The language of ableism

CW: ableism, transphobia, suicide mention, racism

So, you know how you like one post about cats on facebook, and then you only get posts about cats in your feed after that, whether you like it or not? Well, recently facebook did that to me with a bunch of posts about people with disabilities. And that’s fine – I don’t mind having a feed with disabled people doing cool things. What I mind are the comments.

I’m going to take you through three of the posts I read and how some of the comments were problematic, because I really, really, really want people to understand that their words matter. I also hope the sheer number of comments on these posts demonstrates just how wide-spread these attitudes are.

The first post was a video about a promising 8-year-old US gymnast with no legs, Paige Calendine. It was posted by one of those pages that curates ‘feelgood’ stuff, and captioned ‘There’s nothing impossible when you want to follow your dreams.’ The second was a video of a talented Japanese violinist, Manami Ito, who lost one arm to a car accident and now uses a prosthetic to play. The third was about a US athlete/body builder called Woody Belfort, who runs ‘aspire to inspire’, and uses a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy.

Some examples of the comments on the video about Paige (please note that I have edited these comments in some places for length/clarity; however, I have not removed anything critical to context):

  • “She is an example that there is no such things as a physical disability it all in your head as long as you have a strong mental aptitude you can do whatever you want it might be a little hard but it is possible.”
  • “Inspiration to us all that nothing is impossible when you put your mind to it.”
  • “Anyone who says they can’t do something needs to look at those who were never supposed to achieve anything. We can do anything we want and I hope they look at this girl who doesn’t believe she’s handicapped. To her its another challenge in life.”
  • With all the negativity around at the moment what a joy to see someone with REAL hardship being such an inspiration.”
  • “If only our young could be as positive about life as this young lady. They don’t seem to cope with just being alive let alone any of life’s hurdles.”
  • “She is absolutely amazing. I see no disability at all.”
  • “Way to go! If you believe in your self you can do anything you set your mind to.”
  • “This is why I dislike the term disability as this young girl has far more ability than I do 🙂 keep proving the world wrong girl”
  • “She is very special Doesn’t let her handicap get in her ways she just follows her dreams”
  • “What a brave young girl with ambition despite her disability. I am sure one day she will succeed.”
  • “What an inspiration. go girl” (Many other variations on this theme)
  • “When your child says I can’t do that show them this video”
  • “What an inspiration ! Never let anyone say you can’t do that!”
  • “All the snowflakes should look at this sweet girl who didn’t let anything stand in her way. Sweet girl best of luck to you as your inspirational life continues.”

It went on that way for hundreds of comments. All were basically variations on the same two themes: Paige is an inspiration, and nothing can stop you if you just believe in yourself. A third, less prevalent theme was the idea that people with any problem less significant than being born without legs really don’t have any room to complain about anything, possibly ever.

The comments on the video of Ms Ito were similar:

  • “My father always said “Where there is a will there is a way.” I hear that quite often in my head.”
  • “This girl is a true inspiration. Her message is Nothing is impossible is you are determined”
  • “I am humbled my so called problems are nothing amazing video and performer”
  • “This is a shining example to people who say I can’t…….physical limitations should not your passion…amazing !!!!!”
  • “This redeems my faith in human nature. I’ve fought debilitating MS since the day of 9/11 & to see such a heroic task, it makes me realise my MS could be so much worse; just saying.”
  • “A very talented young lady who has worked hard to overcome her handicap.”
  • “Inspiring lady what a talent she has. Excellent. And people whinge about their lives we don’t know how lucky we are to have our limbs unlike some.”
  • “I don’t wish to focus on how hard her life is, but to admire her for the will and determination to overcome her obstacles and do what she wanted to do.”
  • “Her joy and gratitude of praise cannot be contained and she made a wonderful expression of it amidst her handicap. Conclusion, if she has that joy and gratitude why can’t we?”
  • “Amazing, now the trans that want us to adjust for them and have no physical impairment at least nothing comparable. But this Amazing girl makes her own and is magnificent. Grow the hell up the small and I mean small majority oh wait I mean minority that never learned how to work. You are so out numbered. It’s time you stay in your place!!!!!”
  • “Apparently, CAN’T” is not in her vocabulary.”
  • “Seeing this I feel that the definition of hardships should be rewritten.”
  • “Anything is possible. Believe! Faith and opportunity will be. Again, he can who thinks he can. This was written in my elementary school autograph book.”
  • “Incredible! She is a living proof that as long as we set our minds on achieving anything, we can be successful regardless of any setbacks.”
  • Awesome brings tears to my eyes! I am always fascinated with the way handicapped Children find to excell and we wine about everything!”
  • “I do really salute her cause despite of her disabilities she chose to live normally, happily and productive ,while some normal people keep complaining about their lives when it gets rough and worst is that some ended by committing suicide. For my 30years of existence I’d never heard someone who has disabilities commit suicide but only heard and saw that they are very talented they played guitar ,piano , violin ,can read ,can walked by themselves and so on and my huge respect goes to them. And my final thoughts was that i felt envy to her cause i have no disabilities but can’t play the guitar which she is good at 😦 :). But somehow I can play a guitar and that is what makes me proud of. 🙂 Go girl!keep being angelic and inspiration especially to hose normal people who has been into depression.”
  • “When there is a will”
  • “Them does eat dog an frog so what she doing not hard”
  • “She’s lucky she has a robot arm. I know a lot of people with no limbs who don’t have that privilege. AND they can still play the violin. With their feet”

Here are some of the comments on Mr Belfort’s feats (which include rock-climbing and weight-lifting), which followed some different themes:

  • “This is very inspirational…much respect to his determination, dedication and hard work. This man doesn’t have a victim mentality or the spirit of a quitter.”
  • “I’m so embarrassed……..when I complain about, sore legs, sore arms, to cold, to hot, not enough time….etc etc…this dude has completely changed the way I think….RESPECT!!!!!!!”
  • “AMAZING!!!! Mind over matter and his mind doesn’t dwell on the condition of his legs! A true inspiration!”
  • “This dude is phenomenal!! He didn’t let any disability hold him back!”
  • “He’s not disabled” (Same commenter also said “he isn’t crippled” and “he’s not freaking disabled”)
  • “How does he hold his legs straight outward if he is paralyzed?”
  • “Wheelchair bound or not, what he does is amazing and inspirational”
  • “Prayers and willpower can accomplish so many things in life don’t stop keep on going you were definitely live in each day to the fullest you truly don’t see yourself as a handicap and that’s what’s got me this for I believe You are a inspiration to others”
  • “This person is amazing. What an inspiration. There are no excuses only how much determination do you have.”
  • “People like this should make us all truly appreciate, value and reflect on all we have and are capable of doing! So many reasons and excuses why we “can’t” do XYZ…”
  • “He does things that I labelled able bodied cannot do. That only cements the notion “disability is not inability” With appropriate environment, everyone can function perfectly”
  • “Genuinely not hating at all, but I’d call him strong, not incredible. Everyone has their disabilities one way or another, and to succeed we have to overcome them. Save the world incredible for those doings things to help others.””He’s showing boys and girls who are in wheel chairs a positive role model & that they are not limited by a disability.”
  • “He’s teaching others not to feel sorry for themselves even if your current situation is not ideal of perfect to just make the best from what you have and nothing is impossible if you put your mind to it!!!”
  • “If he can bend his knees he can move his hips to walk? I am just asking because he has so much strength i believe he could will himself to walk”
  • “first of all big respect to this guy. Inspiring great work..but I can’t see no reason for him to be in a wheelchair.”
  • “He can move his legs so why if he in a Hegel Chair”
  • “I’m not convinced he’s fully paralyzed”
  • “Ok, seriously if he unstraps the wheelchair at this point he could walk if he wanted to, at least hop on one foot, by sheer will alone!! Incredible….! And we have the nerve to make excuses”
  • “The next time someone tells me they can’t I’m going to refer to this guy! He is amazing!!”
  • “His mind is stronger than his body. This guy is awesome. My mind is not as strong as his. So I feel I am mindicapped instead.”
  • “I noticed he can move and control his legs, so why would he be in a wheelchair????”
  • “That just goes to show that you can do anything despite your disability or anything like that don’t let nothing stop you despite of yourself”
  • “Example To the complainers . If this man can be doing this instead of complaining how much more you.”
  • “What do I have to complain about?? Nothing when I see people like this doing so well with less than me.I can use my legs!”
  • “How is he moving his legs and still needs a wheelchair?”
  • “instead of this, he should focus on any desk work, so he no need to move. if he can’t walk, his energy goes to his brain so it would work better than others.”
  • “Is he disabled I see him bending at the waist and bending his knees”

All of them go on and on like this for bajillions of comments. I’ve probably gone overboard in showing you this many, but I really wanted to try and make it clear how common these attitudes are.

Now, buckle in, because I am about to go on a rant about why exactly these comments are a problem.

These comments basically fall into the following categories:

  • This disabled person is an inspiration
  • Mind over matter
  • This person is strong/talented/has abilities, so they aren’t disabled (because disability is a bad word)
  • This issue is bad, so that issue isn’t
  • Using a conversation about a disability to promote a random bigotry
  • This person doesn’t fit my ideas about disability, so they aren’t disabled

And, there’s an added bonus at the end that I haven’t provided examples of yet, but will later: “My ideas about disability as an able-bodied person matter more than yours as a disabled person.”

Let’s start breaking it down.

This disabled person is an inspiration!

I’ve talked before about disabled people and inspiration porn. Tl;dr – the perfect disabled person is usually visibly disabled, but has unending optimism and has managed to ‘overcome’ their disability by doing something you wouldn’t expect them to be able to do (like Paige, Ms Ito and Mr Belfort). This allows people to put them on pedestals, and treat them as inspiring.

Now, what I’m about to say about how this is a problem doesn’t necessarily apply to Mr Belfort. He makes it his mission to inspire people – disabled or not, as I understand it – to push their limits, train hard, and smash their fitness goals. That’s fantastic. He has consented to being an inspiration. He works for it.

But Paige and Ms Ito haven’t. They both have passions – gymnastics and violin. They want to be able to pursue those passions. However, let’s be very clear about one thing: the world will never see them as a gymnast and a violinist. They will see them as a legless gymnast and a one-armed violinist. They aren’t every going to be allowed to be ‘normal’ in that context. Simone Byles may be an inspiration to other aspiring gymnasts, but she isn’t generally described as inspirational to society, despite her incredible talent and physical prowess, because she is able-bodied. However, whenever society sees a disabled person doing something that lots of other non-disabled people do that disabled person is automatically an inspiration.

The biggest problem is, that isn’t confined to people displayed particular talents. Disabled people are called inspirational simply for living their lives. Disabled children are “inspirational” for going to school and having friends – doing things that, absent a disability, no one would consider remarkable. Disabled adults are “inspirational” for driving and having jobs. It doesn’t seem to occur to people that putting disabled people up on a pedestal like this is highlighting our differences and singling us out for simply trying to exist in society, pursue our passions and live our best lives, just like everybody else. It’s ‘othering’ us. It makes us more alien. It makes us less human. It is also downright patronising when it suggests we are exceptional simply for existing.

People with endo often fight through pain every single day, because they have to. Rather than calling them inspirational, perhaps we could consider ways to make their lives a little easier – which ties into the second problematic response:

Mind over matter!

Like many of the problematic responses on this list, this one ties into the first category. It is displayed in comments above like “nothing is impossible when you put your mind to it!” Well, in the inimitable words of Stella Young, “no amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp. Ever.” (And if you haven’t watched that Stella Young video I’ve linked, go and do it. Now. It kind of makes my whole post a bit pointless because she covers all of this beautifully, concisely and hilariously.)

Mind over matter is problematic in three ways: first, it ignores the very real limitations on people with disabilities that do, in fact, make some things impossible. Second, it suggests that any difficulties faced by disabled people are the disabled person’s fault for not being sufficiently determined. Third, it takes the onus off society to make any kind of accommodation for disabled people, because it suggests that our problems are ones that we can fix. But, as Stella Young points out, we are often more disabled by a society that can’t accommodate than by our own disabilities.

Let me give you an example. Blind and visually impaired people are often prevented from doing things that are super easy for those of us with better vision, because the world often forgets that people with vision impairments exist. Stop for a moment, though, and imagine a world in which everyone captioned their pictures with an imagine description, offered audio-descriptive functions, used CamelCase in their hashtags so screen readers could pick up on them, and printed their materials – whether books, brochures or menus – with braille as well as text. I’m not saying that is a full list of structural inequalities making life more difficult for the blind or vision impaired, but they are relatively small actions that society at large could take to remove some barriers. However, if we say, “no, blind people just need to try harder to overcome these barriers. It’s not on us,” then nothing will ever change.

This person is not disabled, because being disabled is bad

In large part, I think, this is due to people believing that disabled is a bad word. Read this quote from Paige Calendine’s father:

“Because she was born without legs, she doesn’t know it’s a disability,” Sean explained. “We decided right away that we would not treat her like she has a disability or make things easy for her. We wanted her to learn how to adjust to the real world.”

I’m sure you can see a smattering of the problems I talked about above in that last sentence, but let’s focus on the other things he says for now.

The only reason you can have for not wanting someone to think they have a disability, or for not wanting to treat someone like they have a disability, even when they literally have no legs, is because you think disability is a bad thing.

Now, I’m not going to pretend being disabled is a barrel of laughs. The reality of having a disability often sucks beyond the telling of it. However, that’s not what people mean when they say “you aren’t disabled!” They mean, “don’t call yourself disabled, because I think disabled means ‘less than'”. If people didn’t perceive the label “disabled” as meaning something not quite the same as real people, as normal people, I think we’d have a lot less of a problem embracing ‘disabled’ as a simple factual description, like ‘brunette’ or ‘teenager’. We need to stop loading it up with value judgements.

This is present in all the comments above claiming people can’t be disabled if they aren’t sufficiently inhibited by their disability – if you seem like you can do ‘normal’ things, you can’t be disabled, because disabled people aren’t normal. I’ve seen it myself in real life – even though my illness has real impacts that do, in fact, disable me in sometimes very obvious ways (for example, when I need to use a wheelchair), I am a relatively functional member of society. I’m articulate, intelligent, highly educated, and I dress well. My body looks like most abled bodies. People are shocked and uncomfortable when I claim the label disabled, and they often can’t explain why, but it is clear they think I am accepting a negative label, akin to calling myself a bad person (people do the same with the descriptor ‘fat’, although that deserves a post of its own).

It shouldn’t be this way. No one should have to feel that there is a sense of shame or inequality associated with embracing a word that describes exactly what they are.

This issue is bad, so that issue isn’t

Anyone who has ever complained about anything has been told this at some, point, I think. You don’t like your meal? How dare you! There are starving children in Africa! You got a C on an assignment you worked really hard for? You should be grateful you aren’t stupid like some children – Emma only got a D. You have endometriosis and have to suffer debilitating pain for the rest of your life? Cheer up! It’s not cancer!

There’s three problems with this sort of nonsense, of course.

First, it’s totally illogical to think that we can only measure our feelings by what other people have. If I can’t be sad about something going wrong at work because at least I have a job, would I be prevented from being happy about winning $5,000 on a Scratchie (I wish) because someone else won the Lotto and got $5 million? Of course not! So why am I not allowed to be sad about a bad thing just because other bad things also exist?

Second, another bad thing happening does absolutely nothing to make my bad thing less painful or depressing. If I break my arm, learning that someone else broke both arms isn’t going to make my broken arm hurt any less. Similarly, knowing that at least two other people in my life have had to endure the horrific trials of cancer doesn’t make my endometriosis any easier to deal with. Saying “at least it’s not” doesn’t reduce anyone’s pain, and it isn’t helpful. And yet people continue to do it to others and themselves. Look at the person above minimising their MS because they have all their limbs. MS can be an incredibly difficult disease to deal with! You’re allowed to have negative feelings about its very real impact on your life, no matter how many other people are missing limbs!

Third, as Stella Young outlines in her video, it objectifies the people who ‘have it worse’. Imagine being Emma and overhearing David’s mummy telling him he’s not as stupid as her. Imagine being the disabled person, going about their business, happy with your life, and basically being told that your situation is so pitiable that people should be glad not to be you. Can you imagine how it feels? You’re not a person in that moment. You’re a lesson for other people about how much life could really suck.

Super hurtful. Stop minimising people’s pain. Stop using people as lessons about how terrible life can be. Stop it.

Using a conversation about a disability to promote a random bigotry

You saw the comments up there using videos about disability (however wrongheaded) as a vehicle to promote transphobia and racism. There’s never an excuse for that. Disability is not an excuse for that. Using other people’s disability as an excuse for that makes you a bad person.

This person doesn’t fit my ideas about disability, so they aren’t disabled

Hopefully some of the comments on Mr Belfort’s video with people questioning whether or not he is disabled have demonstrated how limited people’s perceptions of disability are. If they are to be believed, if you can use your legs for anything, you can walk, and if you can walk, you don’t need a wheelchair. In fact, the majority of wheelchair users have at least some leg function. I have used a wheelchair in the past, even though I have no leg or spine issues, because a wheelchair is a tool that improves mobility and I needed it.

This is an issue that isn’t confined to wheelchair users, of course. People with disabled stickers on their cars, people asking if they can take a seat on the bus, anyone with an invisible illness who needs an accommodation – at some point we all run into the “you aren’t disabled” nonsense. Society requires disability to fit a limited set of preconceived ideas to be valid.

This is a huge problem for people with invisible disabilities. People with with disabled stickers on their car are often the target of harassment by well-meaning busybodies who want to defend the integrity of the disabled parking spot by saving it for people with “real” disabilities. Disability can look like it does in the videos above, or it can also look like me and a myriad of other “normal” people. Yet us ostensibly “normal” people can suffer excruciating pain or overwhelming fatigue if we have to push beyond our limits, such as having to walk too far with heavy shopping, or not being able to sit down on a thirty-minute bus journey.

If someone tells you they are disabled, you do not get to decide they are not. This leads me handily to my next and final point…

Don’t argue!

On some of these videos, a number of disabled people and their loved ones fought back against some of the problematic comments above, linking to the Stella Young video, pointing out that their disabilities carried real limitations, and objecting to being called inspirational.

And of course, because this is the internet, everyone listened to the people affected by these issues, reconsidered their position and acted with more consideration in future.

LOL! Wouldn’t that be nice?

Instead, commenters called the disabled people and their allies overly negative, overly critical, deliberately looking for problems or things to take offence to, sensitive, and continued to :

  • use language like “physical deformity” and “crippled”;
  • refuse to accept that ‘disabled’ is not an insult;
  • assert that the true disability is our attitudes;
  • frame objectification as complimentary; and
  • accuse us of playing the victim.

I was always amused, as a lawyer, when clients without any legal qualifications at all tried to explain the law to me. I’m less amused, as a disabled person, when I see people without a disability try and tell disabled people how we should think, feel, and experience our disabilities.

Here’s a tip: if you have no relevant experience in an area, don’t try and talk over those who do. It’s deeply condescending, hurtful, and just plain ignorant.

So, this has been a very long post! Congratulations and thank you if you are still with me. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments, and to hear from any disabled people who have experienced this in real life. I think collecting our stories is vitally important to demonstrate just how pervasive and harmful these attitudes can be.