Monday, August 11, 2014

Ableism Is Seriously A Thing [UPDATED]

UPDATE: So the image that George Takei posted (apparently he posted it himself, not an intern) has been taken down and Takei has posted an apology. He was out of the country awhile, apparently, and when he got back he read through the complaints and had a change of heart. The apology was still a little excuse-laden and defensive, but he did admit that he needs to educate himself more and that he now understands how the image is harmful. He also told his fans not to complain that he decided to apologize. You can see the apology here. Thanks to commenter Faerie Fey for bringing this to my attention.

Pretty much everyone is right with me when I talk about sexism, racism, and homophobia. Most people by now have even heard of transphobia. But ableism is still often neglected in discourse about privilege and marginalization to the point that I often get weird looks when I use the term. 

In reality, disabled people, mentally ill people, and people with chronic illness are subject to severe discrimination, abuse, and general hatred - especially if they don't fit neatly into the narrative of a disabled/ill person. If they don't, they often get blamed for their own condition, mocked, or verbally attacked.

All of this is fueled by hateful rhetoric about "welfare" and the "leeches" that "feed off the system." A lot of disabled and ill people have to rely on welfare to be able to survive in even the most basic conditions (with many still left with bills they can't pay, at least in the US with our poop-smeared garbage pile of a health care system). And if able-bodied people decide that a disabled person doesn't deserve it because they aren't disabled enough, the hate that can come forth is astounding.

I've heard of visibly disabled people in England being literally attacked on the street because of rhetoric from the government blaming them for the country's money problems.

But while I think most people in the US would be shocked and appalled at this behavior, I've heard story after story of people with less visible disabilities or chronic "invisible" illnesses getting verbally assaulted for using services that they are in fact legally entitled to. Most of this has to do with the disabled parking spaces. People can get permits for these spaces for a lot of different things that go beyond needing a wheelchair to get around.

I've heard stories from people with chronic pain who can barely handle the short walk from the disabled parking space to the inside of the store, going around to collect the groceries they need, and then hauling them back to the car. The pain is exhausting for them, and they really need all the help they can get. But that pain is invisible to everyone else. So when they get out of the car without a wheelchair or other assistance, people will yell at them, leave angry notes on their car, or even threaten them.

Don't ever do this.

Just because someone doesn't look sick or disabled to you doesn't mean they're not.

There's a meme that's been going around lately featuring a picture of a woman in a wheelchair who is kind of standing up in it to reach a higher shelf. The caption reads, "There has been a miracle in the alcohol isle [sic]." George Takei himself shared this meme. Many of his fans recognized that not everyone who uses a wheelchair is completely unable to use their legs, and asked that he take it down. In typical Takei style, he told them to chill and stop complaining because he shouldn't have to care if they're offended.

Don't get me wrong, it's hard to dislike Takei, and he's done a lot of awesome stuff. But he dismisses complaints like this all the time. He has not checked his privilege.

And what he has also failed to do is recognize how the misconception that anyone who needs a wheelchair must be totally paralyzed from the waist down hurts those who don't fit into that small category. Disabled writer Lisa Egan told her own story of when she was in a wheelchair for a condition that makes walking very painful, and while on stage, she crossed her legs.

I didn't even notice I'd done it; I guess I must have been slightly uncomfortable so the subconscious part of my brain decided to do something about it. 
This prompted a heckler to shout "Faker! You moved your leg!"

I can't imagine how frustrating it must be to be called a faker for a disability which you are definitely not faking and which is making your life difficult in ways that able-bodied people could never understand. Worse, it can lead to physical violence.

Sarah said to me "I once had a woman come running over from the other side of the shop literally screaming "I saw you move your leg, you ****". Luckily there were other people around or it would have been terrifying."
My friend David was one of the disabled people that posted in reply to Takei on Facebook. He explained in his comment "I've been physically assaulted for walking while disabled, I'm well into double figures with verbal abuse, usually claiming I'm faking my disability for welfare fraud. And that's pretty much a typical experience for all my disabled friends. Having influential figures like George Takei publishing a meme that reinforces disabled=fake is incredibly damaging to disabled people."

There are a lot of disabled people who simply need assistance walking or can get up for short periods of time. Disabilities and physical illnesses are incredibly diverse. Many individual illnesses or disabilities present differently in different people. You can never assume that someone is "faking" or even that a stranger who doesn't appear to be disabled isn't suffering from chronic pain or something else that impairs their ability to do things that able-bodied people take for granted.

This meme spreads an ignorance that makes life more difficult and sometimes dangerous for people who already have to struggle significantly in a society that fails to accommodate them. That ignorance was spread to millions of people the moment George Takei decided to share it. Worse, the idea that people who speak out against this dangerous attitude are just overreacting and need to "take it down a notch" was spread to millions of people.

This is not okay.

Do not assume people you don't know aren't disabled or suffering from chronic illness. You don't know what people are going through. Leave them alone.


Going Rampant said...

While there's a lot of resentment from ignorant conservatives, it's also important to realize that part of the problem is well-meaning ignorant people who think they're helping. Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, billed as a Mythbusters-style debunking show but also a libertarian soapbox, had an episode against the ADA where they featured a woman who makes it her goal in life to enforce the handicap parking rules out of empathy for those she thinks are really disabled. P&T portray her as an obnoxious busybody because they're against handicap parking as a law and social rule. Someone who doesn't agree with them could easily watch the show and think this woman is a hero, someone who truly cares, and seek to emulate her behavior. Her as an unsung hero was my takeaway until I read blogs from PWD that outlined why that thinking was problematic.

Oh, and I saw George Takei at Emerald City Comic Con. Someone asked him about his Facebook account, and he said that he doesn't run it anymore. He made it but handed it off to interns because he just couldn't devote his time to hunting down and posting funny images. I think it's reasonable to assume that the interns are also behind this offense. Whether or not the followup is him is unclear.

Lindsey Weedston said...

Oh yeah, I remember that about George Takei. He should know about the controversy by now, though. It's still his page and he needs to take responsibility for it, especially since most people probably think it's him.

Also, I hate Penn & Teller.

Faerie Fey said...

Just wanted to add here (since this is making the rounds right now) George Takei actually posted a sincere apology (he was out of the country when things happened and apologized as soon as he came back) and he took down (or had taken down) the post in question. His apology was well-worded and not an avoidance. He accepted the correction.

Faerie Fey said...

Here's a link to his apology:

Lindsey Weedston said...

Oh, I wasn't aware of that! Thank you so much for letting me know, I'll update the post straight away.