Liberal ableism

I consider myself to be a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, at least in the way that the term is commonly defined in the United States. Hesitant as I am to list all of my “liberal” qualifications, let’s just get some things out of the way: I am unapologetically feminist, pro-LGBQTIA rights, and am actively working to be anti-racist (which is an ongoing process). I am against capital punishment, as well as the current prison system. U.S.-ian imperial, cultural and economic hegemony across the globe does not sit well with me, and I am of the opinion that it should be actively dismantled. There are also other classically “liberal” opinions that I hold which would take entirely too much space to list here.

My own political stance is a huge part of the reason why ableism from people who are ostensibly my “allies” feels like such a giant thorn in my side. Because it seems that no matter how much we may align politically on the surface, some liberals seem to be incapable of viewing me — and other people with disabilities — as fully human, and treating us accordingly.

Many will protest, “But I can’t be ableist! I’m progressive/liberal!”  But here’s the thing: You can be liberal and also behave in an ableist manner, even without knowing it. It is indeed possible — even with the best of intentions.

Ableism is there when a liberal makes “jokes” about a condition or conditions that ou does not have, such as Restless Leg Syndrome. Or OCD. Or depression. Or schizophrenia. Or chronic fatigue syndrome. Or mental disabilities. Often, these “harmless” jokes are made at the direct expense of people with disabilities or health conditions — both physical and mental. Ableism is there when someone insinuates that diet changes (EAT ORGANIC!!11) and exercise (What? You mean you DON’T work out every day?!) are the solution to all bodily problems, including disabilities, mental health issues, and chronic health conditions. It’s there when someone calls those on the opposite side of the political spectrum “insane.”

It’s most definitely been there when “liberals” with whom I once got along decided that my illness — and the physical and energy limitations that come with my having a chronic illness — no longer suited them and their needs, and so they were free to do things like make unsolicited comments about my illness or how I manage it, or sigh and roll their eyes if I needed to slow down or take a break. Or, worse, tell me that although they have “sympathy” for my health issues, granting me access or even basic accommodations so that I could participate in an activity to the best of my ability just “wouldn’t be fair” to other (abled) group members. For these liberals, everyone deserves respect and opportunity — so it follows that disabled people absolutely deserve to participate in society! Until, of course, accommodations for PWDs conflict with the desired pacing or focus of the liberals in question — or until the PWD no longer conforms to the “angelic” and/or “in need of uplift by the kind liberals” image. Yet often, these same liberals still insist that they can’t be ableist — they’re so progressive!

This is precisely what makes liberal ableism so insidious, and so often hard to bring up (much like hipster ableism and, to some extent, hipster racism and liberal sexism, as well as liberal racism, though I do not wish to conflate all of these as the exact same type[s] of oppression) precisely because so much energy is dedicated to brushing off any discussion of ableism in liberal circles with some claim to liberal or progressive “cred.” Instead of deflecting and immediately whining, “But I’m not like that! I’m liberal!” many of these folks might do well to take a step back and consider how they themselves are contributing to so much of the offal that PWDs face daily with their actions and words.


  1. (Posting under a pseudonym for this…)

    My girlfriend and I had a huge fight last night over some of the words in the AWP series. Huge, huge, huge fight. This is very timely. She considers herself very progressive and has all the creds you mention above plus being an out lesbian. Interestingly, she has chronic depression, but doesn’t see the problem with “I feel your pain” or similar expressions, for example. (“They’re just trying to be nice! Why are you so irritated?!”) I guess it goes to show that even PWD can be ableist too? After all, women can certainly be sexist.

  2. Thank you.

    Even though it takes a lot more energy than I can justify wasting anymore, I still try to make an effort to explain something is ableist (usually in the case when I’m assumed to be able bodied). And, yeah, the *bleck* that said/did it probably won’t change, but people in the periphery tend to actually recognize that the joke they were laughing at isn’t funny.

    As for people that tell me I should take meds, or eat organic, or do whatever exercise fad is hip this week, I’ve gotten into the habit of responding, “Can’t. Some of us have s*** to do.” And that shuts most people up. And I can merrily skip past the importance of the ADA, poverty levels for people with disabilities, medicines having side effects, and a lot of other things that require more energy than this person deserves from me.

  3. Certainly PWDs can be ableist. I have to work very hard not to use ableist language, for example.

  4. This is a good post.

    This applies to liberal academics and liberal journalists too. Seems to me that quite a bit of well-known criticism of Big Pharma is steeped in and even dependent on ableism.

  5. I consider myself a liberal/progressive, and I totally hear you. Since I’ve fully come “out” about my disabilities (which are not readily visible), I seem to have become invisible except to a few very sensitive people across the political spectrum. Sensitive people are the ones I seek out now. As for my progressive fellow travelers, I find that people make decisions on my behalf who would otherwise talk your head off about self determination for everyone else on the planet. I find that people put me off with a lot of nice talk about how much they respect me, but don’t follow up when it actually comes to full inclusion, despite all of my many words around that very issue. They reach their comfort level (or decide that they prefer living at their accustomed level of stress, which doesn’t include me) and then I drop off their radar. Lately, it seems like the only way to get back on the radar is to have a TAB person speak up on my behalf, which turns me into a Real Person again. I’m not comfortable with that scenario.

    I have to admit, though, that until I recognized my disabilities, I didn’t really get it either. I like to think that if someone had called me on my ableism, I would have paid attention, but it’s really only been the experience of disability that’s shown me the utterly painful, disheartening, and isolating consequences of ableist thinking. I’m still trying to figure out how to get the message across to people who have the privilege of being able to choose not to care.

  6. YES!

    I have had this conversation so many times w/other PWDs, especially since I’m a lesbian and most of my disabled friends are also queer. We have actually experienced that often right-wing Christians are MORE sensitive and aware to disability issues than “liberals.”

    A long time ago, Ragged Edge mag had a “THe Left Doesn’t Get It” article which I still think is a classic.

  7. This article was so well written and very much appreciated! I hope my comments are not too off topic [moderator, please feel free to delete this if it is a derail, with my brain fog I’m not always able to tell] but they are related to the general topic of ableism as well as a topic that is in the news this week.

    I have several chronic illnesses that cause varying levels of disability (all of them mostly invisible, though). One of my diagnoses is ME/CFS, an illness that has been the butt of bad jokes and undeserved stigma (from “yuppie flu” to “it’s all in your head) for decades. This illness, along with some other neuroimmune illnesses, has recently been linked to a family of retroviruses (see for an analysis of the issues). And now government officials all over the world are starting to worry about the blood supply because a small percentage of asymptomatic people may be infected with these retroviruses, too. If only the able bodied folks in charge had taken these patients seriously over the past 20-30 years, instead of dismissing them as exaggerating or being “hysterical” (layers of sexism on top of ableism), then maybe this problem would have been found sooner and *everyone* would be safer and healthier. But that’s 20/20 hindsight.

    In short, it is very easy for able bodied folks to either simplify, trivialize or simply ignore disabilities of all kinds. And without even being aware of what they are doing.

    So, thanks so much for posting this article to help make more people aware of this problem. We all need to own up to our faults and work toward improvement.

  8. This is always a timely discussion to have.

    I found a coworker I thought I could be friends with at my new job. She seemed really sensitive to the needs of our residents and pretty up on general disability rights stuff, and was very nice all around. We were putting up a map of the world together when she said something to the effect of, “I think it’ll be good, because people like this, with developmetal disabilities, they often have these amazing splinter skills–not like us!” I laughed and told her that I AM one of those people with a developmental disability, explained about Asperger’s and autism and how “splinter skill” is a) offensive and b) a misnomer anyway.

    She has avoided spending time with me since, and when we have worked together she’s been very frustrated when I can’t pick up all of the necessary skills after one showing (when it was “fine” and “understandable” before I came out, as it were).

  9. I don’t identify as liberal (it has different connotations in Germany which I can’t quite shake off in English discussions), but I do identify as left-wing/progressive and I really know where you’re coming from.

    In my experience, there is NO space safe when it comes to ableism except one inhabited by other disabled people, and sometimes not even that’s enough. And it makes it a lot more annoying when people act as if they can’t, possibly, be ableist due to their political beliefs and the very suggestion is ludicrous… especially given that I know rooting out ableism is a long and hard process and I’ve not completely succeeded at it myself yet.

  10. As perverse as it seems, things like this almost (ALMOST) make me have more respect for conservatives and others who at least have integrity with their bigotry and are upfront about it, rather than those weasels who act as if they’re our friends but inflict lots of little invisible wounds on us daily. I don’t have the energy to fight all the ableism I see on a daily basis, so I try to pick my battles wisely, but incidentally, it’s my AS (in regards to “splinter skills”—I won’t even try to deny that some disabilities have perks, but that’s for me to decide, not you) that gives me the candor to speak out when someone’s word choice or actions give me the squicks.