Ableism: Why Identity Politics Is Not Enough

I hate ableism today.

And there’s more to that statement than might meet the eye.  Of course, I hate ableism every day.  Ableism which is defined as discrimination or prejudice against people with disabilities – (or disabled people – I identify as both and think the argument is loud, vacuous and a largely a waste of time but that’s for another blog…).  Ableism which I and others encounter on a regular basis because of our conditions and the way we are affected by them which leads to everything from tokenism, to internalised self-loathing, all the way to abuse.  I hate that.  But I also hate ‘ableism’, the word ‘ableism’.  Not because I don’t believe it isn’t a relevant and important concept, but because I think language and use of language affects how we see the world.  And I think the way that people now use ableism in dialogues on disability is having effects that I’m not entirely comfortable with.

To take a wider view for a moment, disability rights was for various reasons, late to the activism party.  By the time that various disability rights campaigns were starting to take shape and make noise in the 1980s, other causes with parallels were either well-established or at least well on the way.  The feminist movement, the fight for racial equality, the struggle for gay and other sexual minority rights were known quantities by the time disabled activists were knocking on the door (probably pointing out that there wasn’t a ramp into this hypothetical building too!).  Not only did these groups have a strong sense of what they were fighting for, but they also have recognisable ills that they were pushing against.  Misogyny, prejudice, homophobia, racism, sexism being key examples.  I put those last two at the end of the list, because they’ve become unwitting examples of how people latch on to things linguistically.  Most causes today have some form of ‘ism’ to push against.  Be it racism, sexism, ageism, classism, saneism, looksism, sizeism, cisgenderism and of course ableism.  Note: This list is far from exhaustive, it’s interesting in researching for this piece, that ‘homophobia’ has not been replaced in the wider consciousness by an appropriate ‘ism’, the term ‘gaycism’ exists in some circles, but doesn’t seem to have caught on.  Any linguists with a view as to why this is feel free to write in, my own untutored view is that the term homophobia is so self-explanatory that it suits the cause very well.

Thus it seems perfectly natural and understandable that the idea of ableism as a name for anti-disability prejudice has caught on.  That prejudice has to be challenged constantly and rights, freedoms and equity must be fought for.  In this sense, ableism is a useful term, idea and explanation for so much of how the disabled are treated by society.  Why then, do I hate it as a term?

Because in my view, ‘ableism’ has allied with the social model of disability to make disability identity into a purely prejudicial issue.  And disability, as so often, is a more complex case.

If you take away the prejudice of say racism, sexism or homophobia you effectively resolve the issues pertaining to that identity politics cause.  Disability is sadly different.  If you remove ableism tomorrow, if you implement the social model of disability to remove barriers both physical and cultural, there is still a slew of questions for people with disabilities around their own identity.  Because the disability, the root cause of the ‘problem’ in the first place would still exist.  You could remove every possible ableist obstacle in my way, and I still wouldn’t be able to dance or run or stand still for any length of time without great levels of fatigue.  I’ve written previously that some people see that the provision of accessible alternatives is enough, the equivalent of a prosthetic limb, and indeed there are some areas of my life where the prosthesis is perfectly acceptable to me.  But we should not lose sight of the fact that having such an adaptation does fundamentally alter the experience.  You could get rid of ableism, and the disability experience would still be a different one.  That is not necessarily a negative thing, but it is a realisation that the disability rights movement needs to be honest about and address.  Equality and accessibility are not a panacea.  They do not get rid of, for example, the premature ageing that many people with my condition of Cerebral Palsy experience.

The word ‘ableism’ has put us in a position where these conversations are held either behind closed doors or not at all.  One of the worries I sometimes have about writing about these ideas, is that I’ll be seen as unremittingly negative.  And I don’t feel that way.  I simply want to promote a space and environment where the underlying nature of disability is addressed.  The medical core of the issue, that still exists in the Eden where  ableism does not.

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One thought on “Ableism: Why Identity Politics Is Not Enough

  1. You continue to impress me with how well you articulate such complex and nuanced perspectives, perspectives I absolutely share. Keep up the good work. Thank you
    PS. I will personally apologize for having sent our tangerine tyrant over to torment you Brits. Love the balloon

    Liked by 1 person

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