We live in a world that is fundamentally inaccessible to disabled people. Physical access to public space is still a significant barrier. Social policies also make it difficult for disabled people to participate in society. Yet, these issues rarely make the news unless they are perceived as particularly callous.
Consider when Calgary Airport removed wheelchair accessible spaces to put in reserved space for Lexus Vehicles or the proposed dementia tax in the UK. These issues cause outcry and change to those specific incidences. The rage that these situations is inspired by the idea that these sorts of things shouldn’t and generally don’t happen anymore.
It is a long-standing sentimental response to overly callous behaviour. Consider the 1993 Canadian federal election where the Progressive Conservatives were faced with fury over an attack ad that was perceived to belittle then Liberal Leader Jean Chretien based on his facial paralysis as a result of Bell’s Palsy.
Video Description: Audio attacks Liberal policies while still close-up images of Jean Chretien’s face are shown.
This was met with a large amount of backlash. Some even credit it with the Progressive Conservatives (PC) losing the election. Though that is impossible to prove and unlikely considering the PC’s were already low in the polls before the ad ever aired.
Quick rage at easily identifiable wrongs against disabled people is common but it rarely leads to meaningful action or even comes from an awareness of the lived reality of disability.
This is probably best exemplified by the continued referencing and indignance around Donald Trump’s 2016 mockery of Serge Kovaleski. Though he is tellingly most frequently referred to not by his name but simply as “the disabled reporter”.
Outrage over that incident both obscures the racism and Islamophobia that inspired Trump’s actions and essentially reduced solidarity to disabled people to the ability to identify and condemn specific incidences of bullying or discrimination against specific individuals.
This ability for callous treatment of disabled people to inspire the ire of nondisabled people extends beyond election campaigns. Consider this tweet I can across yesterday.
It includes an image of text from a Dear Prudie segment from Salon which reads,
Q. Daughter’s friend being in wedding: My 27-year-old daughter and her best friend, Katie, have been best friends since they were 4. Katie practically grew up in our house and is like a daughter to me. My daughter recently got engaged to her fiancé and announced that Katie would be the maid of honor (Katie’s boyfriend is also a good friend of my future son-in-law). The problem is that Katie walks with a pretty severe limp due to a birth defect (not an underlying medical issue). She has no problem wearing high heels and has already been fitted for the dress, but I still think it will look unsightly if she’s in the wedding procession limping ahead of my daughter. I mentioned this to my daughter and suggested that maybe Katie could take video or hand out programs (while sitting) so she doesn’t ruin the aesthetic aspect of the wedding. My daughter is no longer speaking to me (we were never that close), but this is her big wedding and I want it to be perfect. All of the other bridesmaids will look gorgeous walking down the aisle with my daughter. Is it wrong to have her friend sit out?
Prudence quickly takes the questioner to task for her easily identifiable bigotry.
The key here is that the bigotry is overt and easily identifiable with a clear individual victim.
This is I suspect largely why incidences like this illicit public censure. It is less to do with an understanding of the social realities of disability as a disabled person who responded to the tweet points out,
The issue for nondisabled people is the public display of horrific behaviour, not a real desire to understand how widespread the issue really is. As long as the harm happens out of sight. People don’t seem to care. It is a purely performative and self-serving kind of solidarity. The response is simply condemnation without action or even a real awareness of the extent of the issue.
Horror at these incidences rarely results in meaningful action. Consider when ADAPT activists were protesting the proposed ACA repeal. People stared at the news in horror as images and videos of activists being dragged from their wheelchairs by police. The response predominantly stayed at horror and condemnation. Sure more people than ADAPT were actively protesting the ACA repeal but in the face of horror and condemnation of that specific treatment of disabled activists. The response stayed at horror and condemnation. It did not spark a large solidarity protest at Mitch McConnell’s office. People stayed home and clutched their pearls at the images on their computer and television screens.
Disability solidarity far too often stops at sentiment and condemnation and I can only credit this to the continued widespread ignorance of the realities of being disabled and continued systemic ableism.
How can people express shock at isolated incidences of the mistreatment of disabled people but not me moved to protest the systemic inequality disabled people experience.
In the UK for the second time in two years, the UN has condemned grievous state sanctioned human rights abuses against disabled citizens. That situation did not come from isolated incidences of cruelty performed by a single easily identifiable villain. That situation was created and maintained by the systemic willingness of millions of people across political lines to disregard the humanity of disabled people.
But sure Donald Trump being an asshole to a disabled guy that one time was bad.
But sure pat yourselves on the back for the 1993 Liberal election victory by misguidingly associating it with a nationwide moment of solidarity against bigotry.
I have intentionally made this post about international realities to really highlight how much farther we have to go than the mere condemnation of easily identifiable moments of bigotry.
Disabled people need more than sentimentality. We need action. We need change. We need people to question their own prejudices and how they might be contributing to the systems that oppress us and keep us from fully participating in the world we live in.
People need to get over the idea that society has moved beyond cruelty to disabled people. It hasn’t and the misguided belief that it has actively maintains systems of oppression.
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