Blogging against ‘disablism’

The Blogging Against Disablism Day is a fantastic initiative, to which I contribute this blog, which should not be misconstrued as a criticism of the initiative itself.

I’ve never though been a fan of the word ‘disablism.’  To talk about ‘disability’ in the same way as race assigns it the same status – an intrinsic personal characteristic which itself the object of discrimination.  To have equivalence with say racism or homophobia it should technically be impairmentism, for it is impairment that is the relevant ‘personal characteristic’ and impairment-related prejudice disables, in the same way other socially constructed barriers disable.

This is important because it is my contention is that the prejudice and discrimination that disabled people face all stems from one specific viewpoint – one which is deeply embedded in our and other society’s value- systems, our everyday practices and our institutions – that an impairment or long term health condition is de-facto a deficit.

So embedded is this idea that it forms the criteria by which people are judged to be eligible for benefits or social care.  The deserving disabled person is he or she who is considered to have no agency or potential for productive life.  To not be in deficit is to not be considered eligible. To manage to strive off the back of such support is to be a scrounger.

It is there in the way social care and criminal justice both describe individuals and groups with impairments or health conditions as ‘vulnerable’ – as though inviting harm upon themselves – or ‘hard to reach’ as though deliberately in hiding – not as people in vulnerable situations because of the failure of public institutions to reach them.

It is there in the presumptions of medical professionals in life and death decision making at the beginning, end and throughout the lives of people with impairments or health conditions that their lives are less worth saving.

It is there in the continued insistence on describing some children as having ‘special educational needs’ rather than schools as having failed to include them.

It is there in the operation of laws which strip people of the right to make decisions about their own lives on grounds of mental capacity rather than supporting them to do so, in the practice of warehousing people in institutions large or small which rob people of their identity and personhood, and in the neglect, inhuman and degrading treatment which people with impairments and health conditions continue to be subjected.

This idea of impairment as de facto deficit was also clearly present in the media coverage of the the killing of three children by their mother last week.  Within hours of discovering the children had Spinal Muscular Atrophy the media were scrambling to make sense of their deaths by asking questions openly regarding their life expectancy, or the demands placed on the mother in caring for them – their perceived deficits providing justification for their killing.

The notion that disability equals deficit embodies the idea that disabled people are less than human.  And to be less than human provides the justification to be denied equal human rights.

The things I’ve described above are no doubt what others regard as ‘disablist’.  But I believe we can’t afford to allow ourselves to use the concepts of disability and impairment interchangeably in this way. By doing so we blur what we have fought so hard to convey as the meaning of disability – as socially constructed barriers – and by doing so undermine our ability to challenge the idea that while there are many deficits, these are not borne of a persons body or mind, but of the society in which we live and which we can and must continue to change for the better.


3 thoughts on “Blogging against ‘disablism’

  1. Thanks for this – it is an excellent post, although naturally I disagree a little.

    I really don’t mind the words other people might use to describe disablism/ disability discrimination etc., but – while the word remains a somewhat clunky neologism – the reason I prefer “disablism” to anything that refers to impairment is that I don’t think we are discriminated against on the grounds of impairment.

    For example, someone who has an HIV diagnosis may be in perfectly good health, without any functional impairment at all. But they will experience discrimination because they are classed with the rest of us, as sick, as broken, as having the deficit you describe.. So sometimes people are disabled in the absence of impairment. (Oddly, the Disability Discrimination Act recognises this but only specifically about HIV, MS and cancer – there are plenty of other conditions where a mere diagnosis, or even a history of a condition from which someone has since recovered, can lead to disability discrimination).

    Other times, people are discriminated against on the grounds of an impairment they do not have. A classic is the wheelchair user, assumed to have an intellectual impairment and given that patronising or dismissive treatment that no-one should experience. Or people with mental ill health assumed to have the most dramatic psychotic symptoms – or indeed, being assumed to have no impairment at all, because those conditions aren’t “real”.

    Also, I’d say that race is not an intrinsic personal characteristic either. Race, like disability, is a social construct, and what race a person is classed as may be equally arbitrary. People who are “mixed race” may find themselves constantly moving between white and non-white identities (at least as far as external treatment is concerned) according to who they’re around. Certainly people of colour in a predominantly white society will often find themselves classed unexpectedly – many mid-Asian and even Hispanic people experienced abuse in the US after 9/11 because they were misidentified as being Arab.

    I only write such a long explanation because I couldn’t agree more passionately about the dangers of conflating impairment with disability. I do hope that makes sense.

    Thanks very much for contributing to the day. 🙂

  2. Dear The Goldfish

    Thanks for your comments and for the opportunity to contribute to such a wonderful initiative.

    I agree with you that people can experience prejudice without exhibiting the effects of an impairment or health condition – whether because it is sometimes ‘invisible’ as in the case of some progressive conditions or mental health problems or because it is presumed to be a feature of an unrelated impairment or health condition such as the presumption that a person using a wheelchair has an intellectual impairment. But I would argue that this is still on grounds of impairment and assumptions made about impairment that equate it with deficit, the impact of which is to ‘disable’ people. Impairment – rather than disability – is analogous with race in this sense: it is the characteristic about which assumptions are made or a prejudicial identity is projected by others. It is the resultant disadvantage which amounts to ‘disability’.

    I do think you are right to highlight how people may experience additional prejudice and discrimination by virtue of ‘belonging’ – or being perceived to belong – to a socially constructed category of people ‘disabled people/persons with disabilities’ given the points I make in the blog: if society’s dominant understanding of disability is that is borne of deficits that are a consequence of impairment, then to be labelled ‘disabled’ consolidates such a perception.

    If disability is socially constructed, then our goal is to end disability. The idea of ‘disablism’ implies that disability is instead intrinsic and permanent and that our goal is to end the ‘ism’?

    Best wishes, Neil

    • I don’t think that makes sense.

      In fact, I think that only makes sense if you take words as having fixed, absolute meanings that all must intermesh with each other perfectly into a perfect, overarching ideology that covers all the bases, at once, and has to be perfectly consistent within itself.

      Which I don’t believe is a realistic expectation, or a even a good expectation, to have.

      Saying that ableism (whatever word you use for it) exists says nothing at all about whether disability is “intrinsic”. It just says that oppression on the basis of disability exists. That’s all it says. That’s all it needs to say. Words don’t have inherent meanings, they only have the meanings we give them, and there’s no need in the world to read more into a word than is actually said in the word.

      Also, surely it matters less which words people use for impairment and disability, and more what they mean by those words?

      I can’t get into this.

      And when I say can’t, I mean actually can’t, as in this kind of thinking is cognitively inaccessible for me. It’s literally giving me a headache even trying to understand this idea that all words must be intertwined with each other perfectly, so they fit these interlocking ideas, that all must be internally consistent within a certain logical structure in order to be valid. I can’t think that way. I can sort of see, from a distance, the way other people think that way. But I can’t think that way.

      I don’t mind that people have their own preferences when it comes to language and ideology. I do mind when people start telling me what I mean when I use language. And that’s basically what a person is doing, when they insist that a word has to have a certain inherent meaning and implication, regardless of what people actually say about what they mean when they use the word.

      And when I say ableism or disablism, I mean the oppression of disabled people. I mean absolutely nothing at all about whether disability is something innate, or caused by society. I mean absolutely nothing at all about the social model of disability. And I worry greatly any time I see people caring more about engineering the perfect words and perfect concepts that all fit together nicely in the sky, than about what people actually mean when they use the words.

      Like the entire idea that a word has an inherent and absolute meaning regardless of who is using it is foreign enough to me, without all the rest of this. There is absolutely nothing at all about the word disablism, or ableism, that dictates anything at all about the nature of disability itself. Nothing.

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