability

By Beth Blick

Within the atheist humanist community, I do not see a prevalence of topics relating to ableism (and people with disabilities, in general) when it comes to how we have often been mistreated by people of faith. 

When I was attending a Catholic school, I had water thrown in my face by a nun in an attempt to control my behavior. As a result of that, my mother also started doing the same thing to me at home as a way to reinforce the message. I felt even more frustrated and helpless, and not at all heard. While my mother’s actions cannot be excused, it was the nuns who gave her the idea. 

Those of us with disabilities were often segregated away from non-disabled kids in religious environments even more severely than in other public places. I have no idea why my Jewish parents sent me to a Catholic school, but they did. We lived in a majority Catholic neighborhood at that time. 

I was once physically pushed away from communion by a nun because no one explained to me that Jewish kids shouldn’t take communion. I had no idea what it meant. One of my other disabled friends was slapped on the wrist repeatedly for something that was out of her control. It just wasn’t fair or kind. 

These are the kinds of experiences that I would like to hear discussed more openly so that greater awareness would hopefully lead to less abuse.

On another note, while many of us are good about making sure that the public places we stay in live up to the Americans with Disabilities Act, the history of those of us with disabilities has not shown up in a very public way in most atheist and humanist groups. Having more of a prevalence of atheists and agnostics with disabilities in the media, and groups such as FFRF partnering with atheists with disabilities on their podcasts and publications would be very helpful to remedy this. Also, specifically reaching out to atheists with disabilities for annual conferences and gatherings, and working on accessibility in a marked way is something that could really help to turn the tide. I am always on the lookout for more individuals and groups of atheists with disabilities.

In a conversation I had with FFRF Co-President Dan Barker, we talked about how groups of people, whether they are theists or nontheists, cannot be painted with a broad brush. We are all our own people. Freethought is a hallmark of sharing our uniqueness and ensuring that we are not “following the crowd” for things that do not align with our core values. Dan joined me earlier this year for a conversation on atheism and disability on my podcast “Speaking on Ability with Beth Blick.” 

Our conversation renewed some of my faith in the human spirit. Dan took the time to listen to me and to offer insights from his years of experience across the spectrum of faith, spirituality and reason. 

One important distinction he made was that we cannot blame God (or gods) for the ways that we or others were born or have come to be. The bodies that we inhabit are not a punishment from some unseen force. We all deserve to live full, happy lives (as much as possible) and have the people who we need with us when the time calls for it. 

I encourage more people to submit articles and other media to the atheist community about disability and ableism so that we can keep these important discussions going. Even if people do not have a disability themselves, we all need to be talking about ableism. What does ableism look like? What does it feel like? 

There are still neuro-psych tests that serve as barriers to independence for people with disabilities. That is a huge problem in the medical community when it comes to ableism. Many of us with disabilities already know what our limitations are. We do not need to be told by a professional that we can’t do something, especially not without celebrating all of the things that we already do well. It is disrespectful and often very harmful. 

Ableism is everywhere, and we all need to get better at seeing it, processing it, and working to end it in our own lives and in the lives of others. I especially invite atheists into this conversation — first, because I am one, and second, because we tend to be some of the most reasonable people around. Not to mention that it helps to have a sense of humor, and I know a lot of atheists who are damn funny. We have to sort out the mess and start talking about our own experiences with ableism (internalized or enacted) within the atheist community.

I have been a peace and disability advocate for many years and am a proponent of what the late Rep. John Lewis called “good trouble.” On my podcast, I strive to interview people who I hold in esteem and respect who share some of my values. I identify as a progressive feminist, and recently started writing for the Minnesota Women’s Press. My first article for the Women’s Press talks about the 2022 legislative session and how citizens can get involved with upcoming and current legislation focused on making life better for people in the disability community.

Let’s all tune in to the godless greatness that we’re weaving together as we get the word out not only about atheism and humanism, but also about disability and ableism!

Please reach out to me at if you’d like to discuss this topic with me.

FFRF Member Beth Blick lives in St. Paul, Minn.