When I joined Facebook nearly a decade ago I never saw posts about ableism. This has changed in the last few years, I think largely in part due to increasing awareness of mental health issues. Sometimes I even hear abled people engaging in discussions of ableism in person.
It’s heartening, sure, though I realized something recently: The R-word comes up nearly every time.
In fact I’ve yet to overhear a conversation or read a prominent article about ableism in which language hasn’t been central to the argument.
These conversations are well-intentioned, but they often end up being reductive and patronizing. I have not once in my life received a job interview when my application disclosed my disability, so when even progressive types boil ableism down to a few mean words, I feel as though my civil rights are an afterthought.
And yes, sure, not using oppressive language is vitally important and I commend those who try to remove “stupid” and “psycho” from their vocabulary, but if language is all we discuss, we gloss over how ableism as a STRUCTURE oppresses.
Fun fact: Our government only counts you as “unemployed” if you report that you are actively looking for work. This way they get to say our unemployment rate hovers around 6%, when if you adjust for people simply not being in the workforce, it’s about 25%.
Of the 47% of PWDs who are employed, almost 30% hide their disability from their employer.
Let. That. Sink. The fuck. In. These are people who report hiding it. I hid my disability at every job I ever had back when I was able to participate in the workforce. Never reported doing this. When I worked for Scotiabank, I was conveniently cut from the schedule after disclosing a mental illness.
This is structural oppression. I would trade hearing every slur in the book for this not to be the case.
And, to be clear, this isn’t an argument for ableism being better or worse than other axes of oppression, it’s an argument as to how it’s just as embedded in our social structure.
Wanna talk wage gap? Ableism is paying disabled folk a buck an hour without batting an eye.
How about immigration policy? Ableism is spending 100s of millions on fighter jets & attack ads but deporting us for being “economic burdens”.
How about law enforcement? In the US, 50% of victims of police killings have a mental disability.
How about disability foundations like Autism Speaks having zero autistic people on their board, as they spread dangerous misinformation about autism while spending very little of their budget helping anyone but themselves.
Ableism is assuming people lie to get on PWD assistance, when a BC government audit shows only 0.6% of PWD benefit claims are fraudulent. That’s *point six*. It’s almost as if PWD assistance is so meagre even fraudsters avoid it.
You understand why I’d balk at ableism being reduced to “don’t hurt my fragile little feelings?”
So how do we fight this, besides legitimizing ableism as an issue by discussing structural oppression as much (if not more) than we discuss language?
I have a very simple idea.
Any time you see behaviour that appears to be non-compliant or “weird”, consider possible disability.
That’s all I expect you to do, for now. When you see odd behaviour you don’t understand, just keep in mind 15% of all human beings have a disability, and maybe this person has one, physical or cognitive, or both.
If you have some resistance to going out in the world and just thinking anyone you encounter might have a disability, remember:
-Considering anyone could be disabled delegitimizes the idea that a disability is a bad thing to have. Thinking someone may have a disability when they don’t shouldn’t be an insult.
-If you are abled, you were likely segregated from disabled people as a child. Opening your mind in this way will help undo years of being conditioned not to consider the lived experience of disability.
40% of people with mental disabilities report (that word again) having been severely bullied in school — it’s not hard to draw a straight line from a culture with social structures that segregate and oppress disabled people to our kids not being taught to understand and work across difference in ability.
Best of luck! And seriously don’t use the R-word.