10 Using the Tools of the Brain to Become Anti-Ableist
Xandre Couchot and Jessi Derby
Memory is predictable but complicated. Human memory serves a dual purpose, while it can be an insight to an individual’s history and experiences, memory is often the best predictor of future behavior. Serving as a future indicator of success, memory is built on a plethora of factors such as environment, experience, and culture. Memory also contributes to an individual’s self concept and identity. Thus memory is a core component of an individual’s beliefs and values, ultimately contributing to engagement in social dilemmas. Of the many social conflicts, ableism is a newer and less explored social injustice, yet memory plays a central role in the biases of ability.
What is Ableism?
When discussing socially unjust ideas, disparities begin with the diffusion of power. In many societies, the people with the most power are able-bodied, meaning that their ability meets the standards and norms of society. In order to understand ableism, one must first understand what encompasses a disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defined an individual with a disability under three conditions: an individual with a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits life activities; an individual with a record of a mental or physical impairment; or an individual regarded as having an impairment (Nario-Redmond, 2020). The ADA does not name any specific impairments that encompass an individual with a disability, however the ADA includes both physical and mental impairments. Whether impairments are visible or not, they can result in different limitations for different individuals (Nari-Redmond, 2020). The visibility of a disability can affect the way an individual is perceived and treated by others.
Before the 1970’s, many disabled people were institutionalized and away from public view (Newnham & Lebracht, 2020). Many of these people were inadequately taken care of due to lack of staff and funding. As a result, these institutions looked more similar to a concentration camp than a hospital. Disabled people outside of institutions were also affected. Most places were completely inaccessible (Newnham & Lebracht, 2020). Whether a building was to be made accessible was up to the people who owned it. As a result, the Rehabilitation Act of 1972 was written, which would have made it illegal to discriminate against disabled people. However, president Richard Nixon vetoed the act (Newnham & Lebracht, 2020). In response, Disabled in Action, a civil rights organization founded by Judith Heumann, started a series of demonstrations (Newnham & Lebracht, 2020). They started by blocking traffic in New York City. Eventually the act was signed. However, it was not properly enforced. Protests eventually escalated until an occupation occurred in the Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) headquarters in California. With help from the union members, the Black Panthers, other civil rights organizations, and several government officials, the group managed to stay 24 days in the HEW building. After almost a month, the Civil Rights Act was signed (Newnham & Lebracht, 2020). This meant that all businesses receiving federal support needed to be accessible, transportation needed to be accessible, and public schools could not discriminate against disabled children. Despite the act being signed, businesses could still discriminate against disabled people and the regulations in place required consistent activism to make sure they were enforced. Due to these consistent protests, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990 (Newnham & Lebracht, 2020).
When looking at ableism, it can be defined as a discrimination and prejudice towards individuals on the basis of disability, regardless of the impairment being mental or physical, visible or invisible (Nairo-Redmond, 2020). Ableism favors a nondisabled perspective, advancing unequal treatment of individuals with a disability. In the process of ableism, able-bodied individuals become the superior group, individuals with disabilities are labeled as deviant from the norm, creating a stigma around disabilities (Reid-Cunningham, 2009). When an ingroup and outgroup is established a social hierarchy is created and maintained by the existence of the groups. The social dominance theory contends that many societies have these hierarchies, where a group of individuals, holding an unearned privilege, becomes dominant (Kattari, 2015). From this dominance, comes oppression onto the socially identified group. The oppressor develops stereotypes and negative emotions towards the oppressed in order to reinforce their dominance and maintain their social power.
Neural architecture of the brain
Understanding memory requires understanding the structure of the brain. The brain is made up of multiple systems that work together to carry out functions. The most prominent structure responsible for creating memories is the hippocampus in the limbic system of the brain (Baddeley, et al., 2020, p. 25, Kesteren & Meeter, 2020). However, the hippocampus does not store memories. A case study, known as HM, had 70-80% of his hippocampus removed in an experimental surgery for his epilepsy. As a result, though it did cure his epilepsy, he could not form new memories. However, all the memories from before his surgery were still intact (Baddeley, et al., 2020, p. 25). Research has shown that semantic and episodic memories become hippocampally independent over time in a process called memory consolidation (Kesteren & Meeter, 2020). This process distributes the memory across the cortices of the brain
The nature of memory is distributed across the brain, occurring locally- across regional neurons, or across cortical and subcortical regions (van Kesteren, Brown, & Wagner, 2016). The neurons in the human brain transmit information to other nerve cells and to other parts of the body. When a cell fires, it goes from rest to action potential, creating an assembly of cells firing upon the previous cell’s activation. Hebb’s rule states that “neurons that fire together, wire together,” which creates a phase sequence, ultimately leading to behavior (Kleinknecht, 2020). These synaptic connections become probabilities, increasing the likelihood of repeating responses again in the future. The neural pathways become reinforced through repetition of thought, which leads to beliefs and ultimately guides decisions.
In social psychology, prejudice is conceptualized in three related components. These components are deemed the ABCs: affect, behavior, and cognition (Nario-Redmond, 2020). When applying the ABCs to ableism, affective emotions are reinforced through synaptic connections. Past experiences with individuals with a disability are projected onto present and future instances, triggering emotional or attitudinal reactions. Following affect, is behavioral practices and actions. These behaviors can be maladaptive depending on the individual and culture. Subsequently, cognitive stereotypes and beliefs create interpretations of the interactions, further alienating themselves from individuals with disabilities or leading to a new adaptive neural pathway. Memory starts at the neural level, initiating pathways that have been exercised in the past, and will continue to be used in the future.
Declarative memory helps contribute to biases associated with ableism. Memories that are open to intentional retrieval is a part of declarative memory (Baddley, Eysenck & Anderson, 2020). Within declarative memory, exists episodic and semantic memory. Episodic memories are based on the recollection of personal experiences and events. Semantic memory stores accumulative knowledge or facts (Baddley et al., 2020). While both factors play a role in declarative memory, they each have pitfalls and praises. In semantic memory, which tends to be the default, emotions are dissolved from a memory in order to conserve energy. The semantic shift from episodic memory, consolidates a memory down to the jist of it, allowing the brain to refer to the memory again in the future but without the energy drain of incorporating emotion.
Episodic memory is also prone to changing. Kahneman (2010) discusses the paradox of the remembering self and the experiencing self. In this paradox, what we remember and what we experienced are at odds. We may experience an event that is very enjoyable, but the event may end poorly. As a result, we remember the whole event as bad, having been “ruined” by the way it ended. This paradox can also be seen in events that are not enjoyable but end well. We tend to remember those events are better than they really were.
Memories do not only change based on the single event. Memories of events can also change when new memories are made (Kesteren, Brown, Wagner, 2016). Kesteren, et al., (2016) discussed how new memories can change old memories by adding new information or framing the memory in a new perspective. Old memories also change new memories. The old memories establish an expectation that influences what we notice in new memories being formed.
A good memory allows an individual to thrive and survive, balancing the need for specificity and generality. When memories are retrieved, it is referred to as the remembering self (Kahneman, 2010). With the remembering self, there tends to be an inclination towards recalling only the parting emotion of an experience or event. When a nondisabled individual has an interaction with an individual with a disability, an end feeling can distort the perception of the interaction, leading to similar or lack of interaction in the future. While memory storage is made to be efficient, disjunctions occur due to the inconsistency of emotion.
Human Universals and Cultural Relatives
At the foundation of memory is the history, culture, and lived experiences of an individual. Universally, humans biologically have the same brain structures across the globe. Yet many distinct factors contribute to the formation of memory and utilization of the brain. Within a culture, aspects such as religion, economics, philosophy, and politics establish the expectations of a culture. When understanding the development of memory, culture is key. In comparison of Western individualistic cultures and Easter collectivist cultures, there are important differences in the “content, style, emergence, and general accessibility of autobiographical memories,” creating substantial consequences (Wang & Ross, 2007, p. 647). Examining the nature of the culture helps understand the execution of memory. Culture gives meaning and context in situations, thus it reinforces the strength of neural pathways which inhibit a behavior.
There are cultural differences in the way individuals with a disability are perceived and treated within their culture. Like other social unjust ideologies, ableism exists on an individual and institutional level (Nairo-Redmond, 2020). Looking into the cultural zeitgeist of Japanese culture, the nightmare for a Japanese individual is social exclusion. This nightmare has many components for the individual with a disability and the individual’s social group. For example, an individual with a visual disability will physically be alienated from the ‘normal’ population. The physical impairment can lead to interpersonal strain and psychological stress. In Western culture, there is an emphasis on an individual’s freedom and independence. Individuals with limited experiences or knowledge on disability regard it as a “wholly negative experience” (Nario-Redmond, 2020, p. 201) thus eliciting pity, compassion, or projection of harmful stereotypes. When an individual does not fit into the norms of a culture, they will be met with rejection. Memory in cultures can create stereotypes, false conceptions, and enhance discriminatory behaviors towards individuals with disabilities.
Ableism in terms of Memory
Memory is a tool based on past experiences, used for future interactions. A schema explains how knowledge of the world is structured and how it influences the way new information is stored and later recalled (Baddley et al., 2020). Yet schemas can lead to misconceptions (van Kesteren & Meeter, 2020). Memory allows an individual to adapt to complex environments and unpredictable environments. However, this aspect of memory can be more detrimental than helpful. Memory fails when an individual cannot efficiently match reaction and situation. Individuals use information that they have accumulated from culture and past experience to “derive their stereotypic beliefs, emotional reactions, and behaviors” (Nairo-Redmond, 2020, p. 203 ) during interactions with individuals with a disability. Culturally developed schemas that portray individuals with disabilities as different from able bodied individuals creates a disjunction in perceived equality and understanding. Ableism arises from memory’s shortcomings. In order to be an anti-ableist, an individual must be willing to learn, admit their mistakes, and then learn from those mistakes (Kleinknecht, 2020). Schemas help accommodate new experiences in old ways of thinking. In order to create an environment where the spectrum of ability is a part of the human experience rather than a problem to be fixed, schemas must be reframed. A shift in this way of thinking can be seen in the language around disability. Cultures adapt and use phrases that cause harm when classifying a group of individuals sharing a similar trait or factor. What is culturally accepted and known, does not always show respect for the group. When addressing any group that an individual does not identify with, it is best to honor the preferences of the group. Language is constantly evolving and there can be variation with a group about the linguistics of language. To accommodate and treat individuals with respect, it is best to ask rather than assume. The National Center on Disability and Journalism advises the use of people-first language unless otherwise indicated (i.e., individual with a disability versus disabled individual). Like other socially unjust ideas, ableism arises from an uneven distribution of perceived power. A step towards equality, starts with incorporating the language surrounding disability. Knowledge is inherited, yet it is not static. When memory remains unchanged, the environment that enables ableism will continue to exist. Without an active pursuit of knowledge and change, memory will favor the side of the oppressor.
Memory allows for success in new territory, it is a mechanism for surviving in an individual’s environment. Without memory, an individual would suffer to adapt and form a self identity of being. Despite the benefits, memory can be a gatekeeper. When the basis of memory comes from an unjust understanding, injustice will continue to threaten societies. Despite the legal struggles, a lot of institutions are not ADA compliant. Disabled people are still discriminated against by non-disabled people. Organizations such as Autism Speaks or the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf (organizations that focus on finding a “cure” and composed mostly of non-disabled people) continue to push the agenda that these disabilities are illnesses rather than a way of being. These discriminatory ideologies exist due to the schema of what it means to be a person. In order to dismantle oppressive systems and conflicting thoughts, individuals must actively pursue becoming an anti-ally. History cannot be rewritten, however memory can.
Anti-Ableism, Memory, and Consciousness
The ideologies we carry with us are dependent on how our brains process and store the information and experiences of the world. Ableist ideologies are no exception. We form these ideas from the information fed to us by the context we live in, and these ideas are often incomplete. Incomplete ideas result in an incomplete understanding of individuals that differ from us. The way we experience the world using working memory paired with the experiences we store using declarative memory, influences ableist beliefs to build an ableist schema. However, we can dismantle these schemas through conscious effort. This can be done by understanding the issues that lie within the systems we have built, both within ourselves and society.
The Working Memory Model
In order to make sense of what is going on in the brain at any given moment, one must appreciate the working memory. Working memory allows individuals to make sense of the world, and investigate the current experience as we move forward. However the working memory is limited in capacity. On average the brain tends to remember four things for about 10 to 20 seconds unless additional effort is put into remembering (Doolittle, 2013). To better conceptualize working memory Atkinson and Shiffrin created the Modal Model. The working memory model then replaced the Modal Model, which was the frontier for modeling cognition. The working memory model serves as means of making sense of the influx of information at any moment. At the core of the working memory model, is the central executive (Kleinknecht, 2020). The executive functions include memory span, inhibition, and task switching. The central executive deviates into phonological and visual spatial processing. Within the phonological loop, the brain processes sounds and makes sense of the sounds. The visual spatial processing creates a cognitive map of an individual’s lived experiences, visualizing the environment and applying past lived experiences (Kleinknecht, 2020).
The shift towards the working memory model began when cognitive psychologists believed that memory is centered around not only storage, but also manipulation. The brain is set up to optimize current behavior based on previous experiences. The brain takes in the current stimulus and quickly tries to find ways to adapt the information into stored memories and schemas. When an experience is processed in the moment, it increases the likelihood of remembering in the future. Having the connection from previous encounters allows the brain to make space for more information to be processed. Utilizing long term memory allows individuals to handle the constant stream of information and categorize it into known schemas. When we are met with new information or new experiences, pushing the known information aside, allows the brain to prioritize the new. Doolittle said in his TedTalk, “if we are not processing life, we are not living it” (Doolittle, 2013). Our long term memory lets us live life in the moment. Adding meaning to the information, makes the information valuable.
In terms of ableism, the brain tends to fall victim to easy, and easy is not always right. In order to save time and effort, seeing an individual with a disability, the brain will process the interaction in the ways it has in the past. In the current climate, the representation of individuals with disabilities is dehumanizing to those with disabilities. The separation between those who are able-bodied and those with a disability reflects a culture that has framed living with disabilities as a terrible life and feels the need to cure disability. The false ideas that we hold of individuals with disabilities arise from ableist episodic memories.
Conway’s Model of Episodic Memory
Conway (2009) listed nine properties of episodic memory. The first property pertains to how episodic memories are not carbon copies of events, rather they are a summary of the event. Episodic memories contain sensory, perceptual, conceptual, and emotional information that relate to the event being remembered. For example, you may remember a time when you were having a conversation with someone at a party. You may remember the sound of their voice and perceiving where you were sitting. You may also remember the other person saying something about them being disabled and remembering how you felt surprised by that because they did not look disabled. We can use our memories in this way to call ourselves out on mistakes we have made in the past in order to catch ableist concepts in the future.
The second property of episodic memory is that individual memories can be accessed through multiple means (Conway, 2009). The way in which a memory is accessed will also change the details of the memory in a process called episodic inhibition. Episodic inhibition will determine what parts of the memory are accessible and what parts are inhibited or harder to access(Conway, 2009). For example, you might see an advertisement in support of an accessibility measure and remember the conversation you had with that person at the party who told you they were disabled. The advertisement primed a memory of a time when you had an experience with a disabled person. However, if you hear a song in a cafe that was playing during that conversation, you might remember different aspects of the conversation, such as the topic being discussed when the song started playing. Oftentimes, things that prime memories can be a stereotype. In these cases, it is best to be mindful of the bias and to let it go.
The third property of episodic memory is how most episodic memories have a visual component to them. We often “see” the events we are remembering in our mind when we remember them. When people suffer damage to the occipital lobe, they may suffer from retrograde amnesia. They have difficulty remembering events that have happened in their life. However, they will still often have a more general knowledge of their life (Conway, 2009).
Perspective is the fourth property of episodic memory. We experience episodic memories in either a field (third person) or observer (first person) perspective. Interestingly, newer memories are more likely to be in a field perspective while older memories are more likely to be in an observer perspective (Conway, 2009).
The fifth and sixth properties of episodic memory is that pieces of memory are made of single time bites put together in linear time. The things we remember are organized into a chronological order (Conway, 2009). Of course, there is always room for error, but our episodic memories have events happen one after another. While there is not enough research to explain this, Conway (2009) proposed that it is a result of the action that takes place in the memory and the outcomes of those actions. Even though we do not understand this aspect of episodic memory, it is still a helpful one. Because our memories happen in a linear fashion, we are able to keep track of things that have happened in our life in more or less the order in which they happen. By extension, it also allows us to keep track of our growth. For example, in the past you might have said something very insensitive to or about someone in a wheelchair. Later in life, you might regret ever thinking something like that. However, looking back at your past behavior is an important step to becoming an anti-ableist. As you continue to learn and grow, this aspect of memory will help you remember how far you have come.
Though episodic memory is powerful, it is not as dependable as it may seem. The seventh property of episodic memory is that it is prone to being forgotten. Very few episodic memories make it into long-term memory (Conway, 2009). We may be reminded of some event in the past, but it is not readily available to us to access at any time we choose. This property highlights the importance of repetition. If we want to remember something, we need to learn it. We learn it by being reminded over and over again. If you want to remember an event, such as an important lecture or conversation, you need to learn it. Events that have a lot of emotional value are encoded easier than events that have little emotional value. However, that does not mean low emotional events are not important. If we want to remember them and what they taught us we need to remind ourselves of the event as often as we can.
The last two properties are that episodic memory makes memories about our own lives specific and give us a feeling of experiencing the event again (Conway, 2009). This means that when we remember an experience, we “relive” that experience in our minds and that experience is specific to a single event. We often use episodic memory to make generalizable assertions about the world. A collection of episodic memories is called a frame and it forms the bases of our behavior given a situation (Conway, 2009). Say you are walking a very narrow path and another person is coming towards you. Our past experience would say to walk close to the edge of the path so that you both can pass. However, now say you are walking the same path and someone in a wheelchair is coming towards you. You may not have had experiences like this, so you do what you usually do when someone is walking towards you on a narrow path and hug the edge. However, wheelchairs are bigger and require a different behavior, so instead of stepping off the path to let the person through like you should have, you get your feet run over. This experience is not favorable for either you or the person using the wheelchair. However, it does give you a new element to add to your frame for when someone is coming towards you on a narrow path.
Conway (2009) highlights the fact that memory has evolved to help us look toward the future. Using the nine properties outlined by Conway, we can not only think back at previous experiences to help move our lives forward, but we can also help ourselves grow as people and to help evaluate our biases to help others forward as well. Our episodic memory helps us know ourselves and the world around us. It is a great tool for living our day to day life and for growing ourselves as people. It also thanks to memory that we have feelings of consciousness.
Declarative Memory & Consciousness
In Paper 1, we touched on declarative memory and how it can be split into episodic and semantic memory. As stated in the previous essay, episodic memory is memory associated with personal past events while semantic memory is memory associated with knowledge and facts. However, both of these forms of memories have an interesting part in making up our self-understanding and the understanding of others. Unusual things can also happen if we lose them.
The first form of memory we will talk about is episodic memory. The previous section of this paper outlined the components of episodic memory and how it relates to our day-to-day use of it. However, there are other functions of episodic memory that are worth discussing. Fredric Bartlett did a study where he had college students read an American-Indian story and then attempt to rewrite the story from memory. The resulting story would always be shorter than the original, which matches Conway’s seventh property of episodic memory. However, participants’ recreation of the story was also more coherent and fit with the participants viewpoints (Baddeley, et al., 2020, pp. 165-166). This experiment highlights how the brain will make shortcuts when trying to recall information. Episodic memory is often faulty for the same reason. We may remember seeing someone in a wheelchair trying to do a task. If our schema of wheelchairs is ableist, we might remember them struggling with the task even more than they really were. Being able to recognize these memories as possibly faulty is a good place to start in terms of moving toward an anti-ableist mindset.
Another part of episodic memory is autobiographical memory. These episodic memories are often important memories that happen in a person’s life. We give these memories a lot of personal meaning in defining ourselves. These memories also give us a feeling of autonoetic consciousness, or the feeling of being aware of ourselves (Kleinknecht, 2020).
Autonoetic consciousness is deeply tied to episodic memory. It gives us the feeling of who we are and in order to know who we are, we need to remember things that have happened to us. We cannot function as effectively without it. Case H. M. was discussed in Paper 1 in the context of memory storage and encoding. However, his experiences of being unable to create new memories is relevant here as well. His only self-concept was from before he had his surgery, affecting his consciousness and how he sees the world. Without any way to create new memories of himself, he is unable to build his own autonoetic consciousness. He is able, however, to learn a little bit of semantic information (Newhouse, 2007).
Semantic memory, as discussed in Paper 1, is memory of facts or other bits of information. It is how we know things about the world such as how the phases of the moon work or what paper is made out of. When paired with autobiographical memory, it is how we have personal semantics, or facts about ourselves. This happens through a process called semanticization, where episodic memories become semantic memories (Baddeley, et al., 2020, p. 209).
Semantic memory is also deeply connected with noetic consciousness, or the feeling of knowing. Case H. M., while not being able to learn new episodic memories, was able to process and store semantic information. While he was never able to remember his doctor, Dr. Suzanne Corkin, over time he learned to associate her last name with her first name (Newhouse, 2007). He had a feeling of knowing her name, even if he could not give details about or recognize her.
There is another interesting case study that shows the relationship between noetic and autonoetic consciousness. Kent Cochrane was in a motorcycle accident when he was 30 years old. The accident caused severe damage to his occipital cortex, frontal cortex, and hippocampus (Kleinknecht, 2020) As a result, Kent lost his ability to make and store episodic memories. He could not remember facts about his life, such as his old job or events he experienced. He did, however, keep his semantic memories. He could remember facts about what he needed to know about his job or facts of the family (Tulving, 2006). When Kent was shown a report for a screw order, he recognized that he had written it and could recognize what kind of screw he was ordering. However, he falsely assumed he used to be a factory worker rather than a manager. Kent also had a brother die when he was younger. While he knew this factually, he could not remember his brother and referred to him as “that boy.” Kent had lost his autonoetic consciousness but retained his noetic consciousness.
Kent’s condition also gave us an idea about how episodic memories are stored. We know the hippocampus is responsible for encoding memories, but storage is more complex. Episodic memories have a visual component to them, as shown by Conway’s (2009) third property. Kent had damage to his occipital cortex, the part of the brain responsible for vision processing. We know part of episodic memory is stored in the occipital cortex because of this.
Semantic and episodic memory are highly connected. They help us experience and process the world as we go through it. However, organizing and storing that information takes a lot of energy. To save this energy, the brain makes a lot of shortcuts. The most notable shortcut in semantic memory is called a schema, and it is how we categorize the world we experience. The Schema Concept
In Paper 1, we reflected on schemas and how they interplay with memory formation and ableist ideas. Schemas can simply be described as an “abstract, structured mental representation” (van Kesteren et al., 2012). Due to the brain’s tendency to rely on retrieval rather than consolidate each new instance, schemas prove to be efficient yet fallible. However, schemas can be tricky to reframe, information that is congruent with what is already known by an individual will more likely be remembered than information that is incongruent with the established schemas. Much of the behavioral research regarding schemas examines the use of schemas to retrieve and organize complex information. Despite the convenience of this method of retrieval, over-reliance on schemas can lead to biases and false memories (van Kesteren et al., 2012). When understanding ableism in terms of schemas, thought patterns that we rely on do not always fit the situation. In an ableist culture, an individual with a disability initiates the activation of a schema, typically leading the able-bodied individuals to express pity or assert themselves without invitation. The strength of the perception of difference due to schemas, leaves a great divide between those with a disability and the rest of the population. A negative example of a schema regarding disability may include an individual seeing a person in a wheelchair and assuming they must help them. Without first asking the individual if they need help, the act of ‘helping’ is not beneficial to the individual but rather an attack on the individual’s autonomy. The schema associating an individual with a disability as helpless, ignites an automatic response but also a response that upholds ableism.
In order to make a shift towards abolishing ableism, schemas must be constructed in new ways. While it is possible for new schemas to be created, old schemas can be reshaped through new experiences and relearning. One way to approach learning new adaptive schemas is through the “learning science”. The learning scientists are a group of cognitive psychologists who have formulated six strategies to maximize effective learning. These six strategies include: elaboration, retrieval practice, spaced practice, dual coding, interleaving, and concrete examples (Kleinknecht, 2020). While there are a plethora of ways to enhance learning, these techniques have significant results in improving learning. Applying these strategies to uproot ableist ideas can be done with all or just a few. Concrete examples can be utilized to help understand that each disability is unique. Disabilities can be physical or non-visible. Having concrete examples can limit the assumptions of visible disabilities, and lead able-bodied persons to act situationally with each individual rather than assume their needs. A key takeaway from the learning sciences, is spaced practice. Dismantling schemas that support ableism will not be rewired after one instance. Learning and relearning is a process that takes time and repetition. Utilizing the strategies over time and with persistence is the only way that mindsets can change on the personal level, leading to systematic change.
The modern systems we have embedded into ourselves and our culture ignores the variety of differences of individuals. These differences often get people labeled as “disabled” when in reality, it is society that is lacking the resources that have not been normalized. However, we can actively progress towards a better understanding of these differences and how we all function as members of a community. Through personal introspection, we can change these ableist schemas and ideologies to lift people up and build support systems that are inclusive to a variety of different and unique needs.
Using Autobiographical Memory to Become an Anti-Ableist
Our cognition and memory is what makes us who we are. We are the product of our experiences and how we piece them together. Our autobiographical memory is important to our sense of self and our role in our community. Despite the importance of our memory system, it is not perfect. Even the vivid memories have errors. Our sense of self and our role in our community can perpetuate ableist or anti-ableist ideologies. It is our responsibility to self reflect on our own biases and narratives to determine whether we are being the best anti-ableist we can be.
Autobiographical memory is a mix of episodic and semantic memories that relate to the self (Baddeley, et al., 2020, p. 351). It is essential to our understanding of self. One theory is that autobiographical memory accomplishes this with two functions: directive functions and social functions. The directive functions of autobiographical memory help us when we encounter a task. We use our autobiographical memory to remember how we previously accomplished that task. The other functions are social functions. We enjoy sharing memories with people and can help strengthen our support systems (Baddeley, et al., 2020, p. 352). Both of these functions can play a role when interacting with people who are disabled. A good example of directive functions is the narrow path example in Paper 2. After the unpleasant and awkward experience of not making enough room on the path, if it happens again, you will remember what part you played in making that interaction uncomfortable and act accordingly to avoid making it happen again. Social functions are also important to being an anti-ableist. Many non-disabled people will ignore disabled people, excluding them from the larger community. However, despite the exclusion, everybody is still a part of the community. Ignoring a group of people does not make them go away and can harm the community as a whole. It is better for everybody to learn to interact with people than to ignore them.
Autobiographical memory can also be described as a schema of self. We use scripts and frames to understand how specific events typically happen or what an object is composed of using information about that object (Baddeley, et al., 2020, p. 223). We make scripts and frames for everyday objects and events, but we also use them to form concepts of our own being. If we are hypothetically asked a question, we know how we would hypothetically respond. If we imagine ourselves at a party, we can know with some accuracy how we will act at the party. However, schemas overlap. One concept might connect to another concept. We can map these connections using the spreading activation model. Using this model, concepts such as the self connect to other concepts in a web-like model. Concepts such as “red” will connect to other concepts, such as other colors or objects that are usually red. Those concepts will then connect to other concepts that do not overlap with red. The further the two concepts, the more steps the brain takes to get between them (Baddeley, et al., 2020, p. 213-215). If you connect your sense of self to what you do, the schema of your work or hobbies will be a part of your autobiographical memory.
Conway and Loveday (2015) show how autobiographical memory uses our memories to form a life narrative using the autobiographical memory knowledge base. The autobiographical memory knowledge base uses episodic memories to form a spreading activation model of personal life events. These events are then organized into life time periods, such as the time period a person was in highschool or the time period a person has been friends with another person. These life time periods are organized again into themes such as “work” or “family”. These themes come together to make an individual’s life story. The concept of self is formed from general episodic memories, life time periods, and themes.
Conway and Loveday (2015) add the autobiographical memory knowledge base to the self-memory model to form a complete picture of our sense of self. The first part of the self-memory system involves a complex episodic memory. The complex episodic memory is composed of multiple related episodic memories and creates a frame. The frame influences episodic memories of general events. These general events form life time periods and themes. The final portion of the self-memory system is the working self. The working self is where the self concept and goal system is found.
One goal we should all strive to achieve is to be anti-ableist. The most effective way to accomplish this is through exposing yourself to experiences and information. Julian Baggini (2011) spoke about how we assume all the events we experience have a self at the center of them. However, we can never quite explain what the self is in the middle of these experiences without describing more experiences. It is easier to describe the self as a collection of these experiences rather than the thing experiencing them (Baggini, 2011). Each experience adds to our concept of self. Exposing yourself to experiences adds information to our memories and changes our schemas. As discussed in Paper 1, new memories can change older memories. With new information and experiences, we can change our own self concepts to become anti-ableist. The most effective way to do this is to understand the context that you are in.
Self and Context
The context in which people develop influences their sense of self. In Paper 1, we discussed how culture can change memory. It can also change the sense of self, how we behave in social settings, and how we regulate our emotions (Ross & Wang, 2010). There are two common senses of self called autonomous and relational self-views. Autonomous self-views are most common in Western independent cultures and relate to the uniqueness of a person. People with this kind of self-view will often attribute their concept of self to their personal experiences or hobbies. Relational self-views are more common in people from Eastern interdependent cultures and relate to a person’s relationship with people and their role in a community. People with this kind of self view attribute their self concept to the people around them and their role in the relationship to these people (Ross & Wang, 2010). These different senses of self will also change our behavior, values, and memories. In the U.S., most people have an autonomous sense of self. We may feel responsibility in a professional or familial setting, but we often do not feel a sense of responsibility to our culture as a whole. This can cause people to think that ableism is not a problem that they have to deal with, underplaying the issue. However, it is important to understand that everybody is part of our community, no matter how far removed. That is not to say interdependent cultures are inherently anti-ableist, rather they face different issues when it comes to ableism. A community that fails to provide adequate accessibility to every member is a failed community.
Self-evaluation will also differ by culture. People in independent cultures will often overestimate their positive values while underplaying their negative values. People in interdependent cultures are less likely to do this (Ross & Wang, 2010). While self-enhancement has some virtues, it also has some vices. In many ways, self-enhancement can make us feel good about ourselves and make us look good to others. However, it can lead to arrogance and an unwillingness to change our behavior. It is not bad to believe that we are inherently good, but the trouble comes when we assume we are better than others. In severe cases, this can reinforce ableist ideas. We have to remember to humble ourselves and admit when we are wrong.
The way we are socialized growing up can be different between cultures. Parents will promote cultural beliefs and ideologies in their children. Parents in an individualistic culture will promote autonomy in children by asking them how they feel or what they are thinking. Parents in interdependent cultures are more likely to tell their children how they should think or feel (Ross & Wang, 2010). Even though Western parents do not usually tell children how to think and feel, cultural beliefs and ideologies are still learned by the child. Children learn by watching and listening. This is one way ableist values persist in culture. Even when ideas are not being intentionally taught to children, the children will still learn it. Anti-ableism is something that needs to be learned. Teaching children at a young age how to be an anti-ableist is important to continuing to change our culture.
The way we develop autobiographical memory is largely dependent on our cultural context. It is important to understand these contexts in order to establish an anti-ableist mindset. However, memory is not perfect and we are susceptible to failings. In these cases, it is important to humble ourselves and admit when we are wrong. Anti-ableism takes sympathy, empathy, humbleness, and a lot of work. It also takes being patient with ourselves and our mistakes as our brains learn to synthesise the new experiences into our self-concepts.
As humans we are constantly evolving as we grow older. Our views of self change as we experience life and learn more. If we strive towards memory accuracy, we must be aware of where inaccuracy arises from. Memories, not always intentionally, can be impaired for various reasons. Core contributors to memory distortion includes misattribution, suggestibility, and bias. Growing older though comes with complications, as we gain life experiences that build our knowledge base, the ability to recall and correctly source memories declines. While Schacter’s (1999) research shows higher trends of memory misattribution in older adults, memory inaccuracy affects all ages. Misattribution is the process of us retaining and remembering the gist of the information, while adaptive memory minimizes the importance of where the information came from.
Often working with misattribution is suggestibility. Suggestibility refers to the act of incorporating misinformation into one’s stream of consciousness. This fallacy of memory has multiple facets. Memories can be altered before and after an event. Priming before an event, such as telling someone the person they are about to meet has a disability, will create a shift in a person’s perspective. Memories are also subject to alteration after an event, to the extent that false memories may even arise if persuaded by outside influences. In a TedTalk, Elizabeth Loftus shares that human memory resembles a Wikipedia page, we have control of editing the content, but so do others. Outside sources can help reinforce memories, however not always in ways that reflect the actuality of the memory. Suggestibility can be detrimental, especially when preconceived views are applied onto memories.
The final, and potentially most detrimental, distortion of memory is bias. Biases are formed from external sources such as environment and culture. Like schemas, biases are enforced through the actions of an individual’s society. Memories are not always reflective of the true experience but rather a projection of what we know and believe applied to the experience. Bias is an important factor to think about when understanding the formation of memories, because memories never come at face value, they are deeply ingrained in the way we think, thus the way we live and interpret memories. Biases are detrimental in many aspects, especially when it comes to disabilities.
Suggestions and Steps
This paper has focused greatly on the flaws of the human mind and memory, however these flaws are merely side effects of an adaptive memory system. To dismantle ableist ideas, one must replace them with new schemas and perspectives. As we get older, our intelligence changes. During adulthood and older adulthood, intelligence becomes more crystallized compared to the fluid intelligence of younger peoples. Crystallized intelligence relies on lived experience memory, whereas younger minds are open to experience. Thus to break the cycles of generational ableism, educating children to understand the importance of fairness and justice. However, to teach children we must first educate ourselves. Education begins with admitting where knowledge is lacking. Pursuing a journey towards anti-ableism requires commitment and humility, especially as an able bodied individual. Acknowledging the power dynamics that have been set by society is crucial in understanding your role in ableism.
While ableism is systematic, starting the journey towards an equal and equitable community begins with individuals. One way to open yourself to dismantling ableist beliefs is to place yourself in an anti-ablesit environment. In his TedTalk, “Where good ideas come from,” Steve Johnson discusses that good ideas are not solitary eureka moments, but rather are built up and arise when we talk with others. Social interactions are pivotal in our development of ideas and beliefs. Rarely do we act in a way that has not been affected by others. External factors contribute to our schemas, beliefs, and actions. When we stay stagnant in an environment that reinforces ableist views, nothing will change. The environments we reside in can be physical or mental. Subscribing to anti ableist content is one way to open your horizons and broaden knowledge. If given the opportunity, physically placing yourself among others who recognize the dangers of ableism, can help lead to discussions and eventually formulate your own anti ableist drives. Spending time and interacting with people with a disability most often leads to positive attitudes, and minimizes the effects of inherited biases (Nairo-Redmond, 2020). Becoming an anti-ableist can be as easy as learning the features of accessibility. Buildings and sidewalks can be barriers to equity, not providing accessible ramps or curbs is a form of ableism. Another common form of ableism includes violating an individual’s autonomy. Offering help to a person with a visual disability and then reacting poorly when the help is denied is ableism. Minimizing the sentiments of those with the disability, enforces the dynamics of ableism. Being an ally is not about claiming the spotlight but rather providing support and uplifting the voices of those affected by ableism. The way to do that is to show up, be ready to learn, and most often change the way you have perceived disability. Reconstructing previous episodic memories can lead to new schemas, however, we do not change until we are uncomfortable. Being uncomfortable is not ideal, but from the uncomfort we are called to change our actions. Updating set knowledge is difficult because memory is efficient, it is easy to utilize what we already know. However, what we know is not always right. To do right, one must do the work to understand ableism and the ways it is woven into society. From there, we are able to move forward and become anti-ableists.
Our self concept is deeply tied to what we remember. Schemas are formed by memories, which are influenced by culture. While schemas are efficient and beneficial in many cases, they often take short cuts, creating an incomplete picture of a subject. This is the reason behind ableist ideologies in culture. Understanding the role of self in a larger community is one way to counter ableism by monitoring your schemas and the actions of others.
In Paper 1, we established that the dominant view of disabilities is that they are things to be cured instead of accepting them as a way of being. We recommend counteracting this view by being accepting of people as they are rather than focusing on what society says they lack. In Paper 2, we concluded that the best way to combat ableism is through personal introspection. When thoughts arise that might be ableist, we recommend reflecting on the origin of those thoughts and being aware of the damage that these thoughts can cause. In our final paper, we have provided the inner workings of self memory and its faults. We can learn to be good anti-ableists by exposing ourselves to new experiences and information regarding disability issues in our community. Using all these tools given, we can change our individual ableist schemas in order to create a more just and anti-ableist community.
About the Authors
Xandre Couchot is a senior at Pacific University majoring in Psychology. He hopes readers will consider the information in this essay and use it to look for ableist biases within themselves and their community.
Jessi Derby is also a senior at Pacific University studying psychology. She is passionate about exploring injustices on a personal and cultural level. She hopes these pages will inspire others to understand the hidden dynamics of ableism and dedicate their attention towards creating an equitable society.
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