Understanding and unlearning ableism is an ongoing process and one we must work on day-to-day
'Ableism is violence,' as Lydia XZ Brown notes.
What is ‘normal’? In this fortnightly column, Srinidhi Raghavan explores the understanding of bodies-minds and navigating spaces as disabled, chronically ill and sick people. Read more from the series here.
I was in a workshop a while ago when someone defensively said, “Just because I am disabled doesn’t mean I am not smart.” This is a complex and difficult to break down stereotype. To do this we need to begin at the beginning (the middle and almost certainly, the present): Ableism. So, what is ableism?
In my previous columns, I have used the word liberally. However, if we were to understand ableism better, we need to explore how people with disabilities define it and challenge it. The many forms ableism takes are important to slowly make our way through.*
Ableism can be defined in many ways. Some define it as: “A system of oppression that favours being ablebodied/ableminded at any cost, frequently at the expense of people with disabilities”. Rebecca Cockley, director of Disability Justice Centre at the Center for American Progress, defines ableism in this tweet as: “I think part of ableism that we don’t talk about is being ignored. Being erased. Not just mocking but when acting like we aren’t in the room [is] even worse than being teased.”
Talila “TL” Lewis, an attorney, writer, organiser and educator, has a working definition of ableism: “A system that places value on people’s bodies and minds based on societally constructed ideas of normalcy, intelligence and excellence. These constructed ideas of normalcy, intelligence and excellence are deeply rooted in anti-Blackness, eugenics and capitalism. This form of systemic oppression leads to people and society determining who is valuable or worthy based on people's appearance and/or their ability to satisfactorily produce, excel and ‘behave’. Importantly, you do not have to be disabled to experience ableism.”
Understanding and (un)learning ableism is an ongoing process, one we must work on every day, especially within our movements. A lot of ableism is rooted in decades of oppression of people with disabilities as they were understood as “not able”. This also takes shape in the language we use. Language, as we can imagine, is a tool of oppression. For decades, the queer movement, the disability rights movement have aimed to take back language that is weaponised against us. Words like “cripple”, “queer”, “mad” are among a few. But these same words are used to belittle someone and remind them of their lack.
Unlearning that disability is not just lack is a long, ongoing process, even for many of us within the movement.
Lydia XZ Brown writes on their blog, Autistic Hoya, about language as a tool to oppress disabled people. They say: “Being aware of language — for those of us who have the privilege of being able to change our language — can help us understand how pervasive ableism is. Ableism is systematic, institutional devaluing of bodies and minds deemed deviant, abnormal, defective, subhuman, less than. Ableism is *violence.*”
This takes me back to the opening line and that workshop. I found myself struggling for words to explain accurately that through this sentence, we are dehumanising and harming other disabled people by stating categorically that “we are better”. This fight for our acceptance in society, to be seen as able individuals, as creative and joyful, cannot be at the expense of other disabled people. In short, we cannot and must not throw fellow disabled people under the bus in order to be taken seriously — by most probably non-disabled people.
During an interview, writer, speaker and activist Eli Clare explains the complicated nature of the conversation and the deep rootedness of our prejudice:
“On a community level, we need to commit to sustained access for intellectually disabled people, neurodivergent and neuroqueer people, and mad people. We need to fight for good housing, education, employment, liveable benefits, health care; resist violence; complicate our reproductive justice politics and question disability selective abortion, while defending access to abortion more generally. On an individual level, I try (with mixed success) to disengage from attacks on my intelligence, to say ‘so what’ rather than ‘no, really, I’m smart.’ I also think we need to never name our oppressors, bullies, or political opponents ‘idiots’ or call them ‘stupid’. To do so is to participate in weaponising intelligence.”
In many ways, in responding with the oh-so-common, “But I am not dumb”, we are relegating our battles to who is to be taken seriously, instead of learning to detach intelligence from our worth as human beings.
So where do we begin this process of unlearning, learning and challenging our language? We begin with understanding the words we use and the power they have over defining people’s worth. We can visit Autistic Hoya’s page to see a list of ableist words, slurs and learn the history behind them. This workshop presentation by University of Arizona, Disability Rights Centre is also a good place to start.
This is the first in a three-part series on ableism. Parts 2 and 3 will focus on structural and medical ableism, and ableism and intersectionality, respectively.
Srinidhi Raghavan is a writer, researcher and trainer. She works at the intersections of sexuality, gender, disability and technology. She works on programme development with Rising Flame and is the co-founder of The Curio-city Collective.
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