The word ‘ableism’ has gained much currency these past few years. I have noticed the hashtag increasingly being used by the disabled community across social media. Yet, it has no doubt remained a mystery to many. But for Disabled people, the activists among us, it has become hugely significant, as it represents a parity to sexism, classism, homophobia, racism, religious intolerance… words used daily to denote the organisational, institutional and structural injustice many individuals from marginalised groups face.
A working definition:
Without a definition, there is no way of identifying the characteristic discrimination imposed on disabled people. If we don't speak about ableism, it doesn't exist, because it is not something we give time to - or that we acknowledge. I work to two definitions based on what I’ve read:
Ableism: a specific type of oppression, akin to homophobia, racism, classism, ageism, and sexism, held in the culture and language that inform society’s debates.
Anti-ableist: a defined position against ableism, the characteristic oppression that disabled people face - as in feminist or anti-racist. Theorising, for example, with an anti-ableist legitimacy involves explicit reference to disabled people as tellers in a storytelling that holds their interests at their heart.
I work as an anti-ableist, which means in seek in my practice, and my writing, to articulate an opposition to the ableism in the world around me. Notwithstanding the experience of individuals, and while allowing them choices of identity, I act to disrupt the institutional and societal narratives that perpetuate ableism. Disabled authors have gone to great efforts to define their experience, by doing so they encourage us to focus on the injustice they face. Moving beyond issues of identity is critical, because while the predicament of impairment or difference and personal prejudice is significant, but it does not go far enough to explain the startling figures that characterise the inequality the disabled population face. Yet it is an inequality many cannot put a word to, despite its toxicity and omnipresence, the storytelling that surrounds us is ableist.
In the same way that critical race theory has given us a language to articulate the structural racism people face, critical disability theory has led to a growing terminology for the societal discrimination imposed on disabled people as a marginalised group. As a specific, insidiously hidden discrimination, ableism has a unique character. The idea that disability sits on a continuum at the opposite end to ability is to misunderstand the meaning of the marginalisation imposed on disabled individuals. If there is an opposite, it isn’t perfection, skill or ability, but a lack of privilege - the possibility of living without being viewed as a problem. It is the notion of ‘able’ as the norm that defines the unearned privilege afforded to those who do not need to answer questions about their difference. Beyond individual experience, ableism is held in conversations at group, department, organisational, local and national levels. Each holds a distinct way of silencing, or distorting, the voice of disabled people by denying their experience, domesticating their ideas, appropriating their knowledge or refusing to theorise by including divergent ideas.
It is not so much that people go out of their way to speak badly of disabled individuals, it is more so that we’ve become accustomed to believing the tales we hear about them. Therefore, disabled authors are less frequently referred to as trusted and truthful storytellers. More often found in specialist literature, their accounts are often absent from organisational, institutional and public debates. Furthermore, in the media, disabled people are often described as saints and sinners that laud or vilify their individual stories. It is in the globe-local storytelling that the voice of disabled people is erased. Furthermore, we’ve forgotten to question why. When written into guidance, policy and strategy, the assumptions derived from the saint/sinner stereotype become apparent, not as a caricature so much as forgotten altogether. That’s to say most will forget to think of disabled people as a sizeable population entitled to parity rather than the isolated individual needing to get off their backside – because the saints are doing it so valiantly. Ableism is not written into organisational accounts, however, documents such as audits, reviews, external communications, and annual reports generally fail to name the negative impact of the business on the disabled population. Thus textual worlds fail to articulate an opposition to the institutional disablism within a sector or the ableism in society more widely. Therefore, failing to acknowledge the contribution to human rights erosion imposed by growing inequality, and the lack of measures to gauge it, while attention is focused on what makes money.
A cycle of misrepresentation
How does a gap in legitimacy grow between organisational accounts and the voice of D/deaf and Disabled People’s Organisations? Why is there an absence of measures calculating prejudice, disablism and ableism? A lack of response-ability towards the disabled population.
A vicious circle:
How do we interrupt this cycle?
Be disability specific – anti-ablism
D/deaf and Disabled People’s Organisations present an authentic source of the population’s interests in a way that unites a multitude of voices on a joint vision. Activism is a more complex notion than choice of identity and personal experience, as it draws on evidence and knowledge which can also subject to ableism. It certainly is a way of avoiding the problems often attributed to disabled people as a group.
Human rights and movement interests:
For professionals willing to address this matter, Disability Equality is a subject area based on disability studies that provides a good entry point. No doubt due to the barriers faced by disabled individuals, and the lack of recognition the Disabled people’s movement receives as an equivalent voice within civil rights groups. There were no words framing ableism until recently, akin to feminism, sexism, homophobia, or white privilege. Despite an era of rising social awareness, the institutional and societal injustice specific to disability had no name, no voice, and little more than a network of grassroot organisations with an oral history.
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