Disabled Women & Sexual Objectification (or the Lack Thereof)

Today in The New York Times Opinion pages there was a piece called Longing for the Male Gaze. It is a personal account of a disabled woman’s experiences of not being socially perceived as sexually desirable. I have mixed feelings about the piece. On one hand while it is reasonably well known that disabled people are either viewed as nonsexual by default, there is very little available on the lived experience of not being accepted as an attractive, sexual being. This piece challenges that trend and does so in The New York Times.

On the other hand much of the framing of the piece is problematic. It focuses less on being seen as attractive and sexual within interpersonal relationships and more on not being treated as a sexual object. Jennifer Bartlett (the author) focuses on her lack of experiences with cat calling and other forms of sexual harassment.

This is problematic for a couple of reasons. For one it gives a lot of social power and validation to harmful social interactions. For another, the author actively plays oppression olympics between sexism/misogyny & ableism. In so doing she fundamentally fails to comprehend the very real harm that can come from catcalling and other forms of sexual harassment.

I do understand her frustration with the fact that disabled women are left out of the sexual objectification faced by our nondisabled peers. It is a catch-22 of intersectional oppression that even being denied an oppressive force usually experienced by part of your identity as a result of its intersection with disability is in fact further oppression.

That disabled women are often denied sexual objectification only shows how disability has denied us the ability  to live up to social and cultural understandings of gender presentation and punishes us by denying us not only the consequences of being sexually objectified but also of simply being seen as fully women.

That is a conversation that hasn’t happened enough and needs to.

Unfortunately, Bartlett is not starting that conversation. She instead writes almost longingly of being sexually objectified as though being seen as worthy of catcalling would also mean she was worthy of being seen as a sexual being in healthier interpersonal interactions. Unfortunately, in this she is probably right.

That however does not negate the issue of her downplaying the seriousness & real dangers of sexual harassment and catcalling. She writes,

On one hand, I know that I am “lucky” not to be sexually harassed as I navigate the New York City streets. But, I am harassed in other ways that feel much more damaging. People stare. People insist that I have God’s blessing. People feel most comfortable speaking about me in the third person rather than addressing me directly. It is not uncommon that I will be in a situation where a stranger will talk to the nearest able-bodied person, whether it be a friend or a complete stranger, about me to avoid speaking to me.

I also do understand what it feels like to get attention from the wrong man. It’s gross. It’s uncomfortable. It’s scary and tedious. And in certain cases, traumatic. But I still would much rather have a man make an inappropriate sexual comment than be referred to in the third person or have someone express surprise over the fact that I have a career. The former, unfortunately, feels “normal.” The latter makes me feel invisible and is meant for that purpose.

She does acknowledge that attention from the “wrong” men can be scary but still positions it as preferable to the erasure of the ableist interactions she does experience more frequently.

I would however argue that catcalling and sexual harassment is an erasure of the humanity and personhood of women. It can also be deadly (link to When Women Refuse a blog which collects stories of women who are either harmed or killed when they didn’t respond favourably to male attention).

Like Bartlett I am a woman with cerebral palsy. I however have not lived a life as free of catcalling and sexual harassment as she describes her life to have been. I have also experienced the stares, question, prayers and being ignored in favour of nondisabled companions. I am however not going to say that one is preferable than the other.

In every single incident of street harassment that I have experienced. I have felt either utterly dehumanized or genuinely threatened. I however cannot say that I have left every dehumanizing disability specific negative interaction feeling totally safe either.

Being a disabled woman who has experienced street harassment, I can also attest to the fact that it hasn’t done anything for my being accepted as a sexual being by society. In fact it is sometimes used to reinforce the fact that I’m generally not viewed as sexual.

As I’ve written about before, as a result of my disabilities I am not able to perform femininity to cultural expectations. This has resulted in men yelling questions like “are you a man or woman?” at me out of car windows or men foregoing the question altogether and simply loudly debating the question as I walk by.

When the harassment is actually sexually suggestive it’s threatening. Like the time I was lost in downtown Winnipeg at night and someone came up to me while I was trying to get my bearings told me I was beautiful and requested that I go home with him. Luckily when I visibly recoiled he moved on. This interaction was immediately followed by a second man who had witnessed the interaction using it as an excuse to get way to close to me in order to say “well that was creepy wasn’t it”.

These interactions didn’t affirm my femininity despite my disability. They made me terrified. The fact that I am also disabled and less physically able to run away or fight only exacerbated that fear.

So while I agree that in many ways the ability to be viewed as a sexual object is also tied to the more benign assessments on who gets viewed as a sexual being, I do not agree with Bartlett’s down playing of the harm of sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment when coupled with disability does not actually reinforce a disabled sexual identity in a culture that continues to ignore that disabled people are sexual beings. Downplaying the harm of street harassment not only erases the real harm it causes nondisabled women who experience it regularly but also ignores that some disabled women do experience it and that it only makes them less safe not more fully human.

 

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But it Wasn’t Designed for You: How Ignoring Accessibility Becomes the Excuse for Perpetuating Inaccessibility

I am sick of seeing people responding to evidence of inaccessibility with “but it wasn’t designed for you”. This argument has been used to both try and shut down calls to make inaccessible things more accessible (which is what I’ll be focusing on) and to limit access to accessible things that have been deemed unnecessary to nondisabled people (see my piece of accessibility to fresh food here for an example of that).

So the much anticipated augmented reality game Pokemon Go was released in several countries last week (though not Canada yet). It is already wildly popular and has had a noticeable impact on Nintendo stock prices.

The game–which is based on one originally released for Gameboy and which also had a television series and card game–allows smartphone users to find and catch pokemon in the real world.

Since it’s release it has been criticized for being inaccessible to many people with disabilities. The game requires that players actually be able to get around public spaces to find the pokemon and visit pokestops (which provide players with necessary items for the game) and train at gyms.

For people with limited mobility or who have difficulty leaving their homes. The game is entirely inaccessible because movement is completely tied to an individual’s GPS location.

I am going to spend less time talking about the accessibility issues of Pokemon Go itself because others are already doing that better than I could. I am instead going to use the game and people’s reactions to having its inaccessibility highlighted as a timely way of addressing how people’s  reactions to inaccessibility being called out end up justifying and perpetuating that inaccessibility.

When a new product is called out for being inaccessible or when disabled people advocate that a company make an inaccessible product more accessible, two related arguments inevitably come up.

  1. This game wasn’t made with you in mind.
  2. You are not the target demographic.

On the face of it these arguments seem identical but there are some key differences. In the first case, the exclusion may just be an oversight but it is one that will be justified as an understandable lapse.

The demographic argument works best when a product is made with a specific demographic market in mind.

The problem is that with the first argument it is far to acceptable to brush off inaccessibility as “oh well, I guess this one thing just isn’t for you” despite the fact that it is very far from being “just one thing” and is in fact representative of a widespread problem. It is far to common and easy to ignore whether a product or service is inaccessible.

In order to head off reactionary comments, I am not arguing or suggesting that everything can or should be made accessible for two reasons.

  1. Accessibility is not and never will be a one size fits all phenomenon.
  2. There are just some things that people with certain disabilities shouldn’t do for reasons of safety. For example, I have a weak arm and should for my own safety and the safety of others never operate a chainsaw. So I’m not going to go after chainsaw manufacturers to their products because I shouldn’t.

So please don’t send me a rant about how [insert random unrelated product or service] is either essential but still inaccessible or which regardless of redesign cannot be made safely accessible.

When disabled people point out accessibility issues it is usually because a.) they think with some tweaking the thing itself could be made accessible or b.) they are expressing a consumer desire to have someone redesign an inaccessible thing to be accessible. It is not a wholesale attack on all things.

So continuing on I am now going to address the “they just didn’t have you in mind” argument. There are way to many things that just happen to be inaccessible because the creators either didn’t consider disabled people or determined that accommodating the would be to time consuming. Far to many of these products (Pokemon Go included) could be made accessible or have accessibility mods added on if the creators cared to put the effort in.

The fact that far to many don’t is where this argument of “oh they just didn’t make it for you” really falls apart. Almost nothing that is available to the general public is made with disabled people in mind. We are far to frequently relegated to the realm of “niche target market” catered to primarily by medical companies or adaptive technology companies.

This leaves us out of far to many mainstream pass times. This is where it stops being an oversight and becomes a problem where out exclusion and reliance on only specialized targeted products and indicative of systemic and socially acceptable exclusion.

As a target demographic we are also treated differently, with products geared towards us specifically only made available in specialty stores.

In terms of a more mainstream understanding of target demographic, we are still separate because generally target demographics are based on goals and an understanding of who will be interested in a product. Not actually mandating who can use it.

People use products not expressly geared toward them all the time without consequences. The problem comes not from who a product is targeted at but at who is expressly excluded from using it.*

But back to Pokemon Go. Where does it fit into all this? The game itself  has a very broad demographic target. It is as much as any single product can be geared to everyone.** This is what makes the complete lack of consideration of disability so frustrating because it is a case of “this is actually for everyone except you”.

The sheer scale of the game’s popularity only emphasizes this fact.

So, I would ask that any person who reacts dismissively to calls for more accessibility (whether it is in Pokemon Go or anything else) to ask themselves

Why is this request making me so uncomfortable?

I would then ask you to express solidarity, to show companies that you actually are comfortable sharing space (and pokemon) with disabled people. Tell companies that disabled people deserve accessible products and don’t deserve to be forgotten or an afterthought.

 

 

*I am aware and do not wish to minimize the fact that there are certain industries which don’t expressly forbid people from outside their target demographics do create cultures within those industries which are very unwelcoming and often abusive to people who are seen as outsiders.

**It is also important to note that disabled people are not the only group criticizing the game’s inclusivity (see here for another example).

Mentioning Disability is not an Invitation for Commentary or an Inquisition

I think one of the clearest examples that I experience regularly that disability is not an accepted experience is that I can’t casually reference the experience of being disabled without being met with either pity or inappropriate questions. Sometimes it is both.

For me disability is a huge part of how I experience the world. It impacts how I do every day things. If it is relevant I should be able to reference it in the same way a nondisabled person talks about their day.

When I reference my disability or how it impacted an activity (like referencing how I had to do something differently than the norm). I am not looking for pity. But I all too often get it.

Or in a situation where I am airing a grievance based on discrimination, where empathy (though I usually get pity) is appropriate, it is misplaced. People are sorry that I am disabled not that I experienced discrimination or prejudice.

I have written about how nondisabled people often treat disabled people like public spectacles before. Here, I’m going to address how casual acquaintances try to legitimize inappropriate questions about disability.

This isn’t about those people who accost disabled people on the street to ask “what’s wrong with you?”

Rather this is about those people who you are conversing with casually who take the remotest reference to disability to ask “what’s wrong with you?” even when that question is not a natural progression of the disability reference.

These encounters often involve social coercion on the part of the questioner to get you to answer.

The scenario might involve a peer at work or a fellow guest at a party. They are people who can have genuine reasons to speak to you. They will also use the circumstance of being at work or surrounded by other people to force compliance because failure to comply could have consequences.

For example, you are attending a bridal shower for a close friend but it is being hosted by that friend’s future in-laws so the only person you really know is the bride. Everyone else is either a future in-law or one of their close family friends. As often occurs in these situations people ask what you do.

For me this brings disability up basically immediately because I’m a Disability Studies student. It’s a miracle is people don’t immediately move a conversation about what I study to what I am. Usually, telling someone you are a student elicits questions about the program and what you are planning on doing after graduation.

Not so if you are both disabled and a student of disabilities. Somehow, people see to think that asking about my medical history is a perfectly natural progression from me saying that I study disability. It is always quite clear in these conversations that people aren’t just ascertaining whether I have a personal stake in my field. That could be more respectfully determined by asking why I chose disability studies.

A question like that also would allow me to determine what information I am comfortable sharing. Demanding someone’s medical information is about entitlement and voyeurism. Waiting for a disabled person to make even the vaguest reference to disability first does not make it more acceptable.

Making that demand in front of other people is just coercive. Particularly if refusing will put you in a awkward position. Either with the questioner or in keeping with the bridal shower scenario with the bride.

I have found that simply telling people that you don’t want to share that information is rarely received gracefully when the request originated as a demand.

People tend to realize that a refusal is also a message that the question was inappropriate so they feel the need to justify their right to ask it and shame you for noncompliance (remember this is not a private conversation but one that is happening in earshot of other people). So they ask follow-up questions.

You’re doing a PhD in disability studies, shouldn’t you want to educate people about disability?

The answer I wish I could give: Yes, and an integral part of teaching about and advocating for disabled people is making clear boundaries. It does not benefit disabled people to reinforce the idea that our lives and bodies are available for public consumption.

Additionally, as you point out I am doing a PhD in disability studies which means that in addition to my years of experience as a disabled person, I have spent years and tens of thousands of dollars becoming this qualified. University professors don’t work for free so why should I? If you would like to agree to an hourly rate, I’d be happy to share my extensive knowledge with you. Like any work arrangement though I have the right to have my medical privacy respected and I will not be sharing any personal information unless I choose to do so.

I am just trying to learn, why won’t you educate me? Don’t you want people to understand?

The answer I wish I could give: Setting boundaries is a lesson in respect. If you really wanted to learn, you would accept that lesson rather than expecting me to give you personal information which in the grand scheme of things would tell you nothing about the experience of being disabled. It really only serves to parrot information that can be found in a medical textbook or on WebMD.

 

Ultimately as much as I want to, I don’t say those things. More often than not I just give them the information that they want. This invariably leaves me feeling horrible. The consequences for noncompliance however are greater. In the bridal shower scenario it would put my friend in the awkward position of either defending me or defending a future family member or friend. Either alienating me from them or them from family.

These more public confrontations risk more than angering a single person but can have wider consequences from witnesses who are often just as curious as the original questioner. It is usually easier and often safer to comply in the short term and if the questioner is someone that you are likely to have repeated contact with (like a coworker) consider taking action to change the environment in the long term.

I wish these interactions didn’t happen at all. I wish people’s express desire to learn was genuine and not a convenient excuse to justify inappropriate behaviour. So in case you do genuinely want to learn about disability and don’t want to be an asshole in the process here are a few tips.

If you are able, make an effort to educate yourself on your own time. Read blogs by disabled people. Read academic disability literature (some disability studies journals like Disability Studies Quarterly are public access and can be read for free by anyone).

If you are talking to a disabled person, don’t take any vague reference to disability as an invitation to ask probing personal questions. Make sure any follow up questions are directly related to the person’s original reference.

Let the disabled person decide how much they are willing to share and respect their privacy and boundaries.

Recognize that diagnosis information often says very little about the actual lived experience of disability and should not be considered essential to learning about it.

Just Because I Use Identity First Language Doesn’t Mean I Let Disability Define Me

I’ve talked about disability and self labeling before, I am no going to rehash my reasons again but there is an aspect of the debate around person first and identity first language that I’d like to take a look at.

Language and how it’s used is complicated and as a result, how language is used often deviates from the original intention. However for context here is a brief description of the original intent of both person first and identity first labeling.

Person First: as in person with a disability (as opposed to disabled person), person with with autism (as opposed to autistic person) was conceived to combat stigma around the term disability. It was meant to show the humanity of the person with a disability diagnosis by highlighting the individual’s personhood first. Disability was just tangential.

Person first language sprung from a medical understanding of disability, where disability was seen as the problem so it had to be de-emphasized.

Identity first: as in disabled person (as opposed to person with a disability) was originally conceived to challenge the medical view of disability and replace it with a socio-cultural view. It wasn’t people’s diagnoses that were the problem, it was society. Society was the main cause of disablement. Saying you were a disabled person was originally not about identity at all it was an acknowledgement that society was the predominant cause of barriers for people with impairments (see my post here for a more in depth breakdown of the social model of disability). It was a way of calling attention to society’s physical and social barriers by tying oppression to the term disablement.

I sincerely doubt that most people who use identity first language are doing so to constantly be saying “hey you are oppressing me” or “hey I’m oppressed” (even though those two statements are likely true). They do it for the same reasons I do. It is a way to reject the idea that disability is a dirty word and to say that disability can be a part of a person’s identity without sacrificing their humanity. It’s a pushback against the stigma associated with disability (for more see this piece by Emily Ladau).

It is from this perspective that I will be dealing with an issue that I often see in the debate between person first language (PFL) and identity first language (IFL).

There are several defenders of PFL who reject the idea of disability as negative but maintain the use of PFL because they feel that using IFL means they are letting disability define them and they are more complex than one identifier.

I honestly find this reasoning a little ridiculous. All people are complex and embody multiple identities that may include race, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, nationality and more and yes even disability. I would argue that most people who identify with any of these things don’t then reject everything else. I have yet to hear an argument where someone has to argue where their religion is placed in a sentence by themselves or others means that it is completely defining them.

When it comes to being defined by a single identifier, it is not usually the individual being labeled doing the defining. It is someone else. In terms of identities that are marginalized the person doing the defining is probably being bigoted. People are far to complicated to be reduced to a single label.

Ultimately, it shouldn’t matter where disability is put in a sentence before or after person. It should just be a description. I admit I often use disabled person and person with a disability interchangeably when speaking about people generally just to have variety in my writing.

I however, choose to use IFL to directly challenge the bigotry inherent in assuming that I must be separated from my body to be considered human. I most definitely don’t do it to pigeon hole my identity into one label. I am far to complicated for that, just like everyone else.

I continue to believe that people should have the right to self-label and I endeavor to respect people’s personal preferences because we have been labeled by others far to often and it is time for us to take over the conversation about our own lives. I will not however accept the idea that my choice in sentence structure means that I am limiting my identity.

The Media and the Imaginary Disabled Person

img-kylie-jenner_174241584205

I get it, as far as popular culture and the media are concerned disability doesn’t exist. Disability isn’t real, it’s just a metaphor. You know how I know this? The complete lack of actual disabled people in the media. Yet the media doesn’t ignore disability. They make movies about “disability”, they have “disabled” characters in TV shows. All without using actual disabled people. I mean there might be a couple behind the scenes consulting but we rarely if ever get to see them.

I disabled in quotation marks above because those stories are almost never (with some rare and debatable exceptions) accurate. Not only are they not accurate in representation (using actual disabled people), they are wrong in presentation (the stories don’t accurately portray the disabled experience. Disability is far to often reduced to a few recognizable physical identifiers (wheelchairs, white canes, etc.) and stereotypes (the charity case, the supercrip, the embittered cripple and the mad villain, etc.).

Neither the physical presentation or the stories told around them are in any way an accurate presentation of the diverse experience of disability. I mean there are over a billion people on the planet so they probably represent a few people but certainly not all or even close to most.

The biggest problem here is that people don’t understand that they’re being lied to. They don’t understand that disability is more diverse and more nuanced. These stereotypes are perceived to be true.

Just consider the recent pictures of reality TV star Kylie Jenner in Interview Magazine. Two of the images show Jenner in a wheelchair even though she is not disabled. One image (shown above) shows Jenner seated in a golden wheelchair in a corset and high heels. Her face is passive and her hands are on the wheels. One leg is lifted as though she is either about to get up or perhaps fall backward. The second below

img-kylie-jenner_174227203447

shows Jenner in the same outfit and wheelchair looking for all intents and purposes like a lifeless doll.

The thing that makes this situation so relevant is how Interview Magazine responded to the inevitable backlash saying

“At Interview, we are proud of our tradition of working with great artists and empowering them to realize their distinct and often bold visions. The Kylie Jenner cover by Steven Klein, which references the British artist Allen Jones, is a part of this tradition, placing Kylie in a variety of positions of power and control and exploring her image as an object of vast media scrutiny.”

The wheelchair was used as literal metaphor and a metaphor about limitation. If anything proves that as far as the media is concerned that disability is an imaginary construct to be used however they see fit it’s this.

The problem is that disability isn’t imaginary. This metaphor of limitation doesn’t work in the real world unless you’re talking about inaccessibility (at which point I promise you the chair isn’t the problem).

As people have been eloquently pointing out wheelchairs aren’t inherently limiting. As Ophelia Brown points out

My wheelchair is not a limitation — it is my wings. It lets me go to school, go out with friends and live life like a “normal person.”

She also addresses the problem that relying on and defending those media stereotypes causes

Do you know what that lack of representation means? It means that 9 year-old Ophelia is embarrassed about having to sit out from gym class. It means that 12 year-old Ophelia would rather die than go to school in a wheelchair. It means that 17 year-old Ophelia has been told too many damn times that her disability makes her ugly. I want you to know how much power that wheelchair gives you, and how, honestly, you don’t deserve that power.

An able-bodied media figure has more power to define the disabled experience than actual disabled people. It is a power they should absolutely not have because they are using it to harm (even if they can’t seem to understand that).

All aspects of the media need to realize that disability is real and that we deserve better than the lies they are telling. Lies they have told for so long and so often that they actually believe them.

Inspiration Porn is Not Progress, It’s a New Kind of Oppression

We’ve all seen the images. Those pictures of disabled people succeeding. They tend to fall into two general categories.

Disabled people particularly children doing everyday activities. This is often accompanied by quotes like “the only disability in life is a bad attitude”

The other uses images of disabled people doing something noteworthy like reaching a high level of athletic ability or physical fitness, with taglines like “your excuse is invalid” or “What was your excuse again”

The point of these images is to ostensibly put a positive spin on disability. Josephine Fairley argues that inspiration porn must be progress because it takes a topic which has most often been viewed negatively and puts a positive spin on it. The positivity then outweighs the patronizing tone that so often comes along with these images.

The problem is that positivity does not actually equal progress. Particularly for a group that has so often been viewed through a lens of charity. First though, let’s look at the actual messages that are most often put forward.

1. The only disability in life is a bad attitude

Here I will defer to the amazing Stella Young

Stella Young quote

“The reason that’s bullshit is… No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp. No amount of standing in the middle of a bookshelf and radiating a positive attitude is going to turn all those books to braille”

While it is true that the disabled experience has often been perceived as an existance of unending suffering and that it is important to challenge that stereotype. Framing the disabled experience as being defined only by the attitude of the disabled person lets the nondisabled majority off the hook. How disability is experienced is not just a physical experience but a socially constructed one. This line of thinking allows the oppressor to be comfortable about not challenging the fact the the world is fundamentally not built for disabled people, even where adaptations exist, they are often not available. Braille has existed for over a century and yet materials in Braille are not widely or readily available. Often they must be requested.

We essentially went from a worldview where it was acceptable to segregate and neglect disabled people, which then supported our current inaccessible society to one where segregation is less acceptable but the world remains inaccessible. Making disability about attitude allows people to ignore the existing and new physical and social structures that continue to exclude disabled people. It simply maintains the old exclusionary society but blames it on the oppressed group for not figuring out how to be included.

2. “Your excuse in invalid” or What’s your excuse again?”

These slogans are often with images of disabled people achieving noteworthy things like becoming paralympians or gaining an above average level of fitness. It is certainly true that there need to be success stories for disabled people in the media. They have the dual benefit of showing other disabled people what is possible and breaking down stereotypes. These stories however need to have context. Acheiving athleticism as a disabled person is not as simple as wanting it and then going for it. There are often major barriers so in answer to the second question, there are no excuses but some very good reasons.

Opportunities for disabled people to participate in sports or other athletics (dancing, skating, etc) are not plentiful. We can’t just show up at our local gym and expect to have comprehensive training tailored to our individual needs for two reasons. First, tailor made training is expensive, coincidentally being disabled is often exensive. Add to that, that disabled people are disproportionately likely to live in poverty. Second, assuming the first isn’t an issue, you need a trainer who will work with your specific needs and limitations. These people are hard to find. A disabled person is more likely to be refused access to a training facility outright even if they only want to use it recreationally. Classes designed specifically for disabled people are often in groups so getting individual attention is hard. Also these courses are often thinly veiled physio therapy sessions that are more concerned with getting us moving than getting us to succeed at whatever the class is. If we manage to get in the classes for nondisabled people we are often left to flounder with no individual support or even become victims of abuse if we fail to participate at the same level.

So success stories are important but so to is the context. How did they pay for training? Where did they find a coach? What barriers did they face and how were they dealt with?

Yes I know, inspiration porn is more for the nondisabled consumer than the disabled one so many of the barriers don’t exist for the intended audience but the lack of context raises expectations for disabled people who don’t live up to that standard. It creates a value based binary of those who succeed and those who don’t without looking at why some people can’t succeed. The message for those who don’t is “You didn’t try hard enough” not “let’s make it easier for you to succeed”.

Coming back to Fairley’s argument that anything positive is progress. This argument is pretty weak because good intentions don’t equal good outcomes. The battle for human rights cannot be boiled down to “It’s the thought that counts”. In the fight for equality it is not the thought that count, it’s the results that count. Positive feelings that reinforce old oppressions are nothing but a new face for an old wrong.

Disability rights activists are not the only marginalized group to take aim at this lie. We currently live in a society where rights are discussed more freely and allies from outside the marginalized group are lining up to help. Unfortunately sometimes their good intentions do more harm then good. This has led to a lot of discussion of how to be a good ally and addressing the common problems that voices of privilege brings to discussions of oppression.

So this is not a new problem or one that is unique to disability rights activism but it is one that is slightly more complicated in the realm of disability. We don’t just have allies, we are also stuck with advocates. People who don’t even pretend to stand with us but instead position themselves to speak for us. This is because of the long history of disability charities. It has long been and continues to be considered acceptable for charities to dictate how disability should be perceived and dealt with. Often without the input of disabled people either in the design or implementation of these organizations (Autism Speaks, Neil Squire Society to name a couple). We are still very deeply contained in a social mentality that we need to be saved by the well meaning who then get tax rebates for donations. Charities always frame what they do as positive and helpful even when the people who are the intended recipients disagree. Consider the newly cancelled MDA telethon that provoked protests for years but only began to lose sway after Jerry Lewis stopped hosting the event. Former MDA poster child Emily Wolinsky even helped found a competing organization that addressed issues ignored by MDA.

The false positivity of inspiration porn is just another tool to keep disabled people in a place that is controlled and defined by nondisabled people. It does nothing but reinforce old stereotypes of laziness and robs disabled people of accurate representation in the media by coopting our stories for the consumption of others.

Can We Please Stop Calling Able-Bodied People TABs

Physical access for people with disabilities is crucially important for an inclusive society. We currently fall far short of being fully accessible. This is true pretty much everywhere, though some places are worse than others.

It can be difficult to get people who do not face barriers to public access to take those barriers seriously or to even acknowledge how widespread those barriers are. As a way to bring context to this issue where one side lives an experience of regular and often unpredictable public exclusion and the other which is allowed to remain blissfully ignorant, the disabled community came up with the abbreviation TAB.

Temporarily Able-Bodied. In an effort to build understanding around the issues of disabled people, we chose to remind people that we are a group they can join at any time and most crucially are very likely to join. It is described as

“AB” is an abbreviation for able-bodied; “TAB” is a slightly more to-the-point abbreviation meaning “Temporarily Able-Bodied.” TAB refers to the inevitable—namely, that most of us will face disability at some point in our lives; whether it comes sooner or later varies depending upon one’s circumstances.

Frankly, there are better ways to explain why accessibility and understanding of disability issues are important.

Accessibility helps anyone who has to push a stroller or carry boxes. Full accessibility and its maintenance make life easier for everyone who has to move around. Disabled people are simply given more equal access. Access that is often otherwise denied.

Laurie Toby Edison and Debbie Notkin, who use the term TAB argue that

Using it is a way for a disability activist (or anyone discussing disability) to quickly and effectively bring all of her/his listeners into one group: some of us are disabled now and many of us will be sooner or later. It’s a phrase that builds community, that reminds people that the needs of some are really the needs of everyone. It’s akin to “universal design” as a phrase reminding us of what brings us together, rather than what separates us.

I find this view a bit naive. Disability is still deeply stigmatized. People actively fear becoming like us. I have a friend who often states that they would prefer to die young than ever become dependent in their old age. Even the authors of the last quote understand that the term can be problematic simply because it is not true. Not all currently able-bodied people will become disabled ether temporarily or permanently. They say,

At the same time, like any catchphrase, it’s oversimplified. Disability is not inevitable. Only two things are always temporary: life, and youth. Everything else is conditional, contextual, and/or statistical. Definitions of ability/disability are exceedingly complex; even definitions of “aging” are less obvious than they might immediately appear.

Ability is not always temporary. Two large groups of people are able-bodied until they die: first, those who age able-bodied (not just 90-year-old hikers but also people over 80 who walk to the grocery store every day and clean their own homes). Second, and harder to see, are the people who die able-bodied at any age. In a culture that tries not to admit that people die at all and is especially resistant to admitting that young people ever die, it’s important to remember that death and old age are not synonymous. And, of course, disability is not always permanent either: the world is full of people who are temporarily disabled.

Despite their misgivings, they ultimately still believe that the term has value as a community builder and they intend to continue using it albeit with disclaimers.

I genuinely see the term TAB as more of a threat (at least in how it is perceived, regardless of the intent of the user) than anything useful. It is saying, you will be like us someday and how will you get around the world then?

I most frequently hear TAB used as an inevitable description. As already pointed out this is simply not true. As Notkin and Edison point out, people have difficulty coming to terms with mortality. Disability though not always deadly is an extension of that fear. People do not view acquired disability calmly or dispassionately. They quite often fear it.

Ezekiel J. Emmanuel sums up why he would prefer to die early, rather than live as long as possible,

But here is a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.

So disability is feeble, ineffectual and pathetic. Emmanuel is far from alone in his beliefs. If he weren’t this discussion would not be necessary.

For a term like TAB to be effective at including others in understanding, they must first understand that disability is not a fate worse than death.

Unfortunately, understanding disability and the barriers disabled people face will take more than a term that is at best misleading and at worse could fan flames of fear because telling someone who fears disability that they are likely to become disabled is more likely to cause backlash than open channels of communication.