Just because a term may have an official definition, that doesn’t make it true or worthy to be fighting against.
As a disabled person myself and a passionate activist for the rights of disabled people, I’ve never identified with how the use of words like ableism is currently being applied. I agree that discrimination exists and that disabled people face a variety of social, economic, and educational barriers that continue to prevent us from having the equal platform that we’ve been fighting for.
However, that isn’t a concession that ableism is ok and should continue to be used in the manner that it is.
After 27-years of facing inequality in all the areas mentioned above, I am not convinced that the so-called ‘ableism’ as its labeled is a simple matter of blatant discrimination. Furthermore, I am growing uncomfortable with how we label non-disabled people when we ourselves are the first to be outraged when labels are placed on us.
Are we suddenly stooping to the same level as those who’ve labeled as? And if so, why?
Maybe I am playing devil’s advocate here, but further to my earlier point, I also remain unconvinced that the disability community should be using words like ableism, ableists, abled allies, and more in the manner that it is. Especially recently, I’ve noticed a big increase in the use of these words, especially how we are accusing non-disabled people of being ableists and placing the blame squarely on them for all the frustration we feel due to the treatment we often receive.
Take the recent #ThingsDisabledPeopleKnow social media movement for example. The number of times you would have read the word ableism in some 20,000+ tweets would stagger you, and I immediately argued that simply because a word has an official definition (aka ableism), doesn’t make it true.
It’s all about interpretation, and speaking of interpretation, some of the things I’ve read in recent weeks suggest to me that many disability rights activists are prepared to now start a war against non-disabled people and the institutions they serve.
Furthermore, our community can often get extremely angry toward the so-called “abled allies”, take the recent Crutches and Spice blog as a good example where Imani Barbarin wrote that “Bryan Cranston is everything I will not be accepting from abled allies in 2019”.
The question then becomes – is all this a result of years and years of frustration coming to a head and finally making some legitimate headway?
The numbers of disabled people worldwide facing discrimination cannot be ignored and this is not some made up myth. Speaking of myths, disabled people are educated and can bring a lot of benefit to the workforce. One of the biggest reasons this myth exists amongst some non-disabled is down to how invisible disabled children are in the schooling system. If New Zealand is anything to go by, many disabled learners are often grouped together in special education units separated from the mainstream classroom.
I’ve personally argued for years that one of the best things we can do to better serve lifetime inclusion of disabled people is by starting from the earliest moments of entering the education system and having disabled kids visible to their non-disabled peers in a way that doesn’t suggest some kind of poignant difference.
Disabled people are not special just because of their disability, and we are (in my mind at least) entitled to nothing more than an equal footing in all the areas I mentioned at the start of this blog.
But it’s how we go about achieving this equality, and we should always ask ourselves how productive the things we say within our own community are when it comes to reaching the eyes and ears of those outside of it. Personally, if I wasn’t disabled and I heard someone labeling me an ableist because of my ignorance, I’d do little to change my behavior because I’ve just been labeled something that I’d likely not understand in the first place.
Ableism Doesn’t Restrict My Life
Call me an apologist for the non-disabled, throw all the stats, state all the personal examples of your own personal experiences to back up why using these labels in discourse is appropriate because I remain unchanged on one simple argument.
That argument, dear reader, is a two-fold one. First, as disabled people advocating for the equality we crave, we must accept that a big key to success sits outside of our own community and will likely not be controlled by us, we don’t hold the cards and we shouldn’t own all the conversation, either. The cards sit in the hands of a productive, co-design approach to all levels of policy, leadership, and data that impacts and influences social, economic, educational, and really, all drivers of modern society.
Second, and I say this as a disabled person… one of the biggest keys to advocating and thinking critically about the best ways to achieving equality for disabled people is having the ability to place ourselves in the mindset of non-disabled people and think about things from their point of view.
Yes, we are frustrated and yes, we have every right to be. It’s beyond comprehension that in 2019 we are faced with some of the barriers that we are.
But let’s be productive about this. Creating a community, sharing information, and linking with people of similar mindsets is great. But what about where all of that goes? Where does the current level of discourse go in the long run?
Keep in mind, this is just one man from New Zealand’s point of view, but I choose to challenge myself first. As a disabled person, my possibilities are limitless. Literally none, and I mean none, of the success, failure, and missed opportunity I’ve experienced in 27-years has been down to my disability or the attitudes of those in front of me who don’t experience what I do each day.
I’ve just made a conscious effort to keep it real, trust in my own abilities and acknowledge my weaknesses, and not be forced into thinking a certain way about disability. As I said, my possibilities are limitless. It’s all on me, I am owed nothing and I work to make my platforms in life as equal as possible. That’s literally all I can do.
So, what do I think about terms like ableism? Simple. You get more bees with honey than you do with vinegar.
Michael Pulman is a wheelchair-bound journalist, blogger, video producer, and public speaker based in Hamilton, New Zealand.