I read a blog post recently by a woman with muscular dystrophy and her experiences going out to eat in restaurants. The author mentioned how wait staff rarely give her a menu, or give her a children’s menu instead of the standard menu. When this happens, she often just looks on with her mom’s menu rather than asking the wait staff to give her her own adult menu. She described that as a “bad activist moment.” While I enjoyed and appreciated the rest of the post, and marveled at the ableism she routinely experiences – wait staff giving her a sippy cup to use?! – the idea of “bad activist moments” particularly stuck with me.
A “bad activist moment,” if I understand it correctly, is a potential opportunity to highlight ableism, educate TABs on the abilities of a PWD, and instruct people on the correct way to interact with a PWD. It could also apply in other contexts – the opportunity to highlight and correct patriarchal or sexist behavior, or racist behavior, or ageist behavior, or any number of other discriminatory and oppressive behaviors. In this context, the person experiencing or observing the problematic behavior is a member of the class negatively affected by such behavior, but it could also, for example, extend to me as a white woman observing behavior that discriminates against Latinos.
I definitely think this idea has value and recognize that the term “bad activist moment” is likely shorthand for “an identifiable moment of opportunity for direct personal activism that I didn’t take” rather than a judgment on whether the person is actually at heart a good or bad activist. But I’m concerned that framing it as a “bad activist moment” suggests that to be a good activist, we must speak up and speak out Every Single Time we observe negative behavior, not just that affecting PWDs, but that affecting or oppressing any minority group or marginalized class. I know that I do not do this and if I did, I would likely suffer significant consequences. I feel I’m already on the edge of being characterized (and thus dismissed) as the girl who has a problem with everything and is hyper-sensitive on these issues and cannot in any way ever take a joke ever – and that’s with me pointing out about 1 in ever 10 problems I see. I worry that if I devoted more time and energy to those issues, I’d be pigeonholed as “politically correct girl” and nothing I said would be taken seriously or considered.
More seriously, though, it is infinitely more risky to raise issues of discrimination and oppression when you are part of the group that is being discriminated against or oppressed. Not only might this require someone who is “passing” to identify and out themselves, but explicitly claiming membership in the targeted group can lead to further discrimination and marginalization. In the racial context, it’s often characterized (and thus dismissed) as someone “playing the race card.” I’m not aware of a similar term in the disability context, but the trope of an “uppity” activist who “thinks they’re entitled to something” extends to all oppressed or marginalized groups. Identifying as such opens a person up to further attacks and discrimination and even physical violence.
Even without these very real risks, I believe that we should all allow ourselves the option to pass up potential opportunities for activism while still considering ourselves to be good and powerful activists. Even if all we did was live our lives as PWDs, that in itself would be an activist act, demonstrating that PWDs have interests, passions, relationships, emotions, LIVES. We would qualify as activists even if we passed up every single potential opportunity to do affirmative activism work.
My ultra-wise co-contributor Chally once told me that taking care of myself was a feminist act. Placing myself at the top of my priorities – even though I am a woman and “should” prioritize caring for others or building a family, even though I am a PWD and thus “have minimal value or worth to society” – is an act of activism. Can I do more than that? Yes, and I do, but I always try to keep in mind that my activism is and should be secondary to my own well being. In part because I’m not going to be able to do any activism at all if I burn out or hurt myself physically or mentally doing activism work. But also because the simple act of prioritizing myself is, in itself, activism.
So take the opportunities for activism that you feel you can. And let the others go by. And remind yourself at the end of each day that you were a good activist that day.