On Ableism and the Universality of the Fight Against Oppression

From the Arab Rhizome blog:

I caught up on a twitter fight that happened yesterday. Someone called out someone else for using ableist language. I follow both users and find that I generally agree with the politics of one and the work of the other. I thought we all were on the same page, but the Syrian revolution has exposed many arab leftists to be unable to criticise a regime that appears to be anti-israeli. I say appears because of course the Syrian regime has done nothing for its people in the occupied Golan heights. They’re happy to talk about and support resistance in other countries but not their own.

Now I’m not saying that the other account falls within that bracket, it’s just that their position is suspect. I don’t like accusing people of something without proof, and so far I only have circumstantial evidence. All I can say is that their criticism of the regime and support of the revolution has been conspicuously absent. But anyway, that’s not the point. The fight was about the use of ableist language. As that account used the term “lame” to refer to a stand up comedienne who they think has very suspect politics when it comes to Palestine. While I used to agree that she had problematic politics (that view has changed since I first published this post because I talked to her and she clarified her position. I was wrong and misinformed. She is a one state supporter and very vocal in her support for Palestine), the point was about the language used.

It’s very interesting to see that people are still very unaware of ableist privilege. The problem is that ableist language is so ubiquitous within our parlance. We don’t think twice about using certain terms that are derived from or mocking the physically and mentally disabled. To use the word “lame” to describe someone or someone’s comedy is very ableist. It is wrong to use it to describe someone who does not have a disability, but it’s even worse when you use it against someone with a disability. Even if you don’t mean to be ableist, using it is highly problematic. It perpetuates the idea that there is something wrong with certain forms of disability. It always comes from a place of privilege. Once that is pointed out one needs to realise and change their behaviour.

I must admit that I myself used, unthinkingly, a lot of ableist language. In fact, if you go back through my blog posts, you will probably come across a lot of ableist terms. I did not mean to use them to abuse or mock the disabled, but they still do. I have since realised that those terms are unacceptable and stopped using them. At the end of the day, all you can do is realise that you’ve done something wrong and try to fix it as best you can. No body is perfect, but it’s important to try not to hurt people because you unthinkingly use terms that abuse them and their being.

The problem is that people with disabilities suffer from real oppression, be it in accessibility or recognition, and that oppression is invisible. People without disability do not see the person with a disability but see the disability. When faced with someone in a wheelchair say, people don’t really see the person in the wheel chair but the wheelchair, they conflate the person with their disability. Moreover, the struggle of the disabled for recognition and accessibility is very often ignored by the media and its coverage is not as prominent as other forms of oppression.

We have been able to rid our language of much of the racist, sexist, classist, etc terms. However, ableist terms are still used wantonly without people realising. What happens when someone is challenged for using such language is that they become very defensive, and deny that they are doing anything wrong. Ideally, they would then think about it and realise that they were in fact in the wrong and stop using those terms. However, that doesn’t always happen, and cries of political correctness gone mad are uttered. The problem is that people aren’t always happy to acknowledge their privileged position.

All of us without disabilities are privileged, not in that we are better than people with disabilities, but we reap benefits within our society because of our lack of disability. It is imperative if we consider ourselves to be fighting for justice, that we take on the cause of the disabled as our own. We must recognise our privilege and work against it. This involves changing our language and not perpetuating the power relationship that they embody. Those terms normalise the idea that disabled people are not equal to people without disabilities. There is something absolutely wrong with that attitude and it must be fought with as much force as all other injustices.

The fight against oppression isn’t a simple one. We aren’t fighting against a group of people but against a system that created hegemonic power relations. Those power relations are actualised in real physical violence or lack of accessibility but are also mirrored in our language. If we want to fight oppression effectively we must dismantle all the forms of oppression including our use of terms that perpetuate and normalise that oppression. Anyway, those are my thoughts on the subject. I’d like to hear what you have to say about it. It would be interesting to get your perspectives. Stay safe everyone. Live long and prosper.