Let’s Talk About Ableism, or, Ableism: What The Fuck Is It?

If your answer is “some woke invention designed to make me feel like a bad person,” this may not be the post for you.

Otherwise, let’s try this out:

The dictionary says that ableism is discrimination against people on the basis of dis/ability (much like sexism is discrimination against women on the basis of sex), but I find this very unhelpful. As you may have noticed recently, it immediately launches a conversation into “is this person disabled?” and “what is a disability?” which are nearly unanswerable.

Is Deafness a disability? Not according to many deaf people, who think of it as a culture. Is discrimination against people on the basis of Deafness ableism? Sure thing. Is T1 Diabetes a disability? I’ve had it for thirty years and my answer still changes every week, but I don’t mention it in job interviews to avoid being discriminated against, which would be ableism.

Let’s try thinking of it as “policing the boundaries of normal physical, mental and emotional functioning.”

There’s “normal”–IQ of 110, 20/20 vision, adult height between 4’10” and 6’2″, keeping your internal monologue inside your head on the bus.

Then there’s two kinds of “not normal”: not normal in a good way, and not normal in a bad way.

In a culture with pretensions to meritocracy, “not normal in a good way” is rewarded and celebrated with career opportunities that earn extra wealth and recognition. Over 6’2″ and maybe you can get a career in the NBA (and you will certainly be paid more in almost any job you do get). Over 110 IQ and maybe you can be a scientist.

Then there’s “not normal in a bad way,” which prevents people from being able to get jobs … and education, housing, friendships, even freedom.

These are unstable categories. I still remember in my own childhood (which despite the grey hair was not that long ago) reading in girls’ and women’s magazines about how ugly boys found eyeglasses, and how to do your makeup to draw attention away from them if you were so unfortunate as to need them. The entire contact lens industry exists because poor eyesight needing eyeglasses was policed as a type of “not normal in a bad way.” Going back a bit further, in the 1950s, “pretty girl who tries to ditch eyeglasses to catch the guy” was an entire genre of comedic storytelling. Now? Eyeglasses are cool. People get fun, eye-catching eyeglasses. Nothing about our eyeballs has changed. It’s just that we now consider eyeglasses normal, or even “not normal in a good way.”

Single motherhood is another example: until well into the 20th century, girls who got pregnant outside of marriage were considered to be mentally ill and could be incarcerated in psychiatric facilities (“not normal in a bad way”). After many decades of activism, this was recategorized as maybe unfortunate, but not a disability (the policing became less strict — you were only stigmatized rather than jailed), and then again recategorized as a type of normal. Now we see single mothers all over the place, and the consequences of this recategorization have been very good for both the moms and their kids.

Until the recent past, babies born with some physical and cognitive differences were incarcerated for life in institutions worse than jails, given a life sentence for the body or mind they were born with (and then the behavioural disturbances caused by this incarceration were used to justify it, a neat trick if you can get away with it). There were “Ugly Laws” on the books all over North America making it illegal for visibly disabled people to go into public where their appearance might distress “normal” people. We had eugenics laws in Canada and thousands of disabled people were forcibly sterilized by the state.

This was not some natural state of pre-enlightened, innate Darwinian mechanics. There are prehistoric graves from all over Eurasia who had what we would now call birth deformities or disabilities that were incompatible with independent living having survived into adulthood (which could only have been done with care and support) and then buried with a great deal of respect, with headdresses and grave goods etc. In fact such graves are more frequent than those for people with bodies we would now consider ‘normal.’ What evidence exists for the position of people we would now consider disabled (“not normal in a bad way”) in pre-Christian societies in Europe is one of respect; in many, it was considered a mark by the gods of an exceptional destiny. Thor had one hand; Odin had one eye; there is no way in societies with such plentiful physical risks every day that physical impairments would have been rare, stigmatized, or a straight route to death.

We CHOSE to police the boundaries of normal, starting around the time of the Christianization of Europe. We built fortress walls around what was considered normal, defended them heavily, and there was only one gate you could exit through and come back in again (“not normal in a good way”).

So here’s the thing:

The entire conversation around “is this really a disability, or a medical condition, or something else?” is itself part of the mechanics of ableism.

We can’t police the boundaries of normal; we can’t even agree on the boundaries of normal. Is autism a disability, or neurodivergence? Does it depend on the ‘level of functioning’? What does that even mean exactly, and who decides? Is being shorter than 4’10” really a disability when the only thing making life hard is that every building, vehicle and piece of furniture is made for someone at least 5’4″? That conditions and diagnoses move back and forth between the categories of ‘disabled’ and ‘not disabled’ should lead us to question what those terms are worth.

That the fastest and most effective route to long-term discrimination against people on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity, sexuality and gender presentation has been to create mental and emotional disabilities to diagnose them with, and then police them for that, should give every person working towards equality and freedom for all people a very strong motivation to understand ableism and dismantle it.

Instead of asking “is this really a disability?” try, “What does it mean that we need to decide if this is a disability or not?”

Instead of “but being trans/gay/a civil rights activist/an unmarried mother isn’t really a disability!” try “it doesn’t matter if it’s a disability or not because no one should be treated this way.”

What happens if we stop caring about whether this or that diagnosis is “really” a disability, and just treat all people as equals, deserving of respect, regardless of the bodies and minds they are born into or develop? What if, instead of making clothes and houses and schools and chairs and doors and toilets for “normal people” and then work to “accommodate” those with documented disabilities, we decide that all bodies are good bodies, and then act like it, making clothes and houses and schools and chairs and doors and toilets for a variety of body sizes and types widely available for those who need them?

What if, instead of fighting each type of discrimination on a case-by-case basis, and needing to fight and fight again over every kind of humour based on hierarchy — rape jokes, blackface, ‘indian’ costumes, men in a dress, ‘gay’ jokes, fat jokes and so on — we decide collectively that making fun of people for being ‘not normal in a bad way’ says a lot about ourselves and nothing about the supposed targets of those jokes?

In the midst of all the endless debates about co-morbidities, pre-existing conditions, disabilities and covid-19, and the endless ways so many lives were dismissed as not really worth saving because they were ‘not normal in a bad way,’ I’ve committed to only doing climate work on that principle: that all bodies are good bodies (and implicitly worth saving), and that a prosperous green future will not be worth building if it doesn’t have (literally and metaphorically) a ramp, a power door, and an elevator with power back-up. I’m not going to spend my adult life working to save the future of human civilization in a form that excludes my kid.

I know, I know, it’s “just a joke.” But humour has always worked in concert with other, harsher forms of policing, and what a celebrity’s fame and fortune will not shield them from you can bet is much, much worse for those without it.

Quoting Commander Adama, because BSG is still one of the best scifi shows of all time:

It’s not enough just to survive, one has to be worthy of survival.

Or, if you’d prefer: You know, when we fought the Cylons, we did it to save ourselves from extinction. But we never answered the question “Why?” Why are we as a people worth saving?

Let’s be.


(This post has been reviewed by Echo; they’d like to add that in the society we currently live in, “disabled” and “disability” are terms very important for their self-identity, which I wholly support. This post is directed towards those on the outside of disability, trying to determine the legitimacy of identities they don’t have or share, rather than those on the inside of disability determining the labels they self-identify with.)

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