Tag Archives: it’s about you

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.

An open letter to non-disabled people who use disabled parking spaces

Dear abled/non-disabled people without disabled parking placards who use disabled parking spaces anyway,

I don’t care if you want to use the space “because it’s so convenient.”

I don’t care if you only “need” to use the space “just for a minute.”

I especially don’t care if you back up your illegal use of said disabled parking space with some bizarre justification like, “But some people FAKE being disabled to get these permits, so what’s the difference?” or “Well, if a person in a car with a blue placard shows up, I’ll move” or “But there isn’t anyone disabled who needs to use the space here right now, so what’s the harm?”

The harm is that I or other disabled people are so often witnesses to your saying these things, and we are presumably expected to not react at all to your taking advantage of something that is not for you. I personally do not own a motor vehicle, so while I don’t need a disabled parking permit, I also don’t need your entitlement complex and your basically telling me — a person with disabilities — that some of the regulations intended to benefit me and people like me are rules that can be bent by you if it’s the most convenient option for you, an able(d) person.

Just don’t do it. It’s illegal and carries penalty of a possible fine for a reason.

This sort of legislation? Is not intended to benefit you, or be a convenient thing that you can take advantage of when you feel like it. Most of the world is already set up for you. These “convenient” parking spaces don’t have to be set up for your use, too.

Yeah, what *about* your free speech “rights”?

Here at FWD, it is not unusual for us to get quite a few comments in mod that question, take issue with, or outright berate our fairly rigorous comments policy and iterations thereof in varying degrees. Many of these comments are some variation of “But what about my right to express my opinion?” or “But…free speech!”

Unsurprisingly, many of the comments that try to take us to task for “prohibiting” free speech are from non-regular (and, in some cases, first-time) commenters. I try to give people — on the internet and off — the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps these folks who try to direct the conversation to their supposed right to say whatever they want “because of the First Amendment” are just unaware that many social justice-focused blogs — especially those written by people who are members of various marginalized and/or traditionally underrepresented groups — have commenting policies, usually for very specific reasons. Perhaps they think that the First Amendment entitles them to say whatever they want without also getting called on it. Perhaps they think that bigoted or hateful speech is okay, since it’s “just” on the internet and therefore cannot be taken seriously or do any “real” damage. Perhaps they think that someone needs to pay Devil’s advocate when talking to (or about) disabled feminists and other people who do not represent (or are not represented by) the majority, and they are reasonable/intellectual enough to do the job!

Here’s the thing: This website is not  run by U.S. government or employees of the U.S. government who are representing their place of work. This is a privately-owned website.  Its contributors, commenters and readers are not all from or living in the U.S. The First Amendment applies, by and large, to the United States government’s attempts to contain and/or regulate things that people say or opinions that they want to express in myriad formats. In other words, “freedom of expression” does not automatically mean that you can bust out with some bigoted crap, and then whine or call foul when the blogger or author chooses not to publish or engage with said bigoted crap, or when someone else (perhaps another commenter) calls you on this crap. Free speech is not equivalent to some sort of magical blogular free-for-all. The “free speech!!11” defense (if you want to call it that) also has the unintentional side effect of privileging US-centric notions of being able to say certain things, apparently without consequence — something that some other countries do not appear to take so lightly (see, for example, British libel laws).

From a more anecdata-ish perspective, I have noticed that many of the people, at least on the internet, who cry “free speech!!1” in defense of their supposed right to say “un-PC” things/play Devil’s advocate/et cetera are people with various kinds of privilege (white, heterosexual, abled, cis, class–to name just a few) who simply do not seem to want to give up — or, sadly even so much as critically examine — one or more of the types of unearned privilege that they have. Put simply, they just want to shut people (who oftentimes aren’t just like them for one reason or another) up using the trump card of free speech. It seems to me that the thought process might go a little something like this: Who cares if there’s a person (or people) on the other side of that computer screen? I have the right to steamroll over their lived experiences, or tell them how wrong they are ’cause “normal” people don’t feel this way, or tell them to suck it up/grow a thicker skin, or that they’re just making things up so they can be angry about stuff, or looking for stuff to get mad about, or seeing things that “aren’t there” (because if I can’t see it, it must not be there!) or use any number of derailing tactics that are not pertinent to the actual discussion at hand, or direct the discussion to my experiences and feelings as a privileged/non-marginalized person and thus re-center my own (and the majority’s) importance in a discussion that is not even about me, because it’s within my FREE SPEECH!!1 rights to do all of this and more!

Boy, that must be really fun, getting to justify making things all about you and your “rights” all of the time in spaces that are run by people who are — gasp! — different than you, and who may not have much of a safe ‘net space anyway, since the entire web is full of people who probably share at least some of your oh-so-contrarian outlook on things (not to mention some of your privilege[s]).

The free-speechers also tend to miss one important thing: If they want to spew uninformed, privilege-encrusted opinions using this excuse, and their comment gets published publicly, it is perfectly within reason for bloggers, writers and other commenters to use their free speech “rights” to respond right back.

In which homework is assigned

This post was originally published at Zero at the Bone in August 2009. In it I ask the abled folk among us to think beyond the (very important!) need for systemic inclusion of disabled people, to what they can do as individuals.

I’m going to talk about accessibility. I want you to have a think. Then I want you to pause, reflect and keep thinking.

Before I start, think about what disability access means to you. What sort of things does accessibility require? Make a note of what comes to your head.

While you’re working on that, I’m going to tell you what I often do when I arrive somewhere new. I scan my surroundings to determine how accessible the particular space is. Is the furniture too high or too low or too small? Is there enough space for a wheelchair/scooter to pass through comfortably (with space left over for a companion)? Are there windows? Is there any mold? fresh paint? air freshener? Is there enough space to breathe or get away from other people? Is the lift/ramp in good order and close by? Are there railings? Are there (solid, multiple) chairs? Are there any sharp edges or prominent features that could make movement unsafe? These are just a few of the things that may go through my mind. And I do it all as quickly and discreetly as I can, because I don’t want to stand out to any abled folk who may be observing me. And you know what? Most of these things, most of the time, aren’t relevant to my disability. I’m looking out for my fellow PWD. Which is to say that these things are not that hard to pick up.

Now, when you were thinking about disability access, you probably thought of transcripts and ramps and disabled bathrooms. And those things are important. But did you think about invisible access for invisible disabilities? Where well-known accessibility measures like those transcripts, ramps and bathrooms are often not available (or not properly) the measures that don’t immediately spring to an abled person’s mind don’t have a hope in hell.1 And, speaking as someone with an invisible chronic illness, having to out myself in order to perhaps be granted access, with the very real possibility of not being believed, is one of the most unpleasant parts of my life.2 I doubt you thought about access to services for people who aren’t accessing them in person. I doubt you’ve ever thought about how to give directions without visual reference. In fact, I bet most of the things you thought of were those that were in your face.

Which brings me to my next point. Accessibility is not just about alternatives and gadgets and adaptations. It’s about you.3 It’s about all the abled people who are in charge of accessibility measures. And that’s not just those of you in a position of authority, that’s you making your way down the street. Remember, you often don’t know who is and who isn’t a PWD, and you don’t know the kind of impact you’re having on them. The world is designed to suit the abled, and it’s every last one of you impacting us. It’s about your attitudes making our lives harder. (Did you ever consider how awful it is to have a loud, public discussion of one’s needs? Did you ever consider that forcing your idea of help on us might be detrimental? Did you consider the kind of devastation you privileging your perceptions over our experiences can lead to?4) It’s about whether you decide our enjoyment, our livelihoods, our life experiences and our humanity are worth your attention.

I am asking for your attention.

Now, I want you to think radically. Accessibility should not be framed as making adaptations to suit those others, those deviant disabled bodies and minds. If there is a space, text, service, mechanism, happening, situation, tradition, something that people are going to engage with, everyone needs to be accommodated.5 My point being. Don’t think of us as others, even deserving others, you must reach out to and adapt to. We’re not brave, broken little souls. We’re human beings. Think of every single person having different needs and circumstances, and centring those people who are having a tougher time of it. Think of providing everyone with what they need. If someone needs more than most, they ought to be given it. Not because they are other, but because they are a person. We’re no more other, or tiresome, or disgusting than you with your various troubles, quirks and loves. The only difference between you and me is that the world has dictated that I am low and you are whole. That’s all.

Think of privileging those bodies and minds that are marginalised in so many spaces. If you think that it’s too daunting, too much, consider what it means for PWD and consider that you’d be happy to do it if it was you. You adapt to circumstances all the time, and you may want to examine your motivations if you’re reluctant to accommodate PWD. Do whatever you can do with the resources you have. Access for my kind of people should not be an afterthought, it should be right there, in your plan, in your consciousness, because it is at the very least as vital as the kind of attention you give everybody else.

I want you to rethink access. Mostly, I want you to THINK.

I have some related links for you to help you with the thinking:
Alena of Perspectives from a Blind Point of View – fabulous blog, by the way – asks What Does Accessibility Mean to Me?
You may have heard of feminist science fiction convention Wiscon. I haven’t attended myself, but they seem pretty accessible from their website. This is an example of doing it right.
WildlyParenthetical delves into invisible disabilities and how they get that way.
I picked up the phrase ‘invisible access for invisible disabilities’ from Lauredhel. She has some suggestions on the subject here.
If you want to learn more about what kind of thing can constitute privileging your perceptions over our lived experience, specific to invisible illness, see annaham’s Invisible Illness Bingo and Invisible Illness Bingo 2: Back for Revenge.
See Jo Tamar’s Accessibility, choice, accomodation and equality. Because alternatives aren’t always good enough, and they’re frequently a tool for demeaning us further.
Cripchick and commenters have lots of suggestions.
Also, this.

Remember that all this, this post, these links, are background. There is no prescriptive means of dealing with PWD; we are not a monolith. Consider the person you’re dealing with as an individual with individual needs. I can barely believe I actually had to type that.

  1. Actually, hell’s probably more accessible than some of the places I’ve been to.
  2. And you would just laugh at how utterly bizarre that is if you knew the nature of my illness.
  3. For me personally, it’s mostly about you. Other people have a different ratio with regard to these things.
  4. ‘You look much better today.’ ‘Maybe you should try losing weight.’ ‘Maybe you’re just tired.’ ‘Are you sure that’s what happened?’ ‘My cousin’s boss’ sister’s friend’s tried this thing you should try.’ Just don’t. How dare you presume that we don’t know how to handle ourselves? If we want help, we will most likely ask. These suggestions act to obscure problems, meaning that we’re not given the help we want/need because everyone else has moved on, ’cause you’ve already solved it, right? You do not know better than us.
  5. Were you thinking in terms of access to buildings? Open your mind. Think about daily experience.